Saturday, June 30, 2012



I’ve seen none of the stagings of the famed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, so I won’t dwell on what differences the movie— whose script is credited to Webber and director Joel Schumacher—may have from the stage-play.  As with other reviews in this series, my concern is only with the film’s indebtedness to the original book and its other cinematic adaptations.

Although the Dwight Little version seems the first movie to place the Phantom-tale within a framing-device, Schumacher’s film uses the device for a more sentimental effect, opening as Raoul de Chagny, now a very old man, visits the dessicated ruins of the Paris Opera House for an auction.  Implicitly Old Raoul “remembers” the bulk of the film, though as with most other movies of this type, he’s not confined to remembering only the things he personally saw.  In contrast to most usages of the frame concept, the film cuts back to Old Raoul a couple of times before the concluding frame-sequence.

This version keeps many elements from the book, naturally re-arranged and even expanded.  As in the book two new managers are taking over the 19th-century Paris Opera House from the old manager, and as in the book they prove less than enthusiastic about learning that they have to deal with the opera’s resident ghost.   Christine is a chorus girl along with her friend Meg, daughter of opera-functionary Mademoiselle Giry, who here as in the book acts as an intermediary between the Phantom and the opera’s managers.  Carlotta is on hand for the changing of the guard, but when she sings for the company, a huge curtain falls and almost hits her—one of many near-fatal accidents brought about by the Phantom.

When Carlotta departs in a huff, Christine gets her big chance, for Mme. Giry tells the managers that Christine can sing Carlotta’s part.  Faced with an impromptu audition, Christine impresses the company and gets the role.  In addition, she tells Meg of having recognized her childhood sweetheart Raoul in the party, though he hasn’t yet recognized her. Strangely, though Raoul doesn’t recognize her when she auditions, he does a little later, when she’s performing on stage.

Christine’s great talents are the result of her secret teacher, the “Angel of Music” whom she’s heard since her father passed away during Christine’s childhood.  This is a minor deviation from the book, where Christine doesn’t hear the voice of the “Angel” until she’s somewhat older, attending a musical conservatory.  Also in contrast to the book, where only the readers are encouraged to associate the mysterious teacher with Christine’s dead father, this Christine strongly entertains the idea that her tutor may be the literal spirit of her father.

After her successful performance, the Phantom lures her down to his subterranean world, rather earlier than he does in most movie-versions.  The 1925 film’s imagery of Christine’s supernatural conveyance—first by horse, then by boat—is recapitulated in the film’s best musical scene.  Christine seems rapt by the entire experience, though one presumes that, since she’s considering that this bizarre masked man may be her father’s spirit, her emotion hasn’t shifted into the domain of eros as yet.

There follows a duet between them as he plays his piano, and then, an incomplete unmasking-scene, in that she yanks off the Phantom’s mask and sees his face, but the audience does not.  He rages at her feminine curiosity before he transports her back to the real world, giving her a ring emblematic of their bond and telling her to stay away from Raoul. Seeing his deformed face apparently doesn’t dispel in Christine that the Phantom’s the spectre of her father, for she still seems convinced of the idea late into the picture.

The diva Carlotta attempts to regain her position at the opera, but as in the book the Phantom sabotages her performance so that she croaks like a toad.  Unfortunately for his courtship of Christine, the Phantom goes further than this.  Because a stagehand has mocked him by talking of the Phantom’s “noseless” face and his skill with a noose, the Phantom hangs the man right on stage during a performance, echoing a similar scene in the 1962 Hammer adaptation.

For once, a version of Christine seems duly freaked-out by the notion that her teacher (and father?) may be a murderer: even Leroux’s version seemed blissfully blind to the hanging-incident.  She seeks the company of Raoul, and their old passions re-ignite.

Shortly afterward comes the scene of the Bal Masque.  In some versions of the story, this takes place after the Phantom has told Christine that she’s engaged to him, and warns her not to see anyone else.  Naturally this Phantom, though he never explicitly claims to be her father, can’t very well claim that the two of them are engaged.  Nevertheless the Phantom becomes jealous seeing Raoul with his prized pupil.  Whereas the Phantom usually dons the costume of the Red Death and passes amid the celebrants without much interaction, this time the Phantom—who deems himself the true owner of the opera—addresses the entire assemblage, telling them that they will soon perform his composition, “Don Juan Triumphant.”  Then he uses his knowledge of stage-magic to disappear back to his private underworld, leaving Raoul confounded by a hall of mirrors.

At this point Mme. Giry confides in the tormented Raoul, revealing her part in the secret origin of the Phantom.  In the book, Eric is abandoned by both parents and ends up in a traveling circus that tours throughout Europe and Asia, where Eric finally finds an outlet for his devious genius with the Persian royalty—thus paving the way for his return to Paris.  Here, Giry as a young girl sees the Phantom pass through Paris in a carnival freakshow.  She witnesses how he kills one of his nasty keepers via strangulation, and helps the deformed boy conceal himself beneath the opera-house.  Thus this Giry becomes far more of a direct benefactor, rather than a convenient go-between.  One might expect that she might have taken on a parental role to the Phantom, as the character of Carriere does in the 1990 telefilm.  But though she apparently facilitates the Phantom’s rise to power, there seems to be no emotional connection between the two of them in the film, any more than in the book.

     Christine, feeling agitated by the looming threat of the Phantom’s attentions, seeks out the local cemetery, still half-convinced that he’s her father and that she can appeal to him somehow.  The Phantom apparently follows her there, but so does Raoul.  Thanks to Mme. Giry’s backstory, Raoul can at last tell Christine that the Phantom is no relation to her. The two men duel with swords.  Raoul wins the bout but spares the Phantom at Christine’s insistence.  The Phantom escapes once more.

At last Raoul and the opera’s managers convince Christine to be a Judas goat, giving a performance of FAUST designed to lure the Phantom into the hands of the police.  He comes out and the two of them sing another duet before the audience and the waiting police, during which Christine possibly begins to believe in their “passion play” for the first time.  Yet she unmasks him onstage, revealing his ugliness to the audience in a crueler manner than any Christine before this one.  In retaliation, the Phantom causes the great chandelier to fall upon the audience, and once more spirits Christine to his lair.

A note on the Phantom’s “ugliness”: while the stage-version made the Phantom suitably hideous, the Schumacher film confines itself to giving actor Gerard Butler a little putty-like deformity that hardly seems worthy of all the fuss.  One might presume that the minimal monster-makeup insured that some viewers could still entertain the illusion of a comely Phantom.

Raoul follows the Phantom, but this time, the Phantom captures him.  As in the book, the Phantom bargains with Christine, promising to spare Raoul’s life if Christine marries the Phantom.  She doesn’t consent to the bargain, but she gives him a kiss that essentially redeems him, so that the Phantom frees the young lovers and disappears.  Christine’s love for Raoul is undiminished, but she does show some divided feelings for her erstwhile demon lover.

The picture ends with the final frame, as Old Raoul visits the gravesite of his late wife Christine, only to find that some other visitor has left a single rose upon the grave—implying that the Phantom’s love, no matter how frustrated, has endured.

As a romance, the Schumacher version is one of the best, with all three principal actors giving vivid performances.  Aside from the “Angel of Music” set-piece I praised above, none of the musical numbers particularly grabbed me, but the quality of their performance is never in doubt.  The film’s greatest problem is the underwhelming nature of the Phantom’s makeup.  It seems pretty easy for Christine to sing that the Phantom’s face “holds no horror for me,” when it can’t possibly inspire horror in the audience-members.



“I’m not a phantom. I’m a rat.”—Julian Sands’ psuedo-Phantom

 I watched Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on home video ten years ago, but I must have blocked out the memories.  Before my recent re-screening, all I remembered was that, like most Argento films as well as Robert Englund’s 1989 take  on Gaston Leroux, this 1998 flick was replete with many gore murders.  Yet having re-screened the Englund film and found that it had some interesting content, I returned to Argento’s film with reasonable optimism.  I’m not a huge Argento fan, but even the weaker films tend to display Argento’s flair for creative death-scenes.

