The Tomb of Terror – The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
The major change in the Phantom’s character is that now he is an 80s slasher. Instead of wearing a mask to cover his deformity, this Phantom sews the skin of his victims onto his face via elaborate makeup effects from Kevin Yagher (designer of Chucky in Child’s Play). More characters meet their fates at his hands in this version, and all are appropriately grisly. The best gore scene is actually a post-slashing, wherein La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence, O Lucky Man!), the woman Christine is an understudy for, finds the skinned body of a stagehand in her closet. As Carlotta stares in disbelief, the still-living stagehand lunges at her and provides the biggest shock in the film. Other cast members are dispatched in the usual 80s slasher ways—a few decapitations, many stabbings, etc. A critic who gives Christine a bad review even has his head popped by a towel! This wouldn’t be a horror film from the late 80s if the killer didn’t make a few quips, right? Unfortunately, carrying over from the latter Elm Street sequels is Englund’s penchant for dishing out a groan-worthy pun before/after most of his kills.
This style of horror film doesn’t completely jell with the Phantom tropes associated with the story. The biggest problem is that by making Erik such a detestable creature, we don’t feel any sympathy for him. A tragic character has been turned into just another monster. Englund’s performance was obviously the biggest selling point of the movie (see the poster which says not only “Freddy,” but “a new nightmare”), but it is not a part in which he shines. This film was made at the height of Freddy-mania, a two-year period which saw not only the release of The Dream Master and The Dream Child, but also the Freddy’s Nightmares TV series. All this Kruegering would seemingly take over Englund’s persona, because his Phantom is no different than Freddy. Even their full head burn make-up looks the same! Christine doesn’t do a lot to carry us through the picture either. Jill Schoelen is known as a late 80s scream queen thanks to appearances in The Stepfather, The Curse II, Cutting Class, and Popcorn. Here, she does a fine job as Christine, but the character is naïve to the point of annoyance. None of the other actors make a giant impression, although it is fun seeing early roles from people like Molly Shannon and Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead).
The direction from Dwight H. Little (hot off the success of Halloween 4, my vote for best sequel of the series) is good and the film looks appropriately beautiful in spots. Unfortunately, neither he nor the screenwriters could successfully fashion a film that told the Phantom story in a way that would appeal to modern horror audiences while telling a classic story. It is possible to have both a gore film and a period piece (see last year’s underrated version of The Wolfman), but the characters have to act like they’re of their time. Having the Phantom gut a stagehand while an orgasmic look comes over his face does not work well with a story where he’s supposed to be someone the audience feels for. The modern day sequences are very superfluous and the quips work as well here as they did in Elm Street parts 4-6 (not at all). In spite of all these obstacles, the film still remains watchable, thanks to a strong backbone of a story coupled with some solid acting and production design. We might have had a good Phantom film here, if only there was a falling chandelier scene, better characterization for the Phantom, and no present-day nonsense. Instead, I’ll just have to dig into the vault and hope things up end up better with Lon Chaney or Claude Rains.
Final Grade: C+
The Phantom of the Opera (1989) was released onto DVD in December 2004 by MGM to coincide with the release of Joel Schumacher’s musical adaptation. Like many of their budget releases, the disc is doubled sided with a good anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side and a fullscreen transfer on the other. The only extra is a trailer.