Phantom Histories: The 1989 Film

I have conflicting feelings about the 1989 Phantom of the Opera movie. On the one hand, if you divorce the movie from its source material, it’s not a terrible film. On the other hand, I really don’t think the Phantom should ever, ever be a slasher film.

Robert Englund Takes the Role

This adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s classic story stars Robert Englund of Nightmare on Elm Street fame, and the marketing for the film made sure you knew that. The movie poster actually gives the title of the movie second billing under Freddy Kreuger, stating, “Robert Englund was ‘Freddy.’ Now he’s the…Phantom of the Opera. An all new nightmare!”

Englund had just come off of playing Freddy Kreuger in five different movies and was probably at the very height of his popularity. To his credit, I think he played the character he was given in this film pretty well; he’s a high class but sadistic monster who knows all about art and culture yet who murders people so he can make a mask out of their skin. That fits the original gruesome nature of the Phantom that the film adaptations of 1943 and 1962 downplayed. However, it all but eliminates the romantic side of the character, giving us a guy who is an unrepentant murderer and who, in this film, literally made a deal with the Devil. Leroux’s Phantom did some awful things, but remained a romantic enough figure that the audience ultimately understood or even forgave him. Englund’s Phantom is a sadistic creep who lacks any sort of redeeming qualities. He fits in perfectly with the slasher film culture that Englund himself helped to create with his depiction of Freddy, but the lack of romance takes the soul out of the story.

Bad Omens

There are a lot of warning bells that suggests this film isn’t very good. The main bulk of the story is framed as a dream sequence/hallucination, which strikes me as some Hollywood exec saying, “Audiences won’t want to watch something that takes place in the past. Slap a dream sequence in there.” And the whole story is moved from the Paris Opera House over to England (and, in the present day, America). This, again, strikes me as something that was probably pushed by a producer or studio, since it’s apparently common Hollywood knowledge that American audiences won’t watch any film starring a foreigner (check out the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for an example of what this thought process can do to a movie). This is all speculation on my part, of course, but there are only so many explanations as to why these unnecessary changes got made.

Props to the costuming and makeup, though, for making Englund’s “normal” face absolutely uncanny.

The 1989 Phantom film is very much a product of its time. It’s got a lot of gore, at least by 1980s standards. It also has the traditional horror film habit of not letting the movie ending at what would have been a nice subtle tone. At the end we find out that Christine’s hallucination wasn’t actually a hallucination, as her director, who looks just like the Phantom, has to excuse himself in order to mask a blemish on his face. That would be a nice, creepy ending, but instead we get the horror movie “jump” moment of the Phantom trying to rape Christine and then getting stabbed. Overall, the film trades in legitimate horror for cheap scares, which is pretty standard for slasher films of its era.

It’s very hard to balance the monstrous nature of the original Phantom with the romance of Leroux’s story. Most films have tended more toward the romantic side, while the 1989 film decided to go the other way. That’s a nice change of pace, but it also misses the mark as badly, maybe worse, than the overly romantic versions of the story did.

Given the option, I think I’d rather have a film err on the side of romance over gore. The other alternative, of course, is to present a film that offers neither and is instead dull and soulless. But that will be a discussion for next time…

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