By Michal Bajer
Nightmares. Paranoia. Vampires. Phantoms.
Hammer Horror Collection.
The technicolor drips of blood seeping onto the crypt of Dracula was a diabolically grand way to introduce the world to a new breed of Gothic Horror at the cinema.
The masterminds who would spawn castles, nightmares and demons into the new era of color, violence and sex? The legendary Hammer Studios, Britain’s most renowned and respected horror film makers, which recreated old fiends from the crypts and unmasked new ones.
With the full throttle of VHS technology, a younger generation could experience the murky creepfests in the comfort of the family living room. Indeed, even the tagline alongside was from my VHS copy, my 7 year old face red with excitement, eagerly awaiting for the trailers and commercials to pass and for the feature to begin. But it was not Dracula, Baron Frankenstein or even the Wolfman who awaited for me in the wings of this horror house. It was the Phantom of the Opera.
Hammer had begun adapting various classic monster films from the heydays of Universal for a rapidly emerging new demographic. One that craved more wicked acts of violence, a helping of titillation and enough crimson to slate that most needed lust. No longer would the subdued horrors and black and white thrills of Lugosi and Karloff work: horror needed to expand in order to appease its loyal worshipers. Hot off the heels from the success of “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula”, Hammer was set to adapt another Universal chiller that had started the proverbial ball rolling back in the silent era. The film was “The Phantom of the Opera”, adapted from the Gothic novel by French author Gaston Leroux. Already a well established name, it was adapted for the screen twice by Universal: once in 1925 with the stupendous Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, in the titular role and again in 1943 with Claude Rains donning the mask.
The first film was a masterwork of silent cinema and Gothic atmosphere, whilst the second was an extravagant costume picture/musical with more opera than phantom. Hammer’s adaptation was stuck in development hell as early as 1959, with various rumors and speculations regarding casting (such as Cary Grant playing the lead romantic lead). Finally, it was set to be adapted in 1961 with a release date of 1962. Armed with a budget of £200,000 and seasoned director Terence Fisher behind the lens, how has Hammer’s venture into the Opera Ghost’s tale fared over time?
Set in the gloomy and rainy streets of Victorian London, everyone is a quibble about a new opera about Joan of Arc penned by Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough), a thoroughly snobbish and unpleasant man who tantalizes the ever suffering opera manager Lattimer (Thorley Walters) about various acts of small sabotage (such as missing notes, ripped up posters, scenery being destroyed) and a supposed haunting of a certain box. Meanwhile, the star of the show, Maria, suffers a nervous breakdown and pours her heart out to the producer, Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) about a shadowy man with one eye in the middle of his forehead. Opening night spirals further into decay when a hung stagehand comes ripping through the scenery during Maria’s aria, upsetting the public and sending Lord Ambrose into a seething frenzy. Maria leaves the country after the ordeal, and Harry sets out to find a replacement, eventually coming across a lovely young singer named Christine (Heather Sears) who captivates him with her charming simplicity and puts steam in Lord Ambrose’s stride. After inviting her to dinner with obvious intent, Christine is warned by a mysterious voice in her dressing room not to attend. She does so anyway, to be saved in the nick of time by Harry from the lecherous hands of D’Arcy.
Returning to the theater, they decide to investigate the strange voice in the dressing room and the Phantom (Herbert Lom) reveals himself to a rightfully startled Christine. Despite being fired from their positions by a jealous D’Arcy, the romance between Harry and Christine blossoms while continuing the investigation of the mysterious voice. When Christine is mysteriously abducted and brought before the Phantom to improve her singing, Harry tracks her down to the Phantom’s lair and learns the tragic history of one Professor Petrie, who had his work stolen by D’Arcy and suffered a horrific disfigurement from acid when attempting to burn down a printers. Scarred, furious and insane, he has lived underneath the opera in the care of a mad dwarf (Ian Wilson) who has run amok and caused the various accidents and murders up above. Petrie implores Harry to give him time to shape Christine’s voice for the role of Joan, his greatest work as a composer and both sides comply.
Lattimer reinstates them in their positions after standing up to D’Arcy and all appears well until the antics of the dwarf cause the Opera’s chandelier to come crashing down on Petrie, who sacrificed his life to save Christine from her death.
