DECEMBER 11, 2008
As I’ve made clear in the past, The Phantom Of The Opera is hardly one of my favorite stories, yet I was interested in seeing the Hammer version. If nothing else, I assumed, it would be rather bloody for its day, have lavish costumes and sets to enjoy, and maybe Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing popping up somewhere.
Sadly, only one of those turned out to be true, and I’m sure you can guess which. But even that kind of disappointed, since the Phantom’s mask (always a source of “how will they do it” curiosity for any adaptation) was pretty bland, and covered his entire face. Plus, his ‘real face’ makeup isn’t all that terrifying; if I saw the dude on the street I wouldn’t be all that scared of his scars (and then Jeff Richmond would probably explain to me how he got them). The sets, however, were indeed pretty nice.
Also, I found it interesting how much liberty they took with the story. While I tend to prefer the versions that are just sort of inspired by the story (i.e. Argento’s Opera, and the chees-o 80s movie Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge) rather than faithful to the novel, some of the changes here seem rather random and pointless. For example, the Phantom’s name is not Erik or Eric, but someone named Petrie (first name never given, though it starts with L, which cannot be any variation of Eric that I’ve ever heard of), and rather than actually murder anyone himself, it is all done at the hands of a dwarf. Also, while the sewer abode does make an appearance, the finale takes place during the opera itself, when the dwarf is wreaking havoc and the Phantom plays hero, pushing Christine (the only name they kept) out of the way of the requisite falling chandelier. Hell, they don’t even do “Faust”, but instead a rather entertaining (and English language) version of the Joan of Arc story. I’m all for putting your own stamp on things, but a lot of these changes just seem there for the hell of it rather than any sort of narrative reason.
They also have a human villain character (played by future Alfred Michael Gough), who was stealing the Phantom's music and passing it off as his own. This is fine, but it goes nowhere. Maybe the censors had something to do with it, but the guy never gets his comeuppance! He just runs away. It's like Dragonheart, when Dennis Quaid swears to kill every dragon, and yet befriends the only one he actually had a problem with after he's killed countless others who never bothered him.
Still, had you never read the novel or seen any other versions, you can do a lot worse (such as Schumacher’s version of the musical, or Argento’s abysmal Julian Sands entry), and if nothing else, it’s not all that long either (I think even the Lon Chaney one is longer). Herbert Lom is a great Phantom, and the lavish color and production design provides enough eye candy to keep you entertained. It’s a bit light on the horror element, which is surprising, but it’s actually not as crippling as it could have been. And the source of not-Erik’s scars is possibly my favorite backstory yet – he threw what he thought was water onto a fire, but it turns out that it was actually nitric acid. Yeah, because nitric acid always comes in 20 oz. plastic bottles. Some professor.
What say you?