Tuesday, December 30, 2014


(R, Touchstone Pictures, 117 mins., theatrical release date: August 5, 1987)

I must have been nice this year, because St. Netflix has deemed fit to send me another John Badham-directed cop comedy from my DVD queue so shortly after the last. God bless us, everyone!

So in 1986, the Englishman who once directed WarGames and Blue Thunder decided to shake things up by delving into lighthearted family fare with Short Circuit. Badham was known as a dramatist ever since Saturday Night Fever was a disco-era smash, but the success of that cuddly robot caper seemed to give him the freedom to work a clearer comedic angle into his films. The result was Stakeout, a late-summer farce which was less Lethal Weapon and more "Pop Gun Blues."

Put it this way: one film had Mel Gibson pressing a single-shot Beretta to his head (and over the holidays, natch), desperate to end his mad dog existentialism; and the other has Emilio Estevez throwing a stray cat in the car of his blustery rivals (Forest Whitaker & Dan Lauria, marginally magnificent), thus chasing off a pet bulldog, as a prank.

There is still plenty of lonesome angst to contend with in Stakeout, although here it belongs to Richard Dreyfuss as feisty Seattle detective Chris Lecce, who is frazzled but far from Martin Riggs' suicidal mania. Badham previously worked with Dreyfuss during the actor's cocaine-addled downward slope on the euthanasia tract Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981). Stakeout helped to renew Dreyfuss' post-sobriety popularity by becoming the eighth biggest blockbuster of 1987, even edging out Lethal Weapon by a couple grand.

Scripted by Jim Kouf, who also wrote same year's disreputably grand The Hidden under his nom de pulp "Bob Hunt," Stakeout blesses Dreyfuss with a whale of a role, or at least one which serves his fast-talking, quick-thinking reflexes very well. It also requires him to get dirty with fish residue and sawdust in contrasting chase sequences, as well as play off Emilio Estevez as stern sidekick Bill Reimers, who resembles one of the comically mustachioed Beastie Boys from their mid-1990s "Sabotage" video.

The human condition to Det. Chris Lecce is that he's frequently restless, highly combative and newly single after his beloved Bonnie leaves him with little but the bed he loses sleep on, having taken the shades with her. He's such the model of mid-life misery that when he's ordered to pull the night shift in surveying the ex-girlfriend of a fugitive, he has no choice but to get closer to his subject than he or his partner hoped for.

The woman is Maria McGuire (Madeleine Stowe), a lithe Irish-Mexican bombshell whom the policeman peepers duly admire from across the street in their grimy headquarters. Chris bugs her phones by masquerading as a repairman, but fatefully approaches her at the supermarket away from Bill's own watchful eye. It isn't long before the two become romantically entangled, a dalliance which not only throws a wrench into his assignment but may as well put him over his head with Maria's cop-killing squeeze, Richard "Stick" Montgomery (Aidan Quinn), who is coming to collect a hefty sum of cash stashed away at her digs.

When I wrote about Badham's The Hard Way, which preceded the proper sequel to Stakeout by two years, I was quite impressed by James Woods and Michael J. Fox creating such a rambunctious rapport given their tightly-focused characterizations. Revisiting Stakeout, though, I have to admit that though I found Fox more humorously adept than Estevez, Richard Dreyfuss is better than even Jimmy Woods. It's enough to make me mildly embarrassed.

"I don't think I realized until just now the size of the hole I dug for myself," Chris reluctantly confesses at one point in embrace with Maria, and Dreyfuss is in top form getting us to squirm as much as he does at his own randy deception. Coincidence dictates that Maria will encounter Chris at his "office" when he pulls strings to get her free good-hearted brother on work release. Dreyfuss gives it his all, darting his blue eyes from behind his cap, stammering himself silly upon their encounter and finally retreating with tractor beam humiliation.

Not that being at a distance keeps Chris from finding fresh ways to make a fool of himself. After doing Maria said favor at the precinct, he phones her up in solitude as he spies on her in the kitchen, struggling to remember his flimsy alibi and damn near blowing his cover when he sees her skillet catch fire. All the while, Chris tries to assert himself as a loverman beyond his perceived Mr. Nice Guy timidity. He sees it as a stigma, "like medium," and gets a whole new identity to fabricate in his final confrontation with Stick.