The film starts about twenty years before the Paris Opera House is built in the late 1800s.  A tearful couple, evidently unable to care for their infant child, places their baby in a basket and lowers it into the sewer.  Like Moses’ famed craft the basket floats down a subterranean river until a bunch of rats spot it.  They jump into the water and push the basket to shore, having apparently decided to raise the child as one of their own.

This is the first clue that Argento’s PHANTOM is going to be so far from the source-material as to make the 1983 Markowitz telefilm look like a model of fidelity.  I get the feeling that Argento skimmed the book, came across the short section in which a ratcatcher drives rats before him, and had the inspiration that the enmity between the rats and the ratcatcher was the most interesting part of the story.

In the name of fantasy, I can buy a lot of animals-raising-humans scenarios.  Wolves, apes, birds, lions—all grist for the mill.  But rats—or any animal too intrinsically small to suckle a human child—could only work as elements in a comedy.  And given the reputation of rats as filthy disease-carriers, that comedy would have to be of the blackly ironic variety.  I can imagine a director with a manic sense of humor—Ken Russell, perhaps—making such an absurdity work within an absurd world.  But Argento, for some bizarre reason, plays it straight. 

Twenty years later following his adoption, the Phantom—he has no other name—is skulking beneath the Paris Opera House.  He’s established something of a legend, sustained by the opera’s lower-class employees. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything in particular—certainly not composing any operas.  He’ll kill anyone who trespasses on his underworld domain—he speaks the above line about being a rat to one such trespasser before killing him-- and he has a long-standing feud with the opera’s ratcatcher, a bumptious clod who boasts of all the rat-tails he’s collected over the years.

Despite having lived with rats all his life, this Phantom has no deformities, not even so much as a bad skin condition.  He’s also flawlessly urbane.  Shortly after he hears Christine (Asia Argento) sing for the first time, he meets her in a hallway.  She speaks to him first, convinced that she heard him speak to her first.  Possibly Argento meant to suggest a psychic link between them, though there’s no evidence of it in other scenes.  He praises her ability but at no time suggests that she become his musical pupil.  Though he doesn’t seek to tutor Christine, he does follow the usual procedure of tormenting Christine’s chief competitor, the diva Carlotta—played for very broad comedy, though the 1990 telefilm did the same thing better. Christine becomes more intrigued with the handsome stranger than with her current suitor, Raoul de Chagny. Once more Raoul becomes simply a young nobleman on the make, but Christine prefers to regard him as a “brother.”  Curiously, in addition to the usual figures from the novel—the harried managers, the conceited but unworthy diva—Argento includes Raoul’s usually-omitted brother in the cast, though under a different name.  Argento uses the brother just as the 1925 film did, as someone with whom Raoul can exchange a few meager lines.

This Phantom seems more like Tarzan than the Leroux character.  This Phantom bonds with rats like Tarzan does with apes, though the former prodigy never expressly commands the rodents to do things for him. The Phantom’s extremely strong, for he tosses one man like a rag doll and shrugs off gunshot-wounds during a fight-scene.  Whereas other Phantoms fulfill the “outré outfits skills and devices” trope in terms of the costumes they wear or the weapons they utilize, this seems to be the only one who possesses an uncanny physical ability.  I've included the trope "perilous psychos" because the Phantom is deranged by his upbringing, though he's not the sort of mastermind who performs the "bizarre crimes" of other versions, nor does he sport any "freakish flesh."

As there’s no teacher-student relationship between Christine and the Phantom, this seems to be the first film where the Phantom is literally her “demon lover.”  She answers her summons to meet him in his lair—atypically, she makes the boat-journey into his doleful domain alone. Down in his lair the Phantom, though no composer, has the requisite pipe-organ and the two of them have the standard singer-pianist duet.  But since there’s no unmasking scene to show Christine that he’s not a fit lover, she lets passion overwhelm her. For once, the Phantom actually gets some.

Most Christines seem blissfully unaware of their Phantoms’ murderous reputations. Even with that in mind, though, Asia Argento’s version seems remarkably dense.  After having sex with a man who lives with rats in a dank underworld, she’s shocked that he’s something less than a gentleman.  He wants her to stay in his lair, and when she refuses, he simply takes the boat and leaves her stranded.  Fortunately, Raoul finds way into the lair and helps her escape.  Upon seeing him, Christine displays an unappealing fickleness, claiming that she’s always loved the nobleman despite having blown him off earlier.  Later, after Carlotta’s been removed as lead performer and Christine takes over, the Phantom storms the stage in mid-performance to abduct her.  Raoul, several policemen, and the comically overblown ratcatcher give chase.  In the ensuing struggle, although mighty “Phantom of the Rats” manages to kill his brethren’s nemesis, police bullets kill the vermin-loving villain as well.  Yet even as she flees his presence—with Raoul steering her away in the rowboat—Christine weeps and wails at being parted from her demon lover.  After that, viewers probably shouldn’t entertain any illusions of wedded bliss for Christine and Raoul.

Asia Argento gives the audience a sexed-up Christine but she’s also petulant, changeable and superficial, while Raoul is so overheated he seems ludicrous. In addition, he’s given makeup and costumes that make him seem callow and unattractive. Sands plays his seductive role with stoical seriousness, but since no one could have given tragic dimension to a man reared by rats, it’s understandable that he never generates much intensity.  Almost the entire “Phantom of the Opera” plot has been shoved into the background to make room for Argento’s signature death-scenes.  However, none of these prove memorable. And when Dario Argento makes a movie in which even the murderous set-pieces are as dull as dirt, you’ve got past the idea of artistic visions spinning off source-material in new directions.  You’ve just got one helluva bad movie. 

Friday, June 29, 2012


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Though I've touched on a couple of "uncanny" martial arts films here, I believe this is my first "ninja" film.  This one just happened to come on regular TV, so I re-watched it.

I'm not sure that I could have picked a worse exemplar of the genre had I been trying.  I remember the first "American Ninja" film, with Michael Dudikoff in the lead role, as moderately entertaining, and the next two sequels as adequate time-killers.  But there was a reason that I didn't remember anything about this one, save that it was the first in the series to team up Dudikoff (who made the first two films) with David Bradley, a real martial artist who took over from Dudikoff when the actor didn't want to do film #3 in the series.  Presumably Dudikoff was brought back to the fold with the hope of flogging the series' profitability, though only one more entry appeared, with Bradley as the sole star again

All the 1980s cliches are on display here.  A dangerous madman, allied to an Arab fanatic and an Irish (?) military commander, has put together a mountaintop fortress swarming with fully costumed ninjas.  Because the madman (one of the least interesting villains I've seen in American action-films) has perfected a small nuclear device, the American military sends in a task force.  The task force is captured, and the military men discuss the possibility of just bombing the whole shebang from the skies.  But the officers really really want their men back (shades of every "Missing in Action" film ever made).  So they send in Sean Davidson (Bradley) and some aides.  They get captured too.  So they send for the original American Ninja, who single-handedly infiltrates the fortress, frees the good guys and decimates all the villains, including one big-ass villain comically billed as the "Super Ninja."

Both of the main heroes don ninja costumes, so they fit the "outre outfits" trope, though if they didn't, I'd probably consider that the ninja army also fulfilled this trope in the "uncanny" mode, though I have seen both naturalistic and marvelous ninja films.

Dudikoff (an actor who can't really do martial arts) and Bradley have a brief fight, but "Bradley" turns out to be an Oriental guy who has donned a Bradley disguise for no conceivable reason.  One may speculate that even though the fight was fake, David Bradley might have relished the chance to show how much better his fake kung-fu was in comparison to the actor's.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*

Due to the casting of Robert Englund as the Phantom, Freddy Kruger casts a long shadow over director Dwight Little's take on the opera-ghost.

