It may seem like a distant memory to many of us, but back in the late 80s there was actually a bit of a Phantom of the Opera craze. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical just hit Broadway and junior high school girls all over the country obsessively listened to their soundtrack audiotapes, thinking it romantic to be wooed by a hideously disfigured freak. In those days, infamous horror and action schlock producer Menachem Golan decided to cash in with an R-rated horror version of the movie. The result is THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA starring Robert Englund (best known as Freddy Kreuger) as Erik, the Phantom – and it’s good for many an unintentional laugh.
The movie begins in modern day, with our heroine Christine about to try out for a big opera audition. Christine is played by late 80’s scream queen Jill Schoelen – best known for her role in the 1987 classic, THE STEPFATHER. Sadly, there are no gratuitous shower scenes with Schoelen in this one and why would there be, this is a serious movie. Anyhow, Christine seeks the help of her best friend Meg (look carefully and you’ll realize it’s SNL’s Molly Shannon in an early and none-too-attractive role) in picking a musical piece, and the two head to the audition. Midway through her song, Christine gets sandbagged by a falling…um…sandbag and is knocked into a coma. Cue dream sequence and we’re transported back to 19th century London (never mind that the actual story is set in Paris. Reality check: I’ve always wondered – if this supposed to be Christine’s dream, why is she not in many of the scenes?
I was very surprised to see that this movie actually had a rather large budget for a movie of this ilk. Cashing in on the Phantom craze! They recreated an opera house and appropriately dressed actors (for London not Paris, but tomato, tomah-to). And there’s even some passable dialogue at times. For purists, this film actually follows the original Gaston Leroux story pretty closely. If you’re unfamiliar, Christine is tutored by her “angel of music,” (the phantom) who orchestrates her rise to the top of the opera food chain. This particular Phantom doesn’t wear a mask, but rather a fake face sewed on by dead skin. When it’s finally taken off he looks a lot like…Freddy Kreuger. It’s like Robert Englund carries around one make-up kit or maybe it’s not make-up at all…
What makes this PHANTOM OF THE OPERA so funny is its sincere effort to stay true to the story, while at the same time be a totally gruesome slasher movie. So you’ll have a scene of witty dialogue between the opera’s resident Diva Carlotta and the manager of the opera (Bill Nighy who later stole LOVE ACTUALLY with his portrayal of an aging rocker) followed by one in which Carlotta finds a skinned, bloody, not-quite dead corpse in her closet – upon whose blood she subsequently slips. There’s the famous Masquerade scene, but instead of just appearing in a creepy costume, the phantom decides to play a joke and drop a human head into the soup. Not sure if the Midwestern, tourist-filled audience of the Broadway Phantom would go for that one.
This identity crisis plagues the film throughout and it’s like watching an imbecile try to solve an algebraic equation – I appreciate the effort, but it just ain’t happening. It’s like they tried to satisfy Phantom fans and slasher movie fans at the same time. But the end result, thankfully, is far more likely to satisfy bad horror movie fans like myself because this identity crisis is just plain funny. When you have the Phantom trying to be romantic one minute and disemboweling someone the next, you have pure comedy gold. Speaking of comedy, my favorite scene in this film is a flashback (yes, within a dream) of how the Phantom became disfigured. Unlike the original story, this guy made a deal with the Devil to lose his face in order to have his music heard around the world. The Devil is played by a midget with a voice dubbed to sound like Darth Vader’s. It’s spectacularly funny.
Finally we return to modern day for the completely unnecessary climax involving the Phantom’s return to the 20th Century. Unnecessary with the exception of lengthening this movie from 65 minutes to 80 minutes (gotta love those desperate scrambles to hit 80 minutes). THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA tries so hard to merge the genres of serious costume drama with horror and fails hilariously, thank goodness. But let’s be fair, you put a midget playing the Devil and skinned corpses in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and it probably wouldn’t work either.
Rating: *** (out of four)