A Nightmare at the Opera: Horror, Stardom and the 1989 Phantom of the Opera

A Nightmare at the Opera: Horror, Stardom and the 1989 Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera has always had a complex relationship with the horror genre, testing its boundaries with historical drama, romance and the musical. While the Lon Chaney 1925 version is considered a hallmark of cinematic horror, with its unmasking scene enshrined in legend for fainting audience members, the 1943 remake is a good deal more tasteful and restrained, and the 1990 miniseries directed by Tony Richardson downplays the horrific to the extent that the Phantom’s disfigured face is never shown. The year before, however, saw the most overtly horrific Phantom of them all in the Dwight H. Little version, starring Robert Englund of the A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-) movies. The advertising campaign shamelessly tried to exploit the fame of the inheritor of Chaney’s mantle of horror stardom (“Robert Englund was Freddy… now he’s the… Phantom of the Opera!”), but Englund’s box office success rarely extended beyond the Freddy franchise; as with horror star forebears like Boris Karloff and (especially) Béla Lugosi, identification with a single successful part limited his career overall. Despite plans to franchise this Phantom, reconceived as a supernaturally-powered, eternal being, it remains a one-off on Englund’s filmography. Further, it does little to expand Englund’s screen persona beyond the familiar sadistic makeup-laden quipster, clearly opting to reshape this Erik to suit Englund’s screen image rather than allowing the role to reveal more of his range.

1989 The Phantom of the Opera

The early 1990s saw a cycle that has been dubbed “costume horror,” films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Interview with the Vampire (1995) and Mary Reilly (1996); handsome, expensive, pedigreed productions that meld established horror properties material with the sensibilities of the costume drama. This Phantom (actually styled as Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera in its opening credits) plays like a pre-entry in that cycle, but with some noteworthy differences. One, while the costume horror cycle favoured prestigious actors not known for horror, Phantom uses Englund, the signature horror star of his era. Second, while the later films downplayed gore, Phantom ramps it up, conceiving an Erik who not only has a hideous fleshless face but who skins his victims to graft temporary faces for himself. Consequently, conventional Phantom scenes get visceral, bloody twists. For example, most versions feature the death of Joseph Buquet (Terence Beesley) and the public display of his corpse, but this version has him skinned and hanged in a closet, still clinging to life. The unmasking is one of the key Phantom scenes, and this version replays it repeatedly, and even uses unmasking imagery in its poster. The gory, extensive scene of Erik peeling off layers of decaying meat off his face spares us no detail, all in loving close-ups. It is at once a piece of ’80s gross-out body horror, a bravura scene for Englund, a variation on the familiar scene and a feast for makeup connoisseurs.

The elaborate makeup work comes courtesy of Kevin Yagher, who designed both Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise (1988–) and the Cryptkeeper for Tales from the Crypt (1989–96); Yagher is arguably the auteur of this film. But while impressively done, the gore sits oddly with the understated Gothic atmosphere that dominates, which is sometimes quite beautiful, especially in its vibrant colours; it also has a lush score by Misha Segal, much of which would not be out of place in a more conventional costume drama. At certain moments, the two are put into productive tension. The best of these is probably the masked ball sequence, where the severed head of Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence, faring far worse than in most adaptations) turns up in a punchbowl. This would be a grisly set-piece in any film but here the camera lingers on an ultra-realistic bloody prop. It works, because the swerve from costume drama to gore film reflects the changing mood of the scene.

1989 The Phantom of the Opera

More often, however, the horror and historical drama element awkwardly coexist, a stately costume drama with a body horror grafted film to it. At some points, filmmaking is impressively subtle. The director, Dwight H. Little, has a keen eye for composition; the early scene of the Phantom coaching Christine through the mirror in her dressing room has a particularly apt formal choice to represent their unhealthy relationship, showing us his point of view from the inside, so that we see her image overlaid with his reflection as a ghostly palimpsest. In fact, the more unequivocally monstrous depiction of Erik evacuates much of the romanticism from his relationship with Christine. In granting her a more active role in defeating him (twice!), this Phantom shows influence of the “Final Girls” of the slasher film (to use Carol J. Clover’s term); slasher conventions also inform the sequel-hook ending.

Of course, the 1989 Phantom of the Opera is in no danger of dethroning the 1925 adaptation as the version most significant to the history of the horror film. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing curio that sits at the hinge of a number of different generic traditions and industrial cycles.

Murray Leeder, University of Calgary

His books include Horror Film: A Critical Introduction for Bloomsbury Academic.

 

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