Richard Dreyfuss is a joy to watch at his most nervous and such an intuitive actor that he overcomes the dubiousness of playing a mensch with a badge. By contrast, Emilio Estevez can't help but seem hopelessly green having to essay Dreyfuss' opposite number. I can't be unfair to the former Repo Man, ultimately, as he navigates sublimely between the puckish and the parental, establishing a more well-adjusted presence than his earlier roles suggested (no stalking in the rain a la St. Elmo's Fire).

The casual nature of their performances also accounts for why they work well together in the movie. The scene where the duo pass the time with trivia games, with Chris having to guess movie quotes and Bill the history of American ex-presidents (with a Playboy centerfold used as a hint for one of them), is a good barometer of their chemistry. It's also a shrewd joke at the 40-year-old Dreyfuss' expense. Nowadays, male-oriented comedies have pushed the "bromance" angle as far as they can go, so there's something retro-actively innocuous about the bickering between Dreyfuss and Estevez, which is more Homer and Marge Simpson than anything in buddy cop history. But they never compromise their integrity, and this combined with their priceless jesting ("So, did we practice safe sex?") gives me a better understanding of this film's amiable popularity than, say, Wild Hogs.

Still, the threat remains of Stick's encroaching reunion with Maria, as the felon and his cousin drive towards Seattle in bullet-riddled conflict with the law. The Hard Way lacked for an interesting villain in the admittedly goofy Party Crasher, whereas the dryly charismatic Aidan Quinn shows a more volatile, unique menace. Relishing his freedom with childish disbelief and a wicked grin, Stick is also sufficiently brutal in his big getaway and intriguingly petty in the realms of both crime and love. His psychotic jealousy lingers in Bill's mind, even though he cannot help falling in love with Maria and risking the suspicion of his superiors.

John Badham incorporates thriller and action elements rather programmatically, and, like The Hard Way after it, there is a slight feeling of tonal dissonance when things kick into gear. But he at least understands that they are obstacles in service of a smarter perception of lovesick foibles. Madeleine Stowe rises above what could have been purely an objectifying archetype to give Maria homely pluck and perception, her intimate moments with Dreyfuss utterly engaging. Jim Kouf's screenplay is actually quite generous in giving its principal characters equal integrity and workaday empathy, using shorthand and shared understanding in just the right ways to make mundane "shit detail" surveillance jobs as well as impromptu dinners register with warmth.

Stakeout is one of the more humble films to have ever eclipsed the $100 million mark at the box office, even with its studio pedigree and star actors. When Another Stakeout reunited all of its key players in 1993, it felt not only arbitrary but past its time. The Hard Way underachieved theatrically, Lethal Weapon already spun out two increasingly profitable sequels and Estevez got involved in the National Lampoon spoof Loaded Weapon 1. The buddy cop formula got lost in the adrenaline-fueled mid-1990s until Rush Hour arrived, with the only real quirk coming from the science fiction-oriented Men in Black. Not to say Stakeout is trend-setting, since 48 Hours from 1982 remains the catalyst for all that would come, including this, Lethal Weapon, The Hidden, Midnight Run, Downtown, etc. etc.

It does hold up despite its reputation as disposable cable fodder, though, especially with the mature love affair at its spine and the revitalizing performance by Richard Dreyfuss. Not too many of those aforementioned films were eager to defuse their machismo with the mundane devotion to romance and procedure Stakeout provides, so it does stand out in a positive way. That it thinks forwardly enough to allow the heroes to live by their own established groove makes it feel like it's a cozy fictional sequel in its own right. Badham may have shown an increased propensity for comedy, but more than that, he finally made a movie that is straightforwardly charming, no assembly required.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ernest Saves Christmas

(PG, Touchstone Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: November 11, 1988)

Ernest Saves Christmas is a film title of holly jolly irony. Even with all of the goodwill in the world, as befitting a simpleton who is "at one with the Yuletide, kno-wut-I-mean," it seems that throughout this second vehicle for the late Jim Varney's hayseed man-child, Christmas needs to be saved from Ernest. In rescuing a pine tree from the back of a truck, he causes a multiple-car collision. Taking the reins of Santa's reindeer-guided cart, Ernest is given the Jack Skellington treatment by Air Traffic Control. And his perennially overwhelmed neighbor Vern, seen as always through the camera eye, has his living room demolished by Ernest's mercenary party-planning. You feel like hiring Pee-Wee Herman for damage control.