Most versions of the Leroux story simply allude to the story of Faust as a counterpoint to the Phantom's Satanic ambitions.  This time the Phantom, re-christened "Eric Destler,"becomes a literal follower in Faust's footsteps.  Composer Destler, hungry for the fame his genius deserves, makes a deal with the devil so that Destler's music will receive universal acclaim.  The devil, perhaps borrowing a little from Wagner's Rhinegold, attaches a codicil to the deal, cursing Destler with supernatural powers, limited immortality, and phenomenal ugliness, so that no one will ever love Destler for anything but his music.  In a different film, this might have been an interesting comment on the disconnect between artistic recognition and personal gratification, but here it's just a means to stoke the fires of the gore-train. (Not that there's automatically anything wrong with that.)

This devil-cursed Phantom is at least as disgusting as Freddy (he's briefly seen as noseless, like Leroux' villain).  Additionally, the storyline resembles the structure of the Freddy-films in that the bulk of the storyline takes place in a dream framed on either side by "waking reality," with the two interpenetrating to some extent.

The tale begins in contemporary New York, as Christine Day (the sadly underrated Jill Schoelen), college student specializing in classical and operatic music, researches the work of famed 19th-century composer Eric Destler in a music store, and even sings a few bars of his opera "Don Juan Triumphant" (one of many references taken from Leroux).  She has a dreamlike episode, imagining drops of blood upon the manuscript, but the illusion passes.  She rushes from the store to the local opera-house, where she auditions for an operatic role by singing a selection from Destler's opera. Like an evil omen prompted by the music, a sandbag falls from the rafters and clouts Christine into dreamland.

A moment later, she's another Christine, who's also just been smacked by a falling sandbag-- but this one's at the London Opera House in Victorian England.  Unlike modern Christine, this one already has a job at the opera, so she's taken to a room therein.  A few minutes later, the careless stagehand who dropped the sandbag receives an extreme punishment from the opera's resident ghost.  Strangely, the stagehand seems on familiar terms with the supposed ghost, but he doesn't live long enough to disclose their relationship.  The nature of Destler's connection to the London Opera House doesn't receive the attention seen in the 1943 movie and the 1990 telefilm, but one assumes that this opera is simply the place Destler worked before he made his Satanic pact.

As Victorian-era Christine shows off her talent, she attracts the fascination of both the Phantom and young swain Richard Dutton, as well as the emnity of resident diva Carlotta.  This version of Christine shares some of the innocence of the book's version, and actually still believes in her father's legend of an Angel of Music.  In addition, Schoelen's Christine would seem to be the first film-heroine since Mary Philbin to show erotic interest in the mysterious man who speaks to her through the walls of her dressing-room.  One may infer some influence here from the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber stage-musical version.  In any case, Christine again accepts the Phantom's offer. It's not clear if she's ever told about the gruesome death of the stagehand, found as a flayed corpse in the diva's dressing-room.  If she had, one might expect her to be a little more hesitant about entering into this bargain.  Nevertheless, a Svengali-like relationship evolves, with Destler urging Christine to sing with greater "passion," while he tries to exorcise his fascination with her by partaking of a hooker whom he names "Christine."

The script nicely translates a scene from Leroux's book in which Destler serenades Christine on a violin in the graveyard when she visits her father's grave, while Richard jealously looks on.  Though Christine still doesn't know Destler's terrible secret, her spiritual fascination with her mysterious teacher leads her to accept his invitation to meet him in his underground lair.  There, he plays his opera for her on the organ.  To his astonishment, she sings the lines without having read them, one of two scenes in which past-era Christine accesses the thoughts of present-era Christine.  In another scene taken from Leroux, the Phantom deems that they've become engaged.  Though he releases her to continue singing on stage, he makes her wear a ring and tells her not to see anyone else.

Inevitably, Christine turns to Richard, a less demanding suitor, leading the Phantom to force his beloved back into his ghastly domain.  (As a side-thought he kills off Carlotta before so doing.)  Richard joins with the police and storms the lair, resulting in the death of the cops, the local ratcatcher (who's introduced just to give Destler another target), and, rather surprisingly, Richard.  This may be the first Phantom-tale in which the young swain-character doesn't survive. Christine alone is left to face off the Phantom in time-approved "Final Girl" style, but in the swirl of violence that results, it's not clear whether or not Christine escapes the Phantom after a policeman shoots him--

--for just then, modern Christine's dream ends, and she awakes on the stage in New York.  One of the solicitous people attending her is a man named Foster, who just happens to be a dead ringer for the dream-figure of Eric Destler.  She accepts Foster's offer to meet at his apartment, but to no one's surprise it's immortal Destler in disguise.  But Christine uses the insights she's gleaned from the dream to destroy the cursed musician, apparently for all time.  (A script for a sequel was written but was never adapted in any form because this PHANTOM didn't perform well at the box office-- another frustration for horror-fans curious as to how a Phantom-sequel might turn out.)

Production values are high and Little's direction is strong, capturing the "gaslight romance" characteristic of the era.  Schoelen is currently my favorite Christine, even acing out Mary Philbin. As for Englund, he largely succeeds in distinguishing the tragic Destler from Freddy Kruger.  True, the script requires that he spout a few nasty witticisms as he kills people, but at least the tone is mordant and sardonic, not gleefully sadistic as with Freddy.

I've barely touched on the gore-murders, for they are the film's weakest elements.  While some PHANTOMS suffer from being stripped of their horror-aspects, the gore-scenes here-- which are essential to the Elm Street franchise-- are a distraction from the main plot, which successfully translates a lot of Leroux's story, albeit through a lens devilishly.  Admittedly, Destler's killings have a more definite function than Freddy's killings, for Destler flays the skin of his victims and uses the pieces to cover his hideousness.  But the killings are mostly pretty tedious affairs, even if I liked one scene in which Destler decimates a trio of London footpads.  Possibly this film would have enjoyed greater success from sticking closer to the romantic elements seen in the Webber musical, even if Robert Englund might be a hard sell as a romantic icon. 





In this series of POTO reviews I've been exploring the ways in which the films adhere to or deviate from the original novel.  Hopefully it's clear from my review of the 1943 PHANTOM that I'm not judging the quality of these films in terms of their fidelity to the novel.  On occasion, certain deviations from the source material can be as interesting, or more so, than the original.

That said, the 1983 PHANTOM telefilm, directed by Robert Markowitz from a Sherman Yellen script, shows so little resemblance to the source material that it might have been marginally more palatable had it dispensed with all references to the PHANTOM cosmos.

One of the most common tropes in fiction is the "false recognition through resemblance."  In horror stories, this often involves a madman (or, very occasionally, a madwoman) who stalks some victim because of a real or fancied resemblance to a lost love or relative.  Leroux doesn't use this trope as such, though one could argue that in the book's early chapters he wants the reading-audience to associate the corpselike Phantom with Christine's late father, even though Christine herself never imagines a resemblance.  In contrast, the Markowitz telefilm centers its narrative upon the notion of mistaken identity.

I don't relish spending much time on this adaptation, which I found clumsy and charmless.  This Phantom samples elements from both the Claude Rains and Herbert Lom versions, with very little influence from the novel.  In fact, the three major characters are all re-named, with Christine becoming "Maria" (Jane Seymour), Raoul becoming "Michael" (Michael York), and Eric becoming "Sandor Korvin" (Maximillian Schell). 

One modest originality in the 1983 film is that, where the Rains and Lom versions deal with evil publishers who oppress (or seem to oppress) soulful musical composers, this film begins with a soulful conductor (Korvin) and his opera-singer wife Elena (also Jane Seymour) victimized by evil critics.  Elena performs the lead in a production of FAUST conducted by her husband, but she's hectored by catcalls during the performance.  A hostile critical review depresses Elena so much that she drowns herself.  Vengeful Korvin seeks out the critic and forces him from him the truth: because Elena had resisted the amorous advances of local roue Baron Hunyadi, the Baron coerced the critic to do a hatchet-job on Elena.  This opening-sequence juggles various elements from both the 1943 and 1962 versions. Korvin gets into a fight with the critic, starting a fire in his office and knocking over some acid.  Korvin kills the critic, but the acid burns Korvin's face.  He almost dies in the fire, but he's rescued by the local ratcatcher (one of the few elements that originates in the Leroux book). The ratcatcher takes Korvin to the catacombs under the Budapest Opera House and for some vague reason becomes the Phantom's servant, showing that in essence he's another incarnation of the Hammer film's mute henchman.