It must be noted that this is the 3rd cinematic outing of the Phantom and much has been changed from Leroux’s story, especially in regard towards the 3 main roles. The Phantom is an entirely sympathetic character, with Lord Ambrose and the dwarf serving as the real villains. This is both the greatest strength and weakness of the film. On one hand, it makes us feel pity and sympathy for a man so wronged, on the other, it strips away any mystery and menace the original Phantom had. Too little screen time is devoted to the Phantom, as he appears 3/4’s into the film, to make us fully appreciate him as a character. Harry (Raoul in the original) goes from elegant aristocrat to theater producer, a shockingly much needed face-lift for a character often derided as “foppish” and generally useless.
Harry isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or risk limb for his lady. His intentions and actions make him much more likeable instead of constantly leering over Christine as a prize to be won as other actors have done in the past. Christine is simple, but through her simplicity instills a much needed vulnerability that doesn’t feel like a “babe in the woods” routine. She is plain but honest, simple yet not tawdry. She is intelligent, a far cry from the young child of Leroux’s book. The setting from Paris to London is done in a smooth transition: from lofty surroundings we have dingy and gaslight theaters and streets, adding to the grime and gothic atmosphere. While the Opera score is nothing to write home about, it serves the film well despite some obvious attempts at symbolism and metaphor.
Above all, the film features some excellent performances. Herbert Lom, much like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, carries the film with his face entirely obscured by a mask thanks to his hypnotic and mesmerizing voice. He can carry it from a light command to a sound of fury; a soft, confused murmur to ominous warning. One often feels a lingering hunger after the film has ended, for there is strong desire to see more of his performance. Herbert Lom truly gave his all for what little time he was allotted and if there is fault in the character, it lies in the choice of direction and not the actor.
Michael Gough is absolutely delicious as Lord Ambrose, smirking with such venom and spite that you hate him the moment you see him. Edward de Souza instills a much needed backbone and serves as a down to earth romantic lead, while Heather Seers is charmingly simplistic yet elegant in her portrayal of Christine. Thorley Walters is all gruff and huff and provides some laughs from his eye-rolling and quaking as the “woe-is-me” manager. The rest of the cast is stellar, with notable cameos from Hammer regulars such as Michael Ripper as a cabbie and yes, that is Patrick Troughton as the Rat-Catcher, a short and sweet little role with a very creepy vibe straight from Leroux. The only part that seems to fall flat is that of the dwarf. Ian Wilson crawls and scuttles around and has some lovely moments (such as his scowling away in fear of the Phantom) but ultimately, his character is so poorly developed and so ham-fistedly shooed into the film, that one could cut out his parts and miss nothing substantial.
The sets and costumes all reflect their appropriate time, 1900. There are some lovely little nods such as a mini-cinescope through which Harry views a short, a wonderfully done printers and some rather excellent looking coaches. This helps the film sink in the atmosphere Hammer is known so well for, setting the mood most accurately. The Phantom’s lair is decorated with lavish paitings and animal skins, whilst being located in a cavernous sewer. The pipe organ on which Lom plays Bach’s Fugue is perhaps the most grandest looking organ ever conceived on film, and truly feels majestic and haunting at the same time.
The Phantom’s mask is an interesting bit, as his entire face is covered up, including one of the eye slits in the mask which is patched up with some kind of clay/paste/putty. While terrifying and emotionless, Lom makes it work with his voice and the echo/reverb that is produced from speaking behind it, giving it an ethereal quality. The disfigurement is no longer the death’s head of Leroux’s book, but a nasty scarring from acid. While nowhere near the legendary gruesomeness of Chaney’s make-up, it is a step up from the climax killing ’43 version, with appropriate red blotches and scabbing around the face to give is a “healed wound” appearance.
So why was the film a disappointment at the box office and is often regarded as one of the black sheep of the Hammer family? Despite wonderful performances and setting, the changes to the plot strip away even more horror and terror than the ’43 version, leaving us with a very watered down version of Phantom.
Those expecting a juicy revamp in the style of “Curse” and “Horror” would have been disappointed, as there is hardly any gore (save for 2 scenes), the plot takes a while to get started and lack of…errr…titillation would be another mark against it.
While many view these as short-comings, it does give the film a style of its own, as Terence Fisher is a competent director and can certainly frame his shots well and memorably (such as Petrie climbing up the stairs from the burning printers) and give it an aura of mystery and crime more than horror and terror.
With some questionable changes to character, it is still a lovely film and one of the more “mature” films from the Hammer Horror vaults.