Terence Fisher, 1962
Starring: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough
Lord Ambrose D’Arcy triumphantly opens a new opera in London, despite frustrations that everyone believes one of the boxes to be haunted. But that night, while the show’s diva is performing, a dead body is discovered, the diva is traumatized, and the show is put on hold. D’Arcy finds a new singer, Christine, but she’s warned of his lecherous true intentions by a mysterious Phantom and by Harry, a producer at the opera house. As Harry and Christine fall in love, they investigate the Phantom and his role in the murders and accidents at the opera house — and his strange connection to Lord D’Arcy.
While I get the appeal of making new versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, I never really understood Hammer’s obsessive need to remake seemingly ever major Universal horror film from the ‘40s and ‘50s — with the exception of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, thankfully — and, in my opinion, The Phantom of the Opera is evidence that this wasn’t the greatest action plan. Hammer occasionally strayed away from horror and more towards melodrama territory throughout their classic run and The Phantom of the Opera is solidly in this camp. It’s essentially a period drama with splashes of horror and the grotesque, but it’s not a true horror film. Director Terence Fisher puts just as much emphasis on the musical scenes and the two murders, though marginally gory, are pretty inexplicable.
I will give Hammer some credit for trying to add a new spin to the plot — as they did with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man — though it has sort of mixed results here. Annoying, there is a lot of filler and Fisher can’t seem to decide if he wants to film a musical, a love story, or a murder mystery. Unlike Gaston Leroux’s novel, the Phantom is not obsessively in love with Christine. There is a central scene where he is kidnaps her — with this help of his dwarf sidekick !) — and brings her to his lair under the opera. He does give her some nonconsensual singing lessons, but Harry is clever enough to find the lair and reveals that he knows who the Phantom is and what happened to him.
SPOILERS: It seems that Lord D’Arcy has stolen the music of one Professor Petrie. Harry and Christine discover this, because his music just happens to be at Christine’s boarding house, where the landlady tells them Petrie’s sad story. After D’Arcy promised to publish the music, he stole it from Petrie as it was at the printer’s, setting the whole place — including Petrie — on fire, splashed Petrie’s face with acid, and then the Professor drowned in the river, in shades of Rasputin. At his underground lair, the Phantom confirms this and fills in the blanks. Harry and Christine agree that he can secretly begin training Christine — which sort of flies in the face of the Phantom as a monster — and watch her perform his opera.
While this is sort of a sweet alternative to the traditional story, the absence of the Phantom’s doomed love for Christine — and her inability to requite it — definitely takes away from the proceedings. And the ending is patently ridiculous. After driving D’Arcy out but not killing him (?), the Phantom attends the performance from the “haunted” box. His assistant — the dwarf lest ye forget — hops onto the chandelier over the stage to get a better look. His weight is too much for the rope, which crashed to the stage and the Phantom is killing in the process of saving Christine’s life. What?
Apparently the leading role was written for Cary Grant — which I really can’t imagine — as he considered appearing in a Hammer film at the time. This would be a very different film, though probably a less flawed one. While this is admittedly not one of Hammer’s strongest efforts, Herbert Lom gives a great performance. It takes him forever to actually get on screen, but when he does, he’s the real star of the film. I’m not sure why he didn’t appear in more Hammer films. Psychotic yet sympathetic, Michael Gough is a real runner up with his appearance as the utterly sleazy D’Arcy, though the two romantic leads — Heather Sears and Edward de Souza — are utterly forgettable.
I can’t recommend The Phantom of the Opera, though Hammer aficionados might find it interesting to see the relatively high budget (for Hammer) and a huge production with hundreds of musicians, performers, and extras. Pick it up on DVD or as part of the Hammer Horror Series DVD set alongside lesser seen efforts like Brides of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures, and Evil of Frankenstein.