In 1987, Ernest Goes to Camp was the first major spin-off for Varney's persona of Ernest P. Worrell, the rambling yokel who spent the better part of a decade filming one-take commercials out of Nashville for companies both regional and national, although primarily the former. Under the Disney Studio subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, the Ernest brand stretched out to four theatrical releases, the fifth being 1993's independently-released flop Ernest Rides Again. From thereon out, it was DTV all the way, with Disney's only affiliation being Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), co-starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the short-lived craze for casting NBA heavyweights in family movies (Kazaam, Space Jam).

Varney found greater success in Disney's own Toy Story films as the voice of Slinky Dog, and was duly cast as Jed Clampett in Penelope Spheeris' early 1990s feature revival of The Beverly Hillbillies. Alas, Varney passed away from lung cancer in 2000 and never made it back on the marquee biz. But according to both Varney and directing partner John Cherry, Ernest Saves Christmas has held up as their favorite of the series, no doubt because of it being the most, well, earnest.

A lot of the film's benevolent gravity, however, is in the casting of stately Douglas Seale as the Santa Claus of this story. The twist herein, which surely lent itself to a future hot Dis-cember property, is that Santa's mythology and magic must be properly transferred to a willing mortal man. Like many an aging detective in a gritty cop thriller, even Santa gets too old for this stuff, although no policeman ever had to work the beat for almost an entire century.

Seale's Santa arrives in Orlando, where a businessman engages him in idle chatter, or mingle with the Kringle. Of course, the clues soar over him like a sleigh, whereas even the most jet-lagged tot is keen to the presence of their holiday hero. Santy Claus is away on business, though, and that is to christen children's entertainer Joe Caruthers (Oliver Clark) as his descendant. To get to him, Santa will have to hail a taxi and thus enters Ernest P. Worrell himself into the plot, having dropped off a catatonic passenger at the luggage conveyor belt.

En route to their destination, Ernest picks up the 1980s equivalent of a Dickensian street urchin, a teenage runaway nicknamed Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker) who takes in stride both the bad John Wayne impersonator behind the wheel and the genuine St. Nick riding shotgun. It doesn't end well for either men when Ernest is fired for giving Santa a free ride and Santa is diverted from his conversation with Joe by hotshot agent Marty Brock (Robert Lesser), who is grooming the unemployed Uncle Joey for the lead role in a movie and has his competitor, "Mr. Santos," arrested for vagrancy.

Ernest accidentally forgets to unload Santa's magic bag of toys, thus becoming enough of a believer to take Harmony along on a mission to rescue the imprisoned St. Nick before Christmas Eve, 7 p.m. But the complications snowball when Harmony keeps the sack for herself, Joe remains skeptical about his great promotion and a pair of helper elves arrive to gather up the reindeer only to end up chauffeured by the hapless Ernest, who commandeers the sleigh literally around the world and back.

Jim Varney, by all accounts, got taken at face value a lot by fans of the doltish Ernest character, when he was actually a very learned, gentle man away from his alter ego. There are intimations that Ernest himself is working on an intellectual level more cunning than his slapstick stupidity implies, especially when he disguises himself as a double-talking governor's aide or a mangy snake wrangler. Add this to his guileless warmth and self-confident malapropism, and it's clear that Ernest P. Worrell is deserving of his cult status and position in a Christmas fable.

