The Tomb of Terror – The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera is a piece of horror literature history. It sits alongside Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1897 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1818. All have been adapted many times on film and hold places as members of the Universal monsters stable. What sets The Phantom apart is that it was the first of the three novels to be adapted into a feature length film, and it has never become a long-running franchise. Both Universal and Hammer Studios sequelized Dracula and Frankenstein to death, while Phantom has just been seen onscreen in over a dozen remakes. I’m a big fan of the Universal monsters and have seen nearly all of the films included in that unofficial series, but for some reason never got around to watching the two famous Phantom adaptations that the studio produced. I’ve read Leroux’s novel and enjoyed it very much, but as far as The Phantom on film goes, I’m way behind. In fact, the two versions I’ve seen are very different in style from all the others. I saw Joel Schumacher’s musical adaptation and quickly realized that I was not the right audience for it. Tonight I’ll be covering the slasher take on The Phantom that was released in 1989 and stars Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.
The biggest change to the story of The Phantom in this film is that it opens in present day. Christine Day (Jill Schoelen, 1987’s The Stepfather) is a wannabe actress looking through an old library for the perfect operatic song to perform at an audition. Along for the ride is her friend Meg (Saturday Night Live’s Molly Shannon, in her first role). As the girls scour the shelves, Christine discovers a dust-covered manuscript entitled Don Juan Triumphant, by an unknown composer named Erik Destler. A song entitled “Your Eyes See But My Shadow” is just what Christine is looking for, and she takes the manuscript with her to the audition. As Christine sings the song in her audition, she starts to see flashes of an audience watching her. Suddenly, a sandbag swings loose and hits her on the head. When she comes to, Christine finds herself on a stage in 1881 London.
Now I’m not the biggest fan of “fantasy style” time travel. I like my time travel to make sense and have the characters find themselves back in time via a time machine or wormhole or something. I know some of you will think that all of it is ridiculous, but I believe a time-traveling DeLorean more than I believe a modern New York girl getting conked on the head and waking up in 19th century London. But that’s not even the problem with this movie. The problem is that the Christine we’ve seen in the modern day scenes is a different person than the one we meet in 1881. They have the same name and look the same, but the Christine during the period portion of the film has no memory of her life in 1989. She acts as if she’s lived in 1881 the entire time and has memories of that life. This is just lazy writing. Obviously the modern day scenes were put in because the filmmakers didn’t believe audiences would want to see a 100% period piece film. But having the Christine of the past not be the same Christine we saw in the present makes the opening scenes all the more pointless. By the time things end up back in the modern day, this whole timeline conundrum is made all the more maddening. The production should’ve committed to telling a time travel story or just made a Phantom set in the modern day.
Anyway, once we’re in London (not sure why the location was changed from Paris like in the novel; maybe cost?), the plot pretty much follows along the same trajectory as all other versions of the story. Christine is an opera singer looking for her big break, and training and watching over her is Erik Destler, a.k.a. The Phantom (Robert Englund, A Nightmare on Elm Street series). The phantom is in love with Christine and will do anything to make her acting dreams come true. What sets this Phantom apart from the rest of his masked brethren is that he is not a deformed creature shunned by the world. Instead, he is a talented musician who one day sold his soul to Satan so that his music could be heard. After this deal was struck, the Devil decided to make it so that people would only ever love Erik’s music and so, he melts Erik’s face off. This addition (like the opening) doesn’t add much to the story, except for it sort of explains the Phantom’s supernatural abilities, and we get to see the sight of a midget with a caravan of prostitutes playing the Devil. I’m sure it was meant to be different than any Satan previously seen onscreen, but it comes across as even more ridiculous than it sounds.