I doubt that there is anywhere in the world you could go to now without someone there knowing the story of the phantom of the opera. What began as a short novel by author Gaston Leroux in 1909 was first turned into a film in 1916 though that version has been lost. Perhaps the more famous first version came via the extraordinary make up from its star Lon Chaney in 1925. The visage that he unleashed upon the film going public at the time was the one most often thought of until Andrew Lloyd Webber chose the novel for his musical back in 1986. That version came about when the original story went into public domain and could be used by anyone. What many may not realize is that at the same time a few scriptwriters were working on their own version for the same reason even though that film would not come out until 1989. That film came and went without a ton of recognition, many thinking it was trying to play off of the musical. In point of fact it was stepping back to the original source material and does so quite well.
The film opens in present day (1989 that is) and young Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) is off to perform an audition for a musical on Broadway. During that audition she is bumped on the head and wakes to find herself transported to 1881 London where she is the understudy to the lead diva at the recently renovated London Opera House. When the diva takes ill, Christine performs the piece she was to do and is about to take over the part. Alas the diva prevents this from happening much to the displeasure of the phantom of the opera house, a mythical ghost type figure all fear but few have ever seen.
Even though few have seen this phantom he does indeed exist. The story is that Erik Destler (Robert Englund) sold his soul to the devil in order for his music to be made famous. While his music does indeed get recognized the devil disfigured him in return so that only his music would be loved. In an effort to appear normal, Destler sews on pieces of skin to his mangled flesh one piece at a time. Now Destler haunts the halls and secret passages of the opera house waiting for the day someone he believes in can perform his music. That day is now and Christine is that person.
When people begin to push Christine out of the picture bad things begin to happen to various members of the cast and crew. A stagehand is hung, the diva is silenced and all fear that in the end the phantom will have his way. As Christine falls under the charms of her benefactor she falls for someone else, a young man who will do all he can to protect her. But if the phantom has his way Christine and his music will always remain with him.
Eventually Christine wakes to find herself in the present once again and in line for the part. One would think that the story ends there but it doesn’t and those who stop the movie there miss some of the best surprises left for them by the writer and director.
So why didn’t this movie make a mint? After all, the film versions seen before always seemed to do so well at the box office. As I said the fact that the musical had already come out and was such a huge hit made it seem like this film was riding their coattails. With the popularity of the musical it was hard not to think of it or its music when this film came out. And that’s sad.
It’s sad because this is actually a very good version of the story. Not only that but the quality of the production would make you think there was some major money involved in this film. This was due in part because the producer of the film had several sets still standing from a previous film that had a higher budget that were put to use here. But it’s not just the sets that make this film stand out.
The performances seen in this film are outstanding. Englund had already been typecast as a bad guy by the time this movie had come out, forever known as Freddy Krueger of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fame. But he’s a much better actor than people give him credit for. This movie shows that off from start to finish. Schoelen also turns in a notable performance here as the ingénue whose mentor is not what he seems. The only bad thing to say about Schoelen is that she made too few films. After watching this one you may agree.
Shout Factory has done a great job with this release, another notch in their cap. The quality of the transfer to blu-ray retains the solid job of cinematography that was on display when the film was originally released back in 1989. The extras offer a glimpse behind the scenes as to what went on then and contains several interesting interviews with the cast and crew shot more recently. It’s always nice to be able to revisit a movie like this with the original people today.
If you love the story of the phantom and have enjoyed the musical I’d say you just might enjoy this film as well. Certainly there is a bit more gore to be had here but the story lends itself to that. It’s nothing that would compare to what we now see on TV shows like THE WALKING DEAD but for the faint of heart the sewing scenes might be a bit much. Horror fans will love it though and be glad that this version is out there waiting for them to add to their collection. Another must have for those folks.
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