Wednesday, October 19, 2011

October 18th: The Phantom of The Opera (1983)

Struggling Opera singer Elena Korvin (Jane Seymour) is preparing for her debut as Marguriette in Faust at the Budapest Opera House, with training and encouragement from her loving husband and conductor, Sandor Korvin (Maximilian Schell). When Elena rebukes the sexual advances of Baron Hunyadi (Jeremy Kemp) the night before the first show, the Baron, influential Opera critic Oscar Krauss (Philip Stone) and paid-off audience member Balas (Andras Miko) conspire to ruin her career.
Booed offstage by Balas and receiving a dreadful review from Krauss, Elena throws herself off a bridge, committing suicide. Driven mad by Elena's death, Sandor kills Balas and Krauss, but his confrontation with Krauss causes a fire, burning him beyond recognition. Saved by rat-catcher Lajos (Gellert Raksanyi), Sandor becomes The Phantom of The Opera, hiding below the Opera House and plotting his revenge against Baron Hunyadi.
Four years later, the Budapest Opera House is preparing for a revival of Faust. In an attempt to get leading lady Madame Bianchi (Diana Quick) under control, director Michael Hartell (Michael York) casts Maria Gianelli (Jane Seymour) as the Madame's understudy. Noticing Maria to be physically identical to Elena, the Phantom takes Maria on as his student, intent on making her the star Elena never was and killing anyone who gets in his way.
When it comes to film adaptations of novels, filmmakers' general rule of thumb is to stay faithful to the source material. Films that stray from the book often receive criticism, especially from fans of said book. Looking at the history of film, however, that's not always the case. Steven Spielberg's Jaws is very different from Peter Benchley's novel, but is far and away better. David Morrell's First Blood is great, but Ted Kotcheff's film version is impressive on its own right.
Robert Markowitz's The Phantom of The Opera, similarly, is drastically altered from Gaston Leroux's original story, yet the alterations chosen result in a very interesting version, despite notable flaws. Like the 1943 Claude Rains version, the filmmakers choose to showcase the Phantom's origin, then delve into their version of the novel's story. Though the mystique is sadly absent, the new origin is worth it. Whereas Erique's origin was rushed, Sandor's origin is fully fleshed out and, though nothing new by film standards, give this Phantom a different edge and presence.
It also allows the audience to really spend time with Maximilian Schell, who is easily the key element to this film's success. Physically imposing and possessing a strong, intense voice, Schell perfectly sells the Phantom's descent into madness. Whereas some versions soften the Phantom, Schell makes him unquestionably sinister and psychotic. Even before becoming the Phantom, Sandor already looks unhinged and dangerous, ready to explode at any moment.
The only drawback is a lack of sympathy for Sandor. In horror films, there are two types of monsters; one who celebrates darkness and evil and one who hates himself for becoming evil. The Phantom of The Opera is most certainly the latter, but Schell's interpretation makes it hard to feel sorry for Sandor when the script asks us to. With the exception of Madame Bianchi, Sandor is the least likeable person onscreen, both in Schell's performance and in the way Sherman Yellen has written him.
This would've worked only if the Phantom's enemies were as despicable and monstrous as him; alas, not the case here. Baron Hunyadi is lecherous early on and it is his actions, more than anyone, that leads Elena to kill herself, yet he seldom appears in the rest of the movie. When he does pop back up, say at the Masked Ball for example, he does nothing to remind you of why he should be punished. Krauss is slightly more sinister when pushed, but his reaction to the news of Elena's death is too genuine to make him truly despicable.
That leaves the rest of the cast, starting with Jane Seymour. Though not yet Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Seymour was already well-known to audiences, having played Elise McKenna in Somewhere In Time and Solitaire in Live and Let Die, the eighth 007 film. I can't help but think Seymour's casting was so audiences would see a recognizable face among the cast. Still, Seymour does give Maria a commanding sexual presence, though she ultimately leaves it to her lover to be heroic.
As for Michael Hartnell, Michael York is convincing as an Opera director, but a mixed bag as a character. His temperamental, impatient personality makes it hard to like him, especially when he decides at one point that Maria isn't ready to be Marguriette. Like Edward De Souza in Hammer's version, York does get brownie points for being heroic, though he's never allowed to confront Sandor nor is his relationship with Maria ever clear; he goes back and forth between being charmed by and annoyed with Maria and it's unclear if they're in love by the end of the movie.
Luckily, the relationship between Sandor and Maria is much more fascinating. Believe me, it ain't perfect; having Maria be the reincarnation of Elena is ludicrous. What does work is how twisted it becomes. The Phantom practically controls Maria and makes her perform at command, yet he does it in a gentle, caring way. By the climax, the Phantom, in his insanity, sees Maria as Elena. He calls her Elena and, in a disturbing twist, plots to throw Elena's well-preserved corpse, dressed in Maria's clothes, in the river for authorities to find with the intent they will presume it to be Maria. It's creepy and heartbreaking to watch Sandor become this monstrous, while Maria's predicament is frightening.
Huge props to the production values; The Phantom of The Opera is bathed in rich, dark lighting and and the sets are gorgeously gothic, worthy of a Hammer film. The chandelier is massive and imposing, the Phantom's Lair is littered with candles and the halls of the Opera are stunning. Markowitz makes great use of his sets; he knows he's telling a darker Phantom tale and he keeps the atmosphere ever present, even for a TV movie. Fortunately, the script isn't all menace, as Yellen allows levity via the characters; the banter between Maria and Michael is amusing and Diana Quick's Madame Bianchi provides great comic relief.
I'd also like to point out how great the Phantom's masks are in this film. For his main mask, Sandor wears a full face mask that looks almost stone-like. Unlike most half-faced Phantom masks, the full face keeps his disfigurement fully hidden, only allowing Schell's piercing eyes to be seen. His second mask, however, is even more unique; a lifelike mask resembling his face prior to being burned. It looks surprisingly real, which makes it all the more unsettling when you realize it's a mask. While the unmasked Phantom is a disappointing Elephant Man knockoff, his masked visage ranks as one of the Phantom's more impressive looks.
The Phantom of The Opera is unique, but struggles to overcome its obvious blemishes. On one hand, I adore the new wrinkles thrown into the story. Maximilian Schell is phenomenal as a more deranged Phantom and Jane Seymour's sexual confidence is a welcome change from the more virginal, straight-laced Christines of the past. The film looks great, especially for its budget, and the relationship between Sandor and Maria is incredibly poignant. That being said, this Phantom isn't particularly sympathetic, the climax is rushed, the Phantom's prosthetic effects are rubbery, and no one else, be it York, Kemp or Paul Brooke's Inspector, do anything worth mentioning. For Schell and Seymour alone, this is one of the stronger versions of this timeless tale. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 19th: Puppet Master (1989)

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