Ah, yes, this whole thing takes place in Budapest, Hungary, not Paris, France. This isn't a horrible change, but Markowitz doesn't do anything interesting with the new location, so it might as well have been transported to London or New York for all the difference the locale makes.

However, the script's changes to the characterizations of Christine and Raoul (aka "Maria" and "Michael") are much more damaging.  Michael, like the Hunter character from the 1962 film, is the manager of the opera-house where the Phantom decides to hang his cloak, and he, like the Phantom, takes a shine to a young ingenue, name of Maria.  Admittedly Christine and Raoul aren't deep characters, but their basic sympathetic natures make them work well in most versions of the story.  Michael and Maria are both superficial, irritating characters who lack any soulful nature, and whose fates are barely interesting, much less sympathetic.

As soon as Maria starts singing at the opera-house-- with the usual opposition from the entrenched diva-figure-- the Phantom spots her resemblance to Elena and takes a personal interest in her musical development.  Arguably this lookalike-development weakens the strength of the spiritual bond between the Phantom and his pupil, a bond implicitly through the musical genius they share.  In any case, the Phantom covers his scars with what looks like a death-mask of Maximillian Schell's face and directly approaches Maria with an offer of tutelage (no speaking-through-the-walls here).  Maria accepts. At this point Korvin is  aware that Maria is not Elena.

It's unclear how long Korvin has been cultivating the illusion of the opera-ghost, but since he demonstrates the ability to disguise himself and move among regular people, one might've expected that he might have already sought vengeance on Baron Hunyadi for having indirectly brought about Elena's death.  Instead, the mountain comes to the Mohammed-phantom, for Hunyadi shows up at the opera.  History repeats itself as Hunyadi also puts the make on Maria.  The Phantom comes up with a unique way of executing Hunyadi, unleashing a "murder" of hostile crows upon the baron.  I assume this is an ironic comment on Korvin's name, since in Latin "corvus" means crow or raven.

For a time Maria keeps the secret of her mysterious tutor, but eventually Korvin loses the ability to distinguish his pupil from his dead wife, and he abducts her to his underworld.  This Phantom's subterranean lair is depressingly bare of enchantment, and Maria shows no pity for her deformed benefactor.  Indeed, this film's version of the unmasking-scene isn't prompted by feminine curiosity.  Rather, Maria yanks off the Phantom's mask to distract him while she attempts to escape.  It doesn't work, so Michael has to come to her rescue (incidentally fighting the ratcatcher in much the same way Hunter fought with the mute henchman in the Hammer version).  After Michael escapes with Maria, Maria returns to the stage, singing the diva's role that the Phantom secured for her.  The frustrated Phantom attempts to drop the chandelier on the audience, but does so by clinging to the chandelier-chain while doing so.  The chandelier crashes down with him along for the ride, so that he kills himself and some others.  Regrettably, the tedious Michael and Maria both escape death.

Thus far this is the weakest version of the classic story, not because it borrowed from other versions but because it did so with no sense of style or passion.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012



This 1990 telefilm, scripted by Arthur Kopit from his own theatrical adaptation of the public domain Phantom, originally played in two parts on television.  Unlike many film-adaptations, Kopit’s script mines quite a bit of detail from the Leroux novel.  Like the contemporaneous Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway version, Kopit’s story places strong emphasis on the book’s “eternal triangle,” between the female singer, her appropriate young swain and her tutor, even though the tutor is no longer older, nor suggests anything relating to the singer’s father.

At the same time, though this Phantom isn’t softened in the same way one sees in the 1943 and 1962 adaptations, Kopit goes even further to eliminate elements of danger and horror in the script.  This time the struggle is between two young men for one young woman, though the shadow of an older man does intrude to some extent.

The film, directed by Tony Richardson, fulfills the stereotype of television direction: everything’s shot from flat, uninventive angles and there’s no sense of style devoted to even the most artistic elements.  This is a shame because Kopit and Richardson had a chance to bring a strong faerie-tale atmosphere to the project.  Their Phantom, in contrast to the ones seen in 1943 and 1962, has dwelled beneath the Paris opera-house long enough to build a substantial legend, though Kopit goes even further than Leroux by claiming that this Phantom was raised in the catacombs.

No attempt is made to project any mystery into the Phantom’s presence.  The film begins with a change in managers at the opera-house, as did the book.  In the book, however, the changeover was the result of a sale from one owner to another.  Here, long-time manager Carriere (Burt Lancaster) is dismissed from his position, and the supercilious new manager has acquired this post in order to accommodate the diva-aspirations of his wife Carlotta.  Carriere warns the new manager of the presence of the Phantom. The new manager does not believe, but gets flustered when things fall off the walls without explanation.  The moment Carriere is alone, however, the Phantom (Charles Dance, attired in a cloak and a mask reminiscent of Harlequin) appears, and the two of them become distressingly chatty.  Plainly Kopit expects his audience to know that Eric, aka the Phantom, lives beneath the opera-house, and wants to get that out of the way, as well as quickly establishing Eric’s motivations for keeping people away from his subterranean domain.

What will he do to keep that privacy?At one point, it’s strongly implied that Eric kills a man sent to explore the building’s lower regions.  Yet aside from that incident, and the de rigeur “dropping of the chandelier,” Kopit tries, like Anthony Hinds in the ’62 PHANTOM, to keep Eric’s hands as unstained as possible. Most of the Phantom’s actions are rather prankish, as if, despite his fine attire and mellow voice, he’s still a big kid at heart.

As Carriere exits, Christine (Teri Polo) arrives at the opera, at the behest of a character who is essentially the same as the book’s “Raoul,” though Kopit renames him after his brother, making him “Count Phillippe deChagny.”  In a flashback-sequence Kopit touches on the book’s idea that Christine and her intended became acquainted as children.  Even Christine’s father, so important to the book, makes a rare cinematic appearance in this 1990 story.  In adulthood Phillippe meets Christine without recognizing her, though she knows him.  When Phillippe hears her exquisite voice, he sends her to Carriere for lessons, not aware of the manager’s dismissal.  Christine gets no sympathy from Carlotta, who, like some evil stepmother, refuses to hear Christine sing and puts the girl to work in the costume department.  The young woman is equally disturbed to learn that Phillippe may be in the habit of sending many girls for “lessons” that lead to seduction.

Later, when Phillippe shows up, he makes clear that his intentions were sincere.  By that time, Christine has received another tutor (and eventually, a suitor).  The Phantom hears her sing and wants to nurture her talent.  He eschews the talking-through-walls approach that reaped few rewards for Claude Rains and Herbert Lom, and approaches Christine directly, explaining his mask as simply a means of remaining anonymous.  She accepts the offer of lessons.  Not least because he’s young, charming and well-spoken, Christine falls somewhat in love with her mysterious masked teacher.  Thus Kopit sows the seeds for the competition of the two male leads, though to be sure, this Christine is far more fully realized than most.

The Phantom avenges Christine’s wrongs by persecuting Carlotta, sabotaging her performances so that she becomes a laughing-stock.  Then, acting on the Phantom’s guidance, Christine shows off her talent at a party—a demonstration that becomes an amusing singing “duel” with Carlotta, a duel the older woman loses.  The manager signs Christine up, but Carlotta contrives to ruin the ingenue’s debut.

After taking a measure of revenge upon Carlotta (dumping a bunch of rats on her), the Phantom decides to forget about promoting Christine’s career.  He spirits her down to his subterranean lair.  Though Christine has had one romantic encounter with Phillippe by this time, she begins to fall in love with her masked benefactor as well.  At this point Carriere—well acquainted with the lair, since he’s the one who concealed Eric’s presence there for years—shows up. 

In a long flashback he explains to Christine that he’s actually Eric’s father.  Reversing Leroux’s idea that Eric’s father and mother couldn’t even look at him, his mother—also a blonde opera-singer like this Christine—tried to take poison when she thought Carriere couldn’t marry her.  The poison may have had something to do with Eric’s deformed status at birth, but the film’s unclear on this possibility.  Eric’s mother doesn’t see his ugliness, though Carriere does, and after the mother perishes naturally, Carriere half-wishes Eric would just die.  When the child lives, Carriere dutifully allows him to live beneath the opera-house.  Ironically, even in seclusion Eric becomes a master musician; it’s he, Carriere confesses, who truly made the opera-house successful.

