In the 1980’s there were a few big things that happened that should have come together to make a huge hit inevitable. In 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber released the Broadway hit Phantom of the Opera which caused resurgence in interest in the Gaston Leroux novel on which it was based. In this same period Robert Englund was reaching the peaks of fame for his multiple portrayals of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. In 1988 director Dwight H. Little was fresh off the success of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. All of these things came to a head in 1989 when Dwight H. Little directed Robert Englund in The Phantom of the Opera. It should have been a big hit, but sadly did not get much attention and quietly went away. Fortunately, Scream Factory has issued a clean-up blu-ray release of The Phantom of the Opera and it’s definitely worth a second look.
Much like other versions of The Phantom of the Opera, this version features Englund in the role of Erik Destler, aka The Phantom, as a man who haunts the opera house and falls in love with Christine Day (Jill Schoelen), a young singer. Destler hears her sing his music and forms an obsession in which he will do anything to make her a star, even if it means he has to kill anybody that happens to get in their way. When she learns of his involvement, she comes to resent him instead of love him back. However, there are a handful of differences from this and others.
The first notable difference is that in this version Destler has made a deal with the devil; he exchanges his soul in order for people to love his music. In return the devil disfigured his face so that nobody can love him for any other reason than his music (in contrast, the book version references a birth defect as the cause of his face disfigurement). The setting has also been changed from Paris to London (which was actually due to production having access to London set), although that does not really change the story in any serious manner. Perhaps the most notable change is that this version features the use of bookends at the beginning and the end set in present day in which Christine is knocked out and later awakens with the story being told in the middle leaving it vague as to if she traveled in time or it was only a dream.
Honestly, The Phantom of the Opera was a little gem that came along at the wrong time and had the wrong balance to appease those that want to see it. Understandably, Englund wanted to do something different from the Freddy role for which he had become known. It may seem off that he would play a horribly disfigured character but he actually plays the role different from Freddy. It is never over the top in that way we’re used to seeing and he gets a lot more opportunity to explore the emotional side of the character. Coming from a Shakespearean background he does a better job than most would expect. Jill Schoelen does a solid job as his love interest and we get a great performance from a younger Bill Nighy years before we would ever know him as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The London sets add a bit of that gothic feel and tone to film that works in a really positive way. And for fans of the book, this version stays very close to the tone of the Faustian “deal with the devil” theme that permeates the original story.
With all these strong points in the film’s favor it just failed to resonate with audiences and I think it’s probably because it did not find a middle ground between two groups. Fans of the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Phantom were turned off by the movie’s large amount of gore and blood. A product of the slasher decade, there are moments of great violence, buckets of blood, and The Phantom’s mask is made up of skin of his victims sewn together in the vein of Leatherface. This is not the romantic version seen on Broadway, it’s a violent and sadistic version of the character.
On the reverse side, fans of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger were probably disappointed with the emotional depth and slower nature of the story. To be sure, there is gore but the kills are further apart from each other and Englund doesn’t throw out a constant supply of hammy quips. It seems to be a matter of expectations that caused the failure of this film, but in all it’s really pretty interesting. The best comparison that could be made might be the Hammer Horror films from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.
Now, we’ll go on to the interesting blu-ray stuff. The 1.85:1-framed 1080p transfer is an exceptional jump from the previous releases. For being more than 25 years old the color reproduction is very good and the details are fine. It comes with two audio tracks; a 5.1 mix and a stereo mix depending on your audio preference (neither is very difference from the other in reality). For movie fans, this release is worth picking up for the Audio Commentary alone. For those of you that caught the Fanbolt interview with Robert Englund you might have picked up on the fact that Robert Englund LOVES to talk. He can do it for hours. In this commentary he goes on to tell every aspect of the filming from every choice he makes, his process, and anything else he can remember. Between him and director Dwight H. Little you will learn anything there really is to know about this movie.
Overall, this is a great little release. The movie is entertaining and not deserving of the tepid response it got at the time. The video and audio transfers are great and Robert Englund’s inside scoop with keep you more than entertained. Definitely worth adding to the collection.
Run Time: 91 Minutes
Blu-ray Video: 1080p High-Definition Widescreen (1.85:1)
Blu-ray Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo
• Audio Commentary with Director Dwight H. Little and actor Robert Englund
• Behind The Mask: The Making of The Phantom Of The Opera, featuring new interviews with Director Dwight H. Little, Actors Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, and Alex Hyde-White, Screenwriter Duke Sandefur, Special Make-Up Designer Kevin Yagher, Special Make-Up Effects Artists John Carl Buechler, Everett Burrell and John Vulich, and Composer Misha Segal
• Theatrical Trailer
The Phantom of the Opera is available from Scream Factory on Tuesday, February 17th.
Fun Fact: In the present day bookend sections Christine’s friend Meg is played by future SNL cast member Molly Shannon in her first film credit ever.