Erik Destler/The Phantom – Robert Englund
Christine Day – Jill Schoelen
Richard Dutton – Alex Hyde-White
Barton – Bill Nighy
Carlotta – Stephanie Lawrence
Hawking – Terence Harvey
Director – Dwight H. Little
Screenwriter – Duke Sandefur
Based upon a screenplay by – Gerry O’Hara
Novel – Gaston Leroux
Producer – Harry Alan Towers
Director of Photography – Elemer Regalyi
Art Director – Tivadar Bertalan
Editor – Charles Bornstein
The passing of Gaston Leroux’s novel into public domain in the mid-1980s and the cultural ubiquity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical meant a sudden proliferation of adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera. Perhaps the oddest of these was the 1989 version, directed by Dwight H. Little and headlining the star of the Nightmare on Elm Street (1984–) franchise, Robert Englund. It is a bizarre and fitfully effective melange of body horror film and tasteful historical drama, but where genre mixing is generally designed to attract multiple different audiences simultaneously, here it seems to accomplish the opposite, creating a film seemingly destined to appeal to hardly anyone.
The project started life with the low-budget exploitation specialists Cannon Films as a period piece that, like the 1962 Hammer Film Productions version, would take place in London instead of Paris. However, when Cannon declared bankruptcy, the script passed to 21st Century Corporation, where an ambitious plan was hatched to launch it as a series, with a planned follow-up entitled The Phantom of the Opera 2: Terror in Manhattan. But abject box office failure led to these plans being plans being shelved indefinitely. The strangest addition is a time-travel framing narrative. Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) is a modern Broadway singer who encounters Erik Destler’s forgotten score to Don Juan Triumphant and is subsequently struck by a falling sandbag. As with Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee (or the ‘young hoofer’ in the film-within-a-film in Singin’ in the Rain (1953)), the blow displaces her in time, sending her to 1885 London. The film then hits many familiar Phantom plot beats (although not the budget-trimmed crashing chandelier) while also, like De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), literalising the Faust subtext of the original. As related via flashback during Christine’s performance as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Destler has sold his soul to the Devil for immortality and musical prowess. But this is at the cost of a fleshless face, which he skins people alive in order to be able to cover. The most murderous of all Phantoms, this Erik stalks the London fog Jack-the-Ripper-style, murdering cutpurses and music critics with sadistic abandon and Freddy-style quips. The time travel plot-device only pays off once the action returns to New York and we find that Erik still exists, now with an ’80s ponytail and a gallery of eerie photorealistic masks. Though the frame narrative was meant to spawn a franchise that never happened, it also plays as a commentary on the Phantom mythology’s continual, almost obsessive re-enactment.
At the same time Webber’s musical largely played down its links to Leroux’s novel, this version plays it up. Few would call this a faithful adaptation, yet it does squeeze in some rarely adapted elements, like the rat catcher, the Punjab lasso and Erik playing the violin at Christine’s father’s grave; a few lines, like “This is either a wedding march or a funeral mass. You decide,” paraphrase Leroux closely. Nonetheless, there are many elements drawn from Webber’s musical, including the foregrounding of Don Juan Triumphant, the use of Meg (a pre-fame Molly Shannon) as a friend and confidante for Christine and the prominence of candelabras in Erik’s lair. The cast, also including Bill Nighy as an officious opera manager, is overall strong, and Schoelen is arguably one of the best Christines, slightly older and with more agency than the character is generally afforded.
Despite taking place in two timelines, however, the 1989 Phantom is a study in coming out at the wrong moment. A few years earlier, in the thick of 1980s body horror, it might well have furnished Englund with a second horror franchise as well as providing gruesome counterprogramming to Webber’s musical. A few years later, it could have slid into the costume horror cycle, as just the same kind of pseudo-faithful horror-romance-historical drama as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). And yet it is precisely its status as orphaned and unloved, a film seemingly made for precisely no one, that gives it such a fascinating place in the Phantom filmography.
His books include Horror Film: A Critical Introduction for Bloomsbury Academic.