Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Thorley Walters, Michael Gough
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds
84 mins. Not Rated.
31 Days of Horror is back for the ninth round of terror! Thank you all for continuing on with me for nine years, and we begin this year’s group of films with a Hammer classic that doesn’t feature vampires, evil doctors, or werewolves: The Phantom of the Opera!
The year is 1900, and the London Opera House is set to unveil the new opera from Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough, Batman & Robin, Top Secret!). Before the first production of the opera is even completed, a stagehand is found dead, and the theater erupts into panic. Postponements and struggles behind the scenes at the Opera House continue, and an evil presence is noted by one of the chorus girls, Christine Charles (Heather Sears, The Story of Esther Costello, Room at the Top), who claims to hear a sinister voice speaking to her within the walls. As she grows closer to the show’s producer, Harry, to uncover the mystery, they unknowingly wander into the path of the mysterious and dangerous Phantom (Herbert Lom, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, The Dead Zone), who lives in the cellar underneath the Opera House.
Directed by Hammer mainstay Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula, Four Sided Triangle), The Phantom of the Opera contains the necessary skeletal framework of the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel, but within that framework the narrative diverts in some strikingly interesting ways. It was originally conceived as a remake of the 1943 Universal horror film, which became popular due to sequences referenced in the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic, The Man of a Thousand Faces. From there, Universal allowed Hammer Films to take a crack of the story due to the success of Horror of Dracula. The 1943 Phantom wasn’t all that much like Leroux’s book either, but Fisher’s film continues with the emphasis on the Phantom’s tragic figure while also drastically altering the identity of the Phantom himself.
Fisher’s Phantom is one of the more excellently Gothic visual representations I’ve seen in an adaptation (of which there are many). I’ve always loved the production design of Hammer Horror films, the colorful pop of the environments and the deliciously dramatic portrayals of the characters, and this is no exception. The decision to dress up the environment but dress down the Phantom himself is also unique, giving Lom’s character a shabby mask (constructed from cloth, tape, paint, and string on the fly) and settling him into the dingy cellar labyrinth of the Opera House.
The titular character stands out because of a terrific performance from Lom, one that is less flashy that would be expected, and decisions made before Lom was even cast. While Christopher Lee almost circled the role, there’s a rumor that this iteration of the Phantom was constructed for Cary Grant of all people. The rumor states that Grant wanted to do a horror picture, and the Phantom’s more violent tendencies were relegated to a lackey so that Grant could retain his popular persona. This rumor has been called into the question before, with some saying that his role would’ve been the romantic lead rather than the Phantom, so we’ll never know, but it would have made for an interesting portrayal. As it stands, Lom is allowed to focus purely on crafting tension with his voice and the physical presence he exudes within the cellars. When we are finally treated to the flashback (which diverts from the source material but ultimately dribbles into predictability) giving us this Phantom’s origins, we get the flash and drama that Lom can unload paired with Fisher’s over-reliance on “Dutch angles” and classic Hammer intensity.
The other standout of the film, for me, was Michael Gough’s Lord Ambrose. I spent so many years of my life only knowing Gough from the supporting role of Alfred Pennyworth in 4 Batman films, but as I’ve introduced myself to Hammer, I’ve seen more and more surprising work from the actor in films like this. The way that Lord Ambrose evolves from a pompous but respectable composer into an absolute bastard bit-by-bit, brick-by-brick, throughout the narrative is masterful character work, and Gough never gives us too much info at once. Whereas the Phantom’s narrative fails to surprise, Gough’s portrayal and the screenwriting from Anthony Hinds (Night Creatures, The Curse of the Werewolf) make his the most compelling character of the film.
The remaining supporting cast members never seem to rise to the level that Gough and Lom are playing, but their mutual presences over the film make up for it, and Hinds’s screenplay, while serving Gough rather nicely, seems to hit the beats with a little more relaxed and unenthusiastic intention, serving up a narrative that loses focus occasionally throughout the film, while never completely shatters the entertainment of the film.
The Phantom of the Opera was paired with Night Creatures (also called Captain Clegg) upon release, as many Hammer films would, but it failed to garner the level of box office Hammer was hoping for, leading to a cooling between Hammer and Fisher, who would have a larger break between films than usual, but I don’t think Fisher’s was the faults.
Terence Fisher’s take on The Phantom of the Opera is perhaps the most interesting viewpoint of the adaptations I’ve seen, and I was entertained throughout, even as some of the narrative choices stumble and, outside of Lom and Gough, many of the cast are treading water. It’s a mixed final product with some absolutely gorgeous cinematography and production design, lifting the film up and ensuring it’s lasting unforgettable legacy.
-Kyle A. Goethe
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