Kopit continues the romance-angle with Christine and Eric, at one point even having the fearsome Phantom don a straw boater!! Kopit also takes a different approach to the famous “unmasking scene:” this time, rather than having a willful girl remove the mask of her demon lover, Christine talks Eric into removing it himself.  Fascinated with his history and his suffering, she thinks that love will give her the strength to stomach the sight of any deformity.

She’s wrong, for she faints dead away at the sight of Eric’s face (which the viewing audience never sees at any point).  The Phantom goes berserk, smashing things and putting Christine in a cage.  Despite feeling immense guilt for her trespass, she escapes to the upper world and to Phillippe.  During a climactic performance, Christine begins singing a duet with the Phantom as he lurks in his special box, confusing but nonetheless thrilling the audience.  The police aren’t amused, though.  Led by Inspector Ledoux (note the name), they chase Eric to the rooftops.  The Phantom gets the satisfaction of winning an old-fashioned sword-duel with his rival Phillippe, but spares him for Christine’s sake.  In the end, he begs his father for a quick death rather than capture, and Carriere ends the film by shooting his son.

Despite some of the scripting missteps, this is a solid enough romantic melodrama. The decision not to show the Phantom’s face suggests a desire to allow viewers to retain the fantasy of Eric as “beauty” rather than “beast,” but at least he scores some romantic points with the woman of his dreams, a bounty the Phantom never received from creator Leroux. 

I mentioned that the “shadow of an older man” fell over the triangular romance.  This is of course Carriere, who becomes a “daylight alter ego” to the reclusive Phantom, in that he lives his life for Eric and becomes defined by Eric’s talents.  It’s surely no coincidence that Eric’s first and only great love bears a strong resemblance to his mother.  That said, Carriere has no interest in Christine, though in one scene he seems to find her voice “familiar,” which might suggest that he too sees Eric’s mother in Christine.  This does put a different complexion on Carriere’s “mercy killing” of Eric, though as Freudian metaphors go, this one appears to be not much more than a toss-off.      

Tuesday, June 26, 2012



“You think you can become a great siniger without suffering?”—the 1962 Phantom to Christine.

The third major adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s most famous work only bears one or two similarities with either the novel or the 1925 Chaney version.  From the novel scripter Anthony Hinds and director Terence Fisher took an incident involving a hanged man and the character of a ratcatcher, both used for shock-value scenes.  In contrast to the 1943 Universal version—of which the ’62 film is substantially a remake—the story places a bit more emphasis placed upon the notion of Christine being musically tutored by the Phantom, which appears both in the novel and the original 1925 film.  However, the way that Fisher’s film does so pursues a course almost diametrically opposed to either the Julian or Lubin adaptations.

I commented earlier that Claude Rains’ Phantom is less majestically evil than the Lon Chaney version.  However, the 1943 Erique, despite having his fatherly motivations re-written, still emerges as an interesting though not consistent character.  Hammer’s Phantom, though more grotty to look at than the 1943 version, is a far weaker conception. Despite the rewrites of the Rains character, one could still imagine that he had become fascinated with Christine as a “daughter he never had.”  The essence of the Leroux story lies in the “Beauty and the Beast” relationship of Christine and the Phantom, and Hinds’ script never provides one scene that gives this Phantom a reason for fixating on Christine.  And that’s saying nothing about how badly it treats Christine.

As noted earlier, the Phantom story usually revolves around at least two men competing over the same woman.  Nevertheless, though the novel’s Christine displays no erotic feeling for her master, the story leaves no doubt that her decision, her choice of suitors, is of supreme importance.  Hinds’ Christine, aside from one display of spirit, has little choice in this film, being essentially chivvied about by powerful men.

The film once more takes place in the Paris Opera-House, this time at the staging of an opera written by Lord D’Arcy (Michael Gough).  A younger man, Harry Hunter, manages the opera’s production, while ingénue Christine makes a favorable impression on D’Arcy—so much so that within the film’s first thirty minutes he attempts to get her to come to his studio for “lessons.”  Christine’s one real moment of spirit comes at this point, when she inveigles Hunter into helping her win free of the old roué.  In retaliation D’Arcy fires both of them from the production.

Interweaving with this romance-plotline, albeit tenuously, is the revelation that the Opera-House possesses its own Phantom (Herbert Lom).  It’s not very clear how long he has been there, though in contrast to the 1943 film, it must be long enough to have created a superstition that no one attends the opera in “the Phantom’s box”—a detail fleshed out more in the novel.  One of the stage-hands is hanged to death, making for a shocking opening.  It’s not clear why he was killed, though it’s suggested that this wasn’t the act of the Phantom himself, but that of his mute servant. A little later the mute goes berserk and kills the opera-house’s ratcatcher, apparently to establish that the mute is a loose cannon who kills for the fun of it.  But the upshot of this plotline pays more attention to the mute than to the Phantom’s reasons for becoming interested in Christine—apparently after seeing her on stage for an extremely short period.

This Phantom does speak to Christine through the wall in her dressing-room. The character, as in the 1943 film, reacts with disbelief and shows no interest in being tutored by the opera’s resident spectre; indeed, she even reveals the anomaly to Hunter, who begins “hunting” out the secret of the Phantom.  By dumb luck Hunter talks to Christine’s landlady and learns the story of a “Professor Petrie,” who suffered grievous wounds in a fire at Lord D’Arcy’s publisher, and then vanished from sight.

While Hunter plays Sherlock Holmes, Christine’s choice is taken from her.  Apparently at the Phantom’s command, the mute assaults Christine, knocks her out and carries her, not at all romantically, down into the watery catacombs beneath the opera-house.  Even Lord D’Arcy, rotter though he was, at least gave her a choice of sorts, even if he sacked her thereafter.  The Phantom insists that Christine accept his singing-lessons, and the terrified ingénue obeys.  In one brief scene, the Phantom slaps her a couple of times for getting her lessons wrong.  Whereas the Rains Phantom was credibly fascinated with the singer, Lom’s Phantom, with his above-quoted line about suffering, seems more concerned with using Christine as a vehicle for his frustrations.

Hunter finds his way down to the catacombs.  The mute attacks Hunter, but Hunter beats him down and bursts in on the singing-lessons.  As this Phantom appears to be no threat to anyone, Hunter takes the time to explain how he ferreted out his identity as Professor Petrie.  A flashback fills in the details, about how D’Arcy cheated the penurious Petrie out of all of his musical compositions.  Petrie, attempting to sabotage D’Arcy’s publisher, became injured and disfigured.  He fell into the river, which carried him to the catacombs, where the mute found him and cared for him.

Hunter and Christine conveniently forget about the earlier murders and decide that, because the Phantom is dying, they will give him one last pleasure, as Christine performs the lead role in the opera that D’Arcy stole from Petrie. Strangely, on the night of the perfomance the Phantom confronts the contemptible D’Arcy, but contents himself with frightening the nasty lord away by revealing his hideously scarred features.  Many horror-fans have regretted that the thieving D’Arcy wasn’t killed at this opportune moment, but it seems to have been very important to Hinds and Fisher not to have this Phantom soil his own hands with killing.

That said, the Phantom indirectly brings about his own death thanks to having helped unleash the murderous mute, who is sort of a “dwarf soul” to his master, not unlike the relationship of the hunchback Frtiz to James Whales’ Doctor Frankenstein. Following Christine's performance of the opera, she comes back on stage for her bows, while the Phantom watches from his box and the mute watches from the rafters.  A stage-hand sees the mute and gives chase, which leads to the famed falling-chandelier scene.  The Phantom unmasks himself (!) and leaps down to push Christine out of the way.  He loses his life, essentially having found a pyrrhic way to "steal the spotlight."  Even the mute watches tearfully, with no indication that he, any more than D'Arcy, will be brought to justice.

Despite some impressively mounted sequences of a very bad fake opera, and a more horrific re-interpretation of the 1943 Phantom’s appearance, this PHANTOM lacks any of the romance-elements of the earlier works.  It remains principally a melodrama with a touch of resentment toward the upper classes, but concerns itself largely with the passion and suffering of men, in which one woman just happens to get embroiled.     



Saturday, June 23, 2012



Universal's second stab at the PHANTOM story, filmed on the same opera-sets built for the 1925 film, launched a counter-version of the story that has had its own influence over the years.  Here Leroux's key idea of a Phantom deformed from birth was replaced by that of a normal man transformed into a freak by some type of physical attack. The same trope would later be used in Hammer's 1962 remake of this story and in 1974's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

Very little of the Leroux story survives this reconfiguration.  Christine (now given the surname DuBos and played  by Susanna Foster) is still an up-and-coming soprano, but she's never tutored directly by this film's Phantom.  Instead of a normal boyfriend and a "demon lover," this Christine has two potential boyfriends, a fellow opera-singer named Anatole (Nelson Eddy) and a police inspector who's given the name of the novel-boyfriend, Raoul.  Possibly the scripters felt that the story needed that extra romantic conflict because their Phantom's role as potential seducer is marginalized if not entirely elided.

 As noted in earlier essays, the early part of the Leroux novel suggests that the Phantom (Claude Rains) may be Christine's father, somehow returned from the dead, because he knows so much about the "Angel of Music" story related to Christine by her father. In addition, at one point the Phantom manifests near the same gravesite where the father lies buried, a detail resurrected for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  None of these associations appear in the 1925 film.  According to various sources, including film historian Scott McQueen on a recent Universal DVD release of this film, an early script treatment intended that this Phantom--  Erique Claudin, a violinist employed at the Paris opera-house-- was Christine's still-living father, whom she did not recognize and from whom she was separated due to assorted complications.  Apparently certain producers apparently felt that the basic intonations of the Phantom story would imply some incestuous relationship.

If so, it would have been on one side alone.  In this film, violinist Erique first encounters Christine at the opera-house, and becomes obsessed with nurturing her talent-- so much so that he beggars himself to become her secret benefactor, paying a singing-teacher to give Christine lessons for the next three years.  Christine makes excellent progress but the lessons end when Erique loses his job with the opera.  Still consumed with the desire to promote Christine, Erique tries to market an original concerto.  Circumstances conspire to make Erique think that a music-publisher is stealing from him.  This Erique-- who is considerably more mundanely pathological than the twisted genius of the book-- goes mad and kills the publisher.  The publisher's secretary hurls developer-fluid in Erique's face, scarring him.  He flees the murder-scene and takes a tortured refuge in the Paris sewers, which in turn take him to the subterranean lake beneath his old place of employment.  None of these setbacks dull his obsession with Christine. He dons a mask to conceal his scars and tries to force the opera's managers to give Christine greater roles.  When they refuse, he unleashes more mayhem.

To be sure, this level of obsession doesn't play all that well coming from an unrelated stranger with no romantic intentions.  Some parts of the script still suggest the earlier idea of a real paternal relationship.  Both the Phantom and Christine are familiar with an old lullaby from their native town Provence, a tune Christine claims to have known from childhood.  It's likely that this is a holdover from an earlier script, in which the lullaby would have provided a clue to the father-daughter relationship. Near the climax, when the Phantom drags Christine down into the catacombs, he claims that he's "always" protected her, which seems a strange remark if he's only known her for three years. Had the film kept the idea that he was her father, perhaps his abduction would seem less like a seduction, but in this final version, the Phantom sounds less like a disinterested benefactor and more like a madman on the make.

The scene in which Anatole and Raoul brave the Phantom's lair jettisons any of the perils that assailed Christine's rescuers in both original book and movie.  The climax seems to have been jerkily written, perhaps because it was striving to rework the original "father knows best" concept.  In scenes not used for the finished version, inspector Raoul was to have learned the truth about Erique's relationship to Christine, though he swore to keep that fact secret.  At the climax, Anatole and Raoul burst in upon the Phantom just as Christine unmasks him, and the Phantom defensively reaches for a conveniently-placed sword.  One might expect that in the earlier script Raoul might try to spare the life of Christine's demented father, and might even try to stop someone else from killing the Phantom.  But in the finished film, baritone Anatole-- who has no reason to give two hoots for the Phantom's life-- flings his arm up and diverts a shot from inspector Raoul.  That said, perhaps the only reason Anatole acts so strangely is that the film needed someone to precipitate a gunshot at the ceiling, which for some inexplicable reason causes the whole roof to fall in, burying the Phantom while the good guys escape with their pretty prize.

I mentioned earlier that Mary Philbin's Christine in the Chaney film seems at times rather intrigued by her invisible teacher, even though the viewer never sees her receiving lessons as in the book.  Only once does the Phantom speak to Christine through some secret compartment, urging her to accept his personal tutelage. But this more realistic version of Christine is not the least bit intrigued, instead becoming mildly freaked out by this overture from nowhere.  At film's end she evinces some pity for unfortunate Erique, though it's not clear as to how much she knows about his murderous escapades.  Nevertheless, some later Phantom films would pick up on a trope established here, in which Christine and her "demon lover" interact musically: with Christine singing while the Phantom plays his concerto on an organ-- just before Christine unmasks him.

The "big reveal" doesn't attempt to top the superlative Chaney makeup; allegedly star Claude Rains didn't want to get typed as a "monster." Yet it must be admitted that the Phantom's underwhelming visage is of a piece with his persona.  This Erique is never the master fiend of the novel and the 1925 film, but a more pathetic figure.  For this reason I give this version of the Phantom an additional "uncanny trope" that I didn't assign to the earlier works: the "perilous psycho." Whereas the Phantom of Leroux and Chaney was a Satanic figure out of Milton, twisted by his more-than-human sufferings, the Rains Phantom shows telltales signs of insane behavior even before he gets scarred.  This Phantom has none of the original's resources, but he does duplicate the famous chandelier-dropping scene with fair panache.

It's commonplace to mention that this is more of a musical-romance film with some mild horror-elements, rather than a horror-film in the (bloody) vein of earlier Universal monster-movies.  In its orientation this PHANTOM has more parallels with another of director Arthur Lubin's romances-with-fantasy-elements reviewed on this site, NIGHT IN PARADISE.  And in contrast to the traditional romantic closure seen in the book and the Chaney film. this Christine chooses her career over both of her rescuers, so that the guys end up commisserating with one another.  An end-shot suggests that the Phantom may survive his apparent doom at the story's end, and indeed Universal did consider a sequel after the 1943 film proved the year's big moneymaker for the studio.  However, no official sequel was remade, though the script was reworked into an unrelated project, 1944's THE CLIMAX.  To my knowledge, no one has ever done a series-- even a series of two-- interrelated PHANTOM OF THE OPERA films.

Thursday, June 21, 2012



Here we have two of the many ancestors of the "stalker-slasher" films of the late 1970s, both of which include fearsome older women.

HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, filmed in Spain by director Narciso Serrador, was the first horror-film for Lilli Palmer, marking her as a comparatively late entry among the ranks of "mature" Hollywood actresses obliged to take horrific roles.  Palmer plays Senora Fourneau, who maintains absolute discipline over a posh-looking school for "troubled" girls, i.e., girls who have embarassed their wealthy families in some way or other.  However, despite the harsh discipline-- or perhaps because of it-- the girls constantly find ways to indulge in various vices, including (very light) lesbian encounters and flagellation.  One scene suggests that even Fourneau isn't entirely resistant to all that young nubile flesh, and that she may take out her buried passions in punishing her charges.

Fourneau has one teenaged son, Luis, who stays on the estate.  Luis contrives to meet one of the girls, but the headmistress guards him zealously, repeatedly telling him that he must wait until he finds a woman just like his mother.  Fourneau doesn't quite verge into actual incest-territory here, but suffice to say that she comes within spitting-distance.