It's just that Ernest Saves Christmas pitches itself so firmly in the middle ground, punching its weight with corny bathos and overeager farce. Ernest is such a live-action cartoon, with his elastic mandible and wide-eyed "Aw, shucks!" demeanor, that he thrusts himself into an alternate dimension that no one can keep up with, not even reliable supporting players Gailard Sartain & Bill Byrge doing their own bickering, rattled comic shtick as the weary warehouse watchers. Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey each understood when to let their guard down even in the wildest abandon, whereas there isn't a barn door broad enough comparable to Varney's mugging.

The rampant sentimentality is just as wearying, with Harmony set up as such a sarcastic, selfish anti-foil that her dramatic turnaround could immediately prompt the kind of exaggerated eye-rolling Sartain is called upon for. Ditto Joe Carruthers' arc, where the good-mannered and genteel TV personality is shooed into a schlock horror film incorrectly referred to as "Christmas Sleigh." Although its childish wonder and innocence is a very noble ingredient to preserving the benevolence of the Christmas season, you can imagine less dancing sugarplums and more Ernest decking the hells with a sledgehammer way too easily.

Thank goodness Douglas Seale makes the best of his role, clearly demonstrating the right attitude akin to original Miracle on 34th Street actor Edmund Gwenn in his appealing characterization of Santa Claus. A lot of the comic moments involving Seale hint at a cleverness the rampant product tie-ins undermine, with particular bits involving a customs check-in and his carousing his cellmates into caroling seeming rictus-proof.

And yet what to make of a fleeting glance at a "Keep Christ in Christmas" dashboard sticker in Ernest's cab which is of less significance than the triangular advert for Bic's Metal Point Roller pens atop it? It kind of defeats the purity of your modest Christmas comedy to remind viewers of Ernest's commerce-minded origins, as if to give viewers the impression that Santa's jelly belly is actually beer gut resulting from too many bottles of Bud Light (although the Coke ad credits suggest otherwise).

Ernest Saves Christmas isn't the lumpen coal many have made it out to be since its release, but it rarely shines in the way you'd hope. There is as much goodwill as there is ineptness, as this is the kind of movie where Jim Varney desperately loops random one-liners over non-existent lip movements for that extra pinch of annoyance. And even though comedy is notoriously subjective no matter what the demographic, whether they involve sex, splatter or satire, Ernest P. Worrell still comes across as polarizing despite the valiant Varney. If both the actor and alter ego aren't as dumb as they look, though, then maybe Ernest Saves Christmas is pleasantly aware of its single best joke. It's a shame the rest of this caper wasn't let in on it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Hard Way

(R, Universal Pictures, 111 mins., Mar. 8, 1991)

Last year from around the time of this review, NBC took Michael J. Fox and his titular sitcom nationwide, only to renege on their investment the very next month. And that was heavy. Although the show's lukewarm critical reception and disappointing ratings seemed to reflect its early death, there was something refreshing about seeing Fox's return to showbiz, especially comedy. And it wasn't just his Family Ties/Back to the Future heyday which prompted such sentimentalism, but going as far back to 1991 and the buddy cop goof The Hard Way.

This modest Hollywood attempt at culture crash meta-humor from Stakeout director John Badham got a lot of mileage from Fox's insider position as a superstar. In The Hard Way, Fox plays a pampered blockbuster actor named Nick Lang, his net worth $1.2 billion dollars on the back of cartoonish capers like "Smoking Gunn," whose sequel is on the verge of premiering and is being heavily advertised across the country. "I'm the only one who wants me to grow up!" Lang bemoans in the midst of a temper tantrum that just saw him chuck his People's Choice Award at the TV screen which aired the trailer for "Smoking Gunn II."

Of course, the truth was that Fox himself had experienced such a desire to stretch out his range in the wake of lightweight star vehicles like the Back to the Future trilogy and The Secret of My Success. Fox registered a lower-key turn in Paul Schrader's Light of Day and followed them up in the next couple of years with Bright Lights, Big City and Brian De Palma's Casualties of War. The public image of him as Alex P. Keaton/Marty McFly continued to dog him despite his solid character work, especially in that De Palma film where he had to share scenes with Method-y steamroller Sean Penn. Penn is compelling, to be sure, but you couldn't imagine him anchoring something as whimsical as Doc Hollywood or sending up his own ego as Fox does in The Hard Way.

