Friday, February 14, 2014

The Music of the Night: The Phantom of The Opera (1989)

Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera (1989)
rating: ****
starring:  Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White

"Pray for them, who giveth their soul unto Satan"

Rarely heard. Rarely discussed. A shame it had to be that way, it's really good!

Molding together period settings with drama and slasher film horror, The Phantom of The Opera stars Jill Schoelen as Christine, a young aspiring opera starlet in a modern day New York, who somehow finds herself knocked unconscious by a freak accdient while trying to sing the unfinished piece Don Juan Triumphant, composed by one Eric Destler AKA The Phantom of the Opera. (played by Robert Englund)

Upon Christine's awakening,  the story suddenly shifts to 1880s London; here, she works as a singer in a prestige opera house, wherein during the night of a big performance, she was given the opportunity to play the lead role as a replacement since the prima donna for that night, Carlotta, was stricken frightened after finding a skinned and murdered man in her closet.
A nasty surprise!
The culprit? The one and only Phantom, a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange to have his music immortalized in history. The catch, however, is that he'll be disfigured with a rotting disease that had been eating his face away, thus maddening him into murder, skinning some of his victims to steal their skin. He, however, shows a soft side for Christine, who he began teaching how to sing behind the walls.

Doomed High Class
Though Christine's performance that night was well-received and given a standing ovation by the audience, the house's owner and a visiting reviewer decided to downplay her talent in favor of Carlotta, who was one of the opera house's source of publicity. This lead the Phantom to a bloody trail of vengeance and mayhem, and eventually, meeting up with Christine for the first time,  asking her to join him in a bonded (and unbreakable) union with hopes of immortalizing, not his, but their music. Whether Christine agrees or not may not be the case here, as the Phantom is purely determined to have her by his side, and murders anyone who dares to get between them.

Despite some strong gore, The Phantom of The Opera is far from just being another slasher; the direction of the movie is solid and strong, giving each main and supporting characters their own amount of screen time, though most of it revolves around Schoelen and Englund, to properly develop themselves and help the flow of the story, leaving us with a wonderfully performing cast and some depth to their role.

The Devil's Curse
What I find interesting here is that, also unlike most slashers, the killer here has a bit more background and character; though murdering for someone you love isn't entirely new to the slasher sub-genre, what differentiate this film from others is that the Phantom just doesn't kill anybody that comes across him, preferring to simply walk away from trouble unless provoked. He is more open to the streets, looking for wenches and bars to drown his sorrows in; probably the one, if not the only version of the Phantom that had walked around in public, surgically grafting flayed skin over the ones he is missing so he wouldn't stand out much. If one would take note, most of the murders he committed here were done as an act of exaggerated vengeance to those who questioned his and/or Christine's talent, dispatching them brutally and gleefully in bright red blood. He's crazy, but his strong romantic approach also made him calculating, passionately expressive and very tragic.

Schoelen's role as the sweet and talented Christine Day comes off as a cross between a distressed lover and that of a classic slasher survivor; the character may not had reached the same level of emotional depth as Englund's role, but she is likable and well-acted enough to overlook any shortcomings from scripting. In the end, Schoelen still had the lead role by the neck and gave us a performance quite good even for an exploited version of what could have been a romantic period thriller.

The Phantom shows his savagery
Speak of the devil, another aspect I'm quite fond of from this film is that it's a period horror flick, meaning there's the challenge of authenticity in terms of props and background, something the production team handled pretty good. Thanks to this, the movie itself have some very high class feel to it, though the added elements of supernatural horror and very gory murders still grounded this film back as straight horror, despite the lack of teen victims and gratuitous nudity. (one nude woman sleeping and that's it)

Fans of the original novel would see this version retained some of its grittier elements, compared to most of its stage musical portrayals where the titular character is given more plight to the point he's too sympathetic. Not that I have a problem with that, as I, myself, is a fan of the musical, but those portrayals had stripped away the very reason why the Phantom was feared to begin with. Nevertheless, I wouldn't say boosting up the kill and blood count here was the answer, but it's a novel idea, and one that I came to enjoy fully on its own.

The many faces of Englund Phantom
The Phantom of The Opera is one of the better underrated slashers that needs to be seen and experienced. A Box Office flop may it be, but it's a step up for the sub-genre, and too Englund's horror performance, delivering everything a true gore hound will ask and, in the meantime, something rarely done in bodycount films. Recommended!

1 male eviscerated with a push knife, flayed
1 male stabbed on the gut with a bayonet
1 male beheaded with a bayonet
1 male stabbed on the gut with a bayonet
1 male had his face crushed with a towel and smashed to a wall
1 female head found in a bowl of soup
1 male impaled on a spike
1 male found with throat cut
1 male had his heart torn out
1 male stabbed and set on fire with a sharpened candle holder
1 male stabbed with a dagger (?)
Total: 11 (?)