A few rather desultory murders take place on the schoolgrounds, but Fourneau doesn't witness them and believes that the girls have run off.  Despite some of the sensual moments of sex and violence, Serrador's plot develops slowly.  The identity of the killer and his motivation will come as no great surprise.

A slow pace also dominates DEAD DEAD DELILAH, the only directorial effort by bestselling horror-author John Farris. 

DELILAH is Southern Gothic crossed with a proto-slasher, and stars Agnes Moorhead in her last theatrrical film.  As Delilah, the wheelchair-bound matriarch of a mossy old manse, she shows contempt for most of her hanger-on relatives.  She decides to torment them by telling them of a fabulous buried treasure on the estate grounds, little realizing that one or more of the family wants not just gold, but blood.

Though DELILAH is creaky and talky, it has one aspect that distinguishes it from the majority of films starring female protagonists.  The viewpoint character is middle-aged Luddy Dublin, a heavyset, homely woman who's first seen in a flashback to her youth, when she killed her tyrannical mother with an axe.  Released from a sanitarium, she chances on to a job-opportunity at Delilah's mansion.  Naturally, when the murders begin, an axe is the prominent weapon used.  However, it's unlikely that anyone in the audience couldn't foresee that Luddy was too obvious a suspect to prove guilty.

There are some decent if unexceptional performances by Moorehead, Will Geer, and Patricia Carmichael as Luddy.  Farris' script, in keeping with most Southern Gothics, puts strong emphasis on the role of women in Southern culture, but doesn't manage to say anything pertinent about the matter.  Most of the axe-murders are unremarkable, but there's one memorable murder where a woman is decapitated by a horse-rider.   



As noted in this essay, I recently reread Gaston Leroux’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, partly to analyze the book itself in terms of my NUM theory, partly to compare the original to as many film-versions as possible.

In my experience thus far, the first version, starring Lon Chaney Sr. and directed by Rupert Julian, comes closest to the Leroux novel.  And yet, appropriately enough, the 1925 version is, far more than the novel proper, responsible for promoting the idea that heroine Christine may be a little less than innocent in her relationship with her “demon lover.”

I stated in my book-review that the novel has five principal characters: Erik the Phantom, Christine, her young boyfriend Raoul, Raoul’s elder brother Phillippe, and the Persian, a mystery-man who’s seen briefly at the outset and who appears at the novel’s end to help Raoul battle the Phantom.  The movie keeps all five characters, though with alterations. The film’s Phillippe has no real function beyond providing Raoul with someone to talk to, albeit briefly, and he doesn’t suffer a sacrificial death at the climax.  The Persian is changed into a member of the French Secret Police named “Ledoux” (a tip of the hat to “Leroux?”), and he knows about Erik’s history and activities simply because he’s been investigating the Phantom, not because the two of them are old friends.  Ledoux was a necessary change since the film drops almost all references to Erik's travels in the Orient, though the Phantom still retains his thuggee-like skill with the lasso known in both book and film as “the Punjab knot.”

Most of the book’s major sequences are retained in the film, albeit compressed and sometimes re-arranged.  I mentioned in the earlier essay that the novel’s Phantom had the habit of allowing others to see him in public sans any makeup, even though he had ample disguise-skills.  Naturally Chaney’s Phantom keeps resolutely masked until the classic unveiling-scene, which is given much more emphasis than the cognate scene in the novel.  In addition, this Phantom is never compared to an “Angel of Music” sent from heaven to nurture the singing-talent of Christine (Mary Philbin). But then every aspect of Christine’s history gets jettisoned, including her childhood acquaintance with Raoul and her father’s prediction that she would be succored by an “angel.”  The question then arises: since this Christine doesn’t think that the phantom in the opera is a ministering spirit, what does she make of his strange existence?  The film doesn’t hold forth on Christine’s feelings toward the Phantom, but in the first two scenes where she speaks to him through the walls, she seems excited at the approach of her “master.”  I would argue that Mary Philbin’s performance is the first to suggest that Christine is erotically intrigued with her unseen teacher, though of course this Christine doesn’t sigh and moan like some of her later descendants.  She also doesn’t have as much reason to deem him a murderer, since a hanging-death that occurs at the novel’s beginning is moved to the movie’s end. 

Oddly, this PHANTOM contains no scenes in  which Erik’s seen tutoring Christine, and only one indirect reference to the "art" he passes on to her.  Yet the lack of such scenes—as well as the lack of a history for Erik, or much about how he operates beneath the opera-house—have the effect of making this Phantom much more surrealistic than the novel’s version. The novel gives its readers a painstaking explanation as to how the Phantom got hold of one of the opera’s horses, which he later uses to give Christine a ride down into his lair.  The film dispenses with such mundane explanations.  Thus the subterrenean appearance of the horse, like the boat the villain uses to pole across the underground lake, reinforces the sense of the Phantom’s unutterable strangeness.

Though the film wastes no time on the Phantom’s history, he still has a variety of weird death-traps in his lair, such as a mirror-lined room which bombards Raoul and Ledoux with concentrated heat and a device capable of blowing up the opera-house.  However, the novel’s conclusion—in which the Phantom more or less expires from his frustrated love—was wisely dropped.  Instead, the Phantom’s execution of an opera-worker whips the other workers into a torch-and-pitchfork frenzy.  They overtake the Phantom after he’s lost Christine to Raoul, but even though the villain suffers an ignominious end, he manages one last “spit-in-the-eye” gesture of defiance.

Leroux’s novel would beget many more versions of his one renowned character.  Some were decent, some mediocre, some awful.  But to this day, only the Chaney-Julian version remains a classic in every sense of the word.

ADDENDA: Though the DVD I reviewed isn't labelled as such, it's likely that this is the recut 1929 version of the original 1925 film, as the DVD was from Catcom, a company specializing in public-domain releases.
        I also negelected to mention one other point related to the film's phenomenality.  In my review of the book, I mentioned that while Raoul and the Persian sojourned beneath the opera-house, they encountered a spectral presence that may have been what Leroux maintained was a true "opera ghost."  I failed to mention that this was only one of two figures the two men encounter, the other being a weird-looking ratcatcher driving rats before him like cattle.  The PHANTOM film has Raoul and Ledoux encounter one strange-looking, luminescent-faced individual who speaks as if he's some sort of ghost, but as in the book, there's no irrefutable proof (say, the figure walking through a solid wall, etc.) that he really is a ghost.  As I've not read the shooting script I can't say if this figure was intended to be either of the book's two presences. 




CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

Many critics before me have observed that though certain films starring Lon Chaney Sr. had a huge influence on the American articulation of horror-films in the sound era, most Chaney roles tend toward suspense or melodrama rather than pure horror.  Chaney’s famed HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is something of a borderline case.  One can easily imagine the story writing out Quasimodo, or substituting some less grotesque character, at which point the story would become pure historical melodrama.

For that matter, it might be possible to render a version of Hugo’s story in which the hunchback’s tragic freakishness was given the same naturalistic treatment seen in other melodramas about teratological unfortunates, such as David Lynch’s ELEPHANT MAN.  To be sure, Hugo’s treatment of his deformed antihero is more naturalistic than one sees in many mainstream horror movies—not least Chaney’s next great exploration of physiognomic contortion, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  But even without the use of the tropes of horror-narratives, I’d still consider that Hugo lends an air of strangeness to Quasimodo, which qualifies both the original novel and Chaney’s treatment of it for my category of “the uncanny.”  I’d like to think that when I include the Hunchback in the pantheon of metaphenomenal monsters, I’m not being unduly influenced by how often Quasimodo appeared in monster-film magazines, but I can’t deny that could be an influence.

The main plot-thrust of the film follows that of the novel: the real struggle is less that of the hunchback Quasimodo and his tormentors than the large-scale conflicts between the court of French King Louis XI, the Catholic Church, and a quasi-proletariat that rises against Louis’ injustice, led by “Clopin, the King of Beggars” (Ernest Torrence, who played Professor Moriarty in the 1932 film SHERLOCK HOLMES).  The novel had two villains: Claude Frollo, the lustful archdeacon of Notre Dame, and his nasty brother Jehan.  The film gives Claude a saintly makeover and promotes Jehan to main villain, making him a Machiavellian type of plotter fomenting conflict for his own ends.  Jehan takes over Claude's role in manipulating Quasimodo, though the hunchback's reasons for obeying Jehan are obscure since Jehan isn't a father-figure to Quasimodo.  He also takes charge of lusting after the gypsy-girl Esmerelda and stabbing Phoebus, the young lord who pursues the girl.  Esmerelda is consistent as an innocent drawn into these complex plots, horrified by Quasimodo’s ugliness but capable of taking pity upon the tortured hunchback.  Esmerelda’s mother, who loses the girl as an infant to thieving gypsies, appears in this film-version, and makes such a brief appearance that I wondered why she was included.  Some adaptations don’t bother with the mother, and in truth she doesn’t really have much a role if one doesn’t plan to adapt the uncompromisingly tragic ending of the novel—which the 1923 HUNCHBACK does not do.   

I won’t plan to address the plot in much detail.  It’s familiar to many readers from multiple adaptations, and I must confess that whenever Chaney Sr. wasn’t onscreen, I found the direction by Wallace Worsley stately but faintly boring.  Chaney’s performance is the centerpiece, and even aside from his peerless makeup, he throws himself into the role with great energy and athleticism.  Many of Hugo’s subtler sociological points are lost, but the film successfully puts across the image of Quasimodo as an accursed “Fool of God,” whose very existence places the existence of a loving Creator in doubt.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

There's not much intrinsically interesting about this American-Japanese kiddie-film, co-directed by animator Fred Wolf.  It's an undistinguished attempt to meld the basic idea of Superman (with special reference to the successful Salkind Brothers live-action adaptations) with a simple liberal message about encouraging young people to speak their minds and protest big business.

The film opens with a scene out of the Sleeping Beauty folktale.  An infant named Rob Rabbit is born to a humble rabbit-couple, but a mysterious guest predicts that he will have a special destiny.  Later, when Rob reaches teendom, he meets the mysterious stranger again.  Rob learns that he's one of many incarnations of a being called "the American Rabbit," destined to fight evil by changing into a star-spangled hero whose only attire is a pair of roller skates.  As the American Rabbit, Rob fights a gang of evil bikers led by a nasty buzzard villain, suffers a few reverses, and finally wins out.

Only one joke in RABBIT is a trifle funny, when the villain reveals his master plan to dominate the world by taking control of the world's chocolate.  The design of the hero would be risible even without the roller skates, but one wonders what animator came up with them.  Perhaps the Rabbit's creator didn't get the memo that the fad for roller-skating entertainment had peaked during the disco era?  Unfortunately, as foolish as the main hero appears, the entire film is played tediously "straight" and so qualifies, however badly, within the Fryean category of adventure. 


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It’s been theorized that ancient Greece’s legend of the Amazons may have been modeled upon the Greeks’ encounters with the horse-riding women of the nomadic Scythian tribes.  From this minor episode of gender role-reversal, the Greeks then imagined a society that inverted their own male-chauvinist ethos, the better to glorify the superiority of said ethos.

Cinematic Amazon societies approach the legend in a variety of ways, but in the 1960s and 1970s, films about Amazons tended to use them in much the same way as the archaic Greeks had: as deviant societies unable to survive the coming wave of patriarchal cultures.  The 1975 AMAZONS AND SUPERMEN is one of the more egregious in this respect, taking positive pleasure in the inability of legions of cute but incompetent women to take any meaningful action against the film’s musclemen heroes.

Going purely by its script, THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN—which also pits double-deltoid warriors against an entire Amazon society—seems to take the same marginalizing sociological position, in which the defeat of the film's Amazons (though they're never called that) foregrounds the supremacy of patriarchal culture.  Yet, though the Amazons are defeated in the end, the women at least prove themselves formidable antagonists.  Most of Italy's peplum-epics of this period don't show women as anything but helpless maidens or evil, sometimes sorcerous queens. 

Before getting into the story as such, I should note that THOR was filmed back-to-back with another peplum with the same star and director, TAUR THE MIGHTY.  Both "Thor" and "Taur" were toss-off names applied to a hero who, the story goes, was originally going to be called "Tarzan" until the Edgar Rice Burroughs organization took exception.  This goes a long way toward explaining why the protagonist has no resemblance to the Scandinavian thunder-god of mythic and comic-book fame.

Most of Italy’s peplum epics turn on the idea of an unjust ruler and his followers usurping the rightful rule of an outcast monarch.  Thus, instead of portraying an Amazon society that’s existed for years, this one has come into existence within less than a generation, not unlike the one I examined in the much later MARS NEEDS MOMS.  The usurper here is a nameless ruler billed as "the Black Queen," possibly because she may well be the only one in the history of peplum who happens to be of Black African descent.  Her Amazons kill the old king of their region and exile the hot blonde princess Tamara (Suzy Andersen) and her kid brother (who thankfully plays a very small role in the story).  In exile Tamara makes friends with local muscleman Thor (Joe Robertson).  Thor doesn’t seem like a man of means, but he has an equally muscular Black African companion, Ubaratutu (Harry Baird of TRINITY AND SARTANA), who may be Thor’s slave in that he habitually calls him “master,” at least in the English translation. 

Despite the exile of Tamara and her bro, no one in their community is planning to take back the Amazon territory.  An oracular prophecy warns the Black Queen that Thor is destined to bring her down. In the tradition of evil queens everywhere, she sends a squadron of warriors to bring the hero in.  Confronted by the squadron, Thor refuses to fight women.  The squad-leader attacks Thor with a bolas-like weapon studded with poison thorns, and the wounded Thor falls off a cliff.  He falls on top of Ubaratutu, actually (presumably for a laugh), and the slave hides his master from the Amazons in a cave.  Ubaratutu proceeds to suck out the poison from Thor’s leg and give him lots of massage.  This setup, in addition to bolstering the arguments of those looking for loads of homoeroticism in peplum-cinema, removes the titular hero and his sidekick from the main action for almost half the picture.  The dramatic attention shifts to Princess Tamara, who is taken back to Amazon territory.  Since she opposes the Amazon way, the Amazons do with her what they do with any woman who defies their law: put her in the gladiatorial arena.  Presumably men, who are seen only as slaves, don't have enough social status to be gladiators.

Tamara becomes a gladiator and seeks to make allies.  Meanwhile the Amazon soldiers happen across Ubaratutu while Thor is still recovering.  The soldiers take the muscular sidekick to their queen.  Though the more usual practice in peplum is for the queen to vamp the main hero, the fact that the Queen is black probably inspired the writers to allocate that honor to the sidekick of the same race.  Such seduction-scenes were a tacit admission as to how much the musclemen-heroes functioned as eye-candy for female moviegoers, and THOR makes the motif even more explicit by playing it for comedy, as the Queen forces Ubaratutu to pose and flex for her.  She offers to make him her king, but doesn’t tell him that she always knocks off her monarchs when she grows tired of them.

Thor finally gets well enough to show up, but, keeping to his vow not to fight women, he ends up having a fistfight with Ubaratutu when the latter won’t believe that his queen plans to kill him.  Then the queen comes up with a way to pit her whole society against Thor, by having the hero engage in a giant tug-o’-war with one hundred Amazons.  If Thor loses, he gets pulled into a flaming pit.

No one will be surprised that Thor’s biceps carry the day, but his triumph is bookended by Tamara’s swordfight against a female gladiator.  She wins and then kills the Queen, but seems to perish of her wounds.  The temptation is to believe that even though Tamara was a fierce opponent of deviant Amazonianism, she’s a bit too much of an “Amazon” on her own right for the film to allow her to live—

Except that in the end scene—which shows Thor and Ubaratutu congratulating the kid brother on ascending to the throne and restoring normalcy—Tamara is suddenly alive again. The film’s final scene is of Tamara performing an Artemis-like action as she shoots down the flags of the Amazons with flaming arrows.  At the very least, even though the film ends on a “normal” note, the survival of one warrior-female sends a message that the film’s not entirely on the side of unadulterated male chauvinism.