He may not have any Elvis in him, as Mojo Nixon doth protest, but Michael J. Fox has his own star quality and a healthy sense of self-effacement. And to me, that matters a whole lot in terms of establishing a solid presence.

Getting back to the set-up, Lang has his eyes set on a coveted role as gritty policeman Nick Casanov in an unnamed project (only glimpsed subtly before the end credits), though his agent Angie (Penny Marshall, sardonically sweet) doesn't see him as viable a candidate as, say, Mel Gibson. Lang's solution: to ingratiate himself into the life of a real hard-boiled cop and attain the necessary knowledge and motivation to give him the advantage. Just who is his mentor?

That would be Detective John Moss, NYPD, a live wire of a loner played by James Woods, as committed as ever but not above flashing his own witty credentials like a badge of honor. The film opens on Moss as he is rushing to meet a hot date whilst navigating the congestion of Times Square traffic, going so far as to break out his siren to clear a path. Alas, if it's not one thing, it's another, as Moss receives a bulletin related to the case of the Party Crasher (Stephen Lang), a quasi-vigilante thrill killer who assassinates various types in plain sight. His latest mark is a drug dealer at a disco, and he makes sure to phone 911 in advance because, as Moss states, "he craves attention."

Moss and his partners fail to prevent the murder, and the Crasher makes a break among the panicking crowd. When his vehicle is chained to a tow truck, he commandeers it for his getaway, though not without Moss hanging madly on the driver's side door. The Crasher makes quick work shaking off the squad cars and finally Moss, slamming him into an oversized cigarette.

And Nick Lang's face is puffing on it.

So you can imagine Moss's dismay at having to give up chasing the Crasher to break in Lang as his partner. "Not if you tied my tongue to your tailpipe and drove me 80 mph naked through a field of broken glass." Lang, in his best Serpico costume, awaits and admires the verisimilitude of the station: "It's like a movie, it's so real!" This eager beaver shadows his reluctant coach as he resumes the investigation against the orders of Captain Brix (Delroy Lindo), interrogating a street crew called the Dead Romeos (among them teenaged Dante Smith, aka Black Star rapper Mos Def) in hopes they'll rat on the gun manufacturer who sold the Crasher his hi-tech piece. Lang attracts the attention of a rival Hispanic gang and barges in on Moss, thus instigating a shoot-out.

Along the way, Lang desperately tries to convince Moss to let his guard down so he can glean some pertinent wisdom from this "Yoda among cops." The instinctive, embittered Moss rebuts this "Dickless Tracy" prima donna with some hard-hearted gravity of the situation. This is not an acting exercise, after all, and lives are constantly in the balance. But Lang sticks around, whether at the frog dog stand, at Moss's apartment or even the pizzeria where Moss meets prospective girlfriend Susan (Annabella Sciorra, the predecessor of Marisa Tomei) and her daughter Bonnie (10-year-old Christina Ricci).

Woods and Fox prove equally zesty in their conflicting commitments, reaching their joint apex in a riotous moment where Moss has gone to a bar to get the disastrous date, which saw him roughing up a quartet of obnoxious bankers (among them irascible comedian Lewis Black), out of his mind. The student tries to teach the confused, crusty romantic on how to best express himself to a lady. Lang gets into the role of Susan, with his legs crossed and shirt unbuttoned, and thus tries to engage Moss into conversation. It's a play-acting gig which mirrors the male duo's own contentious pairing, but is handled with superhuman precision from both leads, and the scene emphasizes character details (particularly Moss's unfounded jealousy and divorcee frostiness) over cheap laughs.

The script from Lem Dobbs (who co-wrote the story with Michael Kozoll) and Daniel Pyne is rich enough with bickering zingers and Hollywood satire. The opening mock-trailer for "Smoking Gunn II," a cross-pollination of Indiana Jones and James Bond adventures, is sharper than anything from Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. And two key action sequences are well woven into the fabric of this fish-out-of-Evian commentary, first a shoