Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989) Blu-ray Review

The Phantom of the Opera (1989) d. Dwight H. Little (USA)

Aspiring young soprano Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) auditions for a new opera production with a strange and unusual composition discovered by her friend in a dusty music library, "Don Juan Triumphant." Courtesy of an errant sandbag nearly clocking her onstage, Christine is transported into a dream (or is it a memory?) of a previous life in London, one where she is the object of a mysterious and malicious figure's affections. Said figure being the resident "theatre ghost," Erik Destler (Robert Englund), an ambitious composer who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical magnificence. (There's also the added bonus of Satan having horribly disfigured Destler's visage, so that his music is all that anyone can ever love.) Erik hides in the shadows, coaching Christine through her windows at night and eliminating anyone who threatens her ascension to fame and fortune. The unwitting starlet finds herself at the center of a spate of bloody murders, wondering at what price her success...and when will her benefactor come to collect?

By the time the cameras were ready to roll on Phantom, Englund had carved out an enviable degree of pop culture visibility, thanks to the extremely successful Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (by then in its fifth installment, with the Freddy's Nightmares TV spin-off heading into its second season) and his role as its scarred but increasingly loveable face. It's not surprising, then, that he was eager to stretch beyond the razor glove and into the footsteps of such silver screen luminaries as Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Herbert Lom, and Maxmillian Schell (not to mention Michael Crawford, the star of the soon-to-be-worldwide Broadway musical sensation). He was paired opposite Schoelen, a lovely young actress in the Demi Moore mold whose star also seemed to be on the rise with her strong "final girl" turn in 1987's sleeper hit The Stepfather.

Heading up the affair was director Dwight H. Little, coming off the boffo box office of Halloween 4 (although its success likely had more to do with the return of the Shatner-masked killer than with any flashy camera moves or deep character examinations), with a cast populated by strong character actors like Alex Hyde-White (son of Wilfrid), a then-unknown Bill Nighy, stage legend Stephanie Lawrence, and future SNL-breakout Molly Shannon in her screen debut. With Child's Play wunderkind Kevin Yagher designing Englund's complicated makeups (which sometimes included a "normal" makeup over the gruesome ickiness), all the proper elements seemed to be in place. But when the film premiered in late November, it struggled and soon disappeared from cinemas.

So, why didn't Phantom find any love at the box office? There are probably no concrete answers, but my feeling is that a) the public really wasn't ready to embrace Englund outside of his red and green-striped sweater, b) this was a completely different aesthetic than the increasingly jokey, splattery Nightmare flicks that had brought him such adoration, and c) the poster art, which looks suspiciously like another Freddy feature, complete with its “An all new Nightmare!” tagline.

In spite of Yagher's (and estimable on-set collaborators John Vulich and John Buechler) impressive contributions – which included Englund's tortured artist stitching together human masks from the skin of his victims in order to pass amidst polite society – this is more a Hammer-on-steroids, Gothic-romance-with-a-body-count, epitomized by Englund's, er, robust style of performance. (Say what you will about Hammer, but the leading performances were always well-grounded, saving the hammier turns for the supporting cast.) The star is more than game, but his sneering, bursting-at-the-seams portrayal never feels like a real human being; it's an (intentionally) melodramatic approach that never quite gels with the other elements at play.

This is not to say there aren't some deliciously oogey set-pieces or that the film is not without its merits. In particular, Nighy shows off glimpses of the sardonic, heightened sensibility that has made him an indispensable element of so many millennial offerings, elevating lesser material with a raise of an eyebrow or a withering bon mot. Schoelen, with her scratchy Sunday-morning sorority girl vocals, is a tough sell as an opera diva but she lip-synchs it like a pro and is never less-than-fetching to look at. The production values are also extremely high, with John Bloomfield's sumptuous period costumes amidst Tivalar Bertalan's repurposed sets from the Budapest production of Three Penny Opera (starring Roger Daltrey and Raul Julia) which was itself directed by Phantom's producer, Menahem Golan. (Bertalan also served as production designer for the film.)

Shout! Factory's recent BR release of Phantom definitely shows off these sterling technical aspects at their finest, and the supplementary materials - including an audio commentary track with Little and Englund - help viewers who might not initially have been in tune (I know, hilarious, right?) with the film 25 years ago appreciate the efforts of all involved. There's also a lovely 35-minute retrospective, "Behind the Mask," that offers up interviews with most of the major players, including Englund, Little, Schoelen, Hyde-White, Vulich, Buechler, Yagher, screenwriter Duke Sandefur, and composer Misha Segal. (Segal’s score is quite exemplary and worth discovering on its own. Here’s a LINK – you can thank me later.)

The Phantom of the Opera is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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