Monday, October 17, 2011

October 16th: The Phantom of The Opera (1962)

It's opening night for the London Opera House. Producer Harry Hunter (Edward De Souza) and manager Lattimer (Thorley Walters) are preparing for the first performance of Saint Joan: The Tragedy of Joan of Arc, a brand new opera composed by Lord Ambrose D'Arcy (Michael Gough). The cast and crew, however, are nervous due to various unexplained mishaps. The night takes a sinister turn when the corpse of a hanged stage hand pops up during the performance.
Frightened, leading lady Maria (Liane Aukin) refuses to sing again. Holding auditions for a new Joan of Arc, Harry, Lattimer and D'Arcy find their star in chorus girl Christine Charles (Heather Sears), whom both the lecherous D'Arcy and the charming Harry take a liking to. Christine finds herself with a third admirer as well; a mysterious, unseen figure who warns her about D'Arcy and speaks of more horrible tragedies to strike the London Opera House.
Growing closer to Harry, Christine tells Harry about her mysterious admirer. Intrigued, Harry has Christine bring him to her dressing room, where she first heard the voice. There, Harry and Christine discover this unknown figure to be the Phantom of The Opera (Herbert Lom), a deranged, horribly disfigured musician determined to mold Christine into the greatest singer the Opera has ever known.
Written in 1910, Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of The Opera is the third in the series of classic horror novels, preceded by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Unlike those stories, Leroux's novel was a failure upon its release; it was even out of print several times during the 20th century. Whereas Frankenstein and Dracula were instant successes in novel form, The Phantom of The Opera has achieved longevity through the various film adaptations.
With Universal having adapted Leroux's story into the iconic 1925 silent version and a 1943 Oscar-winning 1943 remake, it was only a matter of time before Hammer presented their own version. On paper, The Phantom of The Opera seemed poised to be another big hit for Hammer. The British House of Horrors was enjoying its golden years; in addition to The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Hammer had success with The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Brides of Dracula. Furthermore, Terence Fisher, the director of all five films, signed up to direct The Phantom of The Opera, with a script by regular scribe John Elder, AKA Anthony Hinds.
Surprisingly, the film flopped at the box office and was quickly forgotten by the public; Hammer never made a sequel or remake and Terence Fisher, having steadily worked for Hammer since 1957, fell out of their favor and wasn't given another project to direct until 1964's The Gorgon. Since then, the film has undergone a critical reappraisal and is now considered underrated by fans of Hammer Horror, myself included.
For horror fans, the golden era of Hammer features some of the best looking horrors around and Phantom of The Opera is no different. Fisher delivers a gorgeously gothic film; the set design, particularly the London Opera House and the Phantom's Lair, are stunning, the lighting by Arthur Grant perfectly compliments the sets, and Edwin Astley's music is appropriately eerie, not to mention the use of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which has become symbolic in horror films.
One of the constant criticisms towards The Phantom of The Opera stems from Anthony Hinds' script, which takes drastic liberties with the source material. The Opera House is now in London instead of Paris, the characters of Raoul, Carlotta and the Opera Managers have been re-written and the Phantom himself is changed, complete with a new origin and personality. Is this really a problem? For fans of Leroux's novel and faithful book-to-film adaptations, it'll probably be irksome to a degree. For myself, largely unfamiliar with Leroux's novel outside of what's in popular culture, I found myself enjoying a lot of these new wrinkles and found them captivating and unique.
The Phantom of The Opera himself, as realized by Hammer, is one of the more fascinating takes on the character. More in tone with the 1925 Lon Chaney Sr. version, this Phantom is not the charming, devilishly suave version from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version. Hammer's Phantom of the Opera is gruesome, sporting disease ridden, pale gray skin, wears a crude, makeshift mask, and is downright arrogant and mean-spirited at times, yet once you learn his backstory, you can't help but sympathize with him. I won't give the origin away, but it gives the Phantom an interesting motivation and enhances his tragic qualities. It helps that Fisher and Hammer found the perfect actor for the role in Herbert Lom. Using body language, his distinctive voice and his one visible eye, Lom crafts a superb iteration of this character that might just be the most tragic Phantom captured on film.
Despite some obvious dark aspects to his personality, Lom's Phantom is a saint compared to the true villain of the piece; Lord Ambrose D'Arcy. Egotistical, lecherous, pompous, and inhumanely cruel, D'Arcy is far more monstrous than the Phantom and is eventually revealed to have played a part in the Phantom's origin. Having played the far more pleasant Arthur Holmwood in Horror of Dracula, Michael Gough takes full advantage of this juicier role, never missing a chance to give the audience more reasons to hate him and never being afraid to be as cruel and sinister as possible. Gough is every bit as effective as Lom and for those who only know him as Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton's Batman and its sequels, this should be quite the eye opener.
Of all the changes, one of the most notable deals with the character of Raoul. Christine's childhood friend and lover in the novel, Raoul is now Harry Hunter, a suave, dashing Opera producer played by Edward De Souza, though originally intended for Cary Grant. Rather than just being the straight man trying to save Christine, Harry is a charisma machine; fun, quick-witted and charming, De Souza has made the most out of the role and manages to make it as easy to love Harry as much as we hate D'Arcy and sympathize with the Phantom. As far as Christine goes, she's definitely the straight man of the piece and lacks the screen presence of her male leads. Regardless, Heather Sears is solid in the role and has a great singing voice. The rest of the cast does what is required, with notable appearances by Hammer regulars Thorley Walters as the put-upon Opera manager Lattimer, Michael Ripper as a cabbie and Patrick Troughton as the nasty rat catcher.
Impressive as it is, The Phantom of The Opera makes its share of stumbles along the way. Harry clearly has a strong relationship with original leading lady Maria, yet she's dropped like a sack of rocks and is quickly forgotten. Lattimer spends the first half of the film subordinate to D'Arcy, but once he stands up to him and takes control, he's never seen again. The romance between the Phantom and Christine is oddly underplayed in favor of a student-mentor relationship. Strangest of all, the Phantom's dwarf, played by Ian Wilson, commits the film's first murder instead of the Phantom.
Speaking of which, The Phantom of The Opera is notably lacking in the vivid, bloodsoaked horror Hammer is known for. This is most notable in the film's climax, where the filmmakers make two peculiar choices. First, Lord D'Arcy is still alive at the end; given how contemptible he is throughout the entire movie, the fact that the Phantom doesn't kill him is frustrating. Secondly, the chandelier scene has the Phantom, removing his mask, bravely push Christine out of the way and sacrifices himself, coming off less villain and more anti-hero. They're odd decisions and, in the case of D'Arcy, puzzling, but you can't accuse Hammer of sullying the project. This is what Terence Fisher wanted to with the source material and, for the better more so than the worst, these alterations work in the film's favor.
I get why Hammer fans didn't respond to this at first. The gory horror is downplayed in favor of character drama, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are nowhere to be seen and the supposed villain of the piece is actually a sad, pathetic individual. It might not be the type of film horror fans expect from Terence Fisher and Hammer, but those on the fence should definitely give it a go; you'll most certainly be pulled in by the engaging performances, the stunning production values and the powerful tragic aspects of Herbert Lom's Phantom. It might not be what Gaston Leroux intended, but Hammer's The Phantom of The Opera is easily one of the story's best interpretations. 4 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 17th: The Phantom of The Opera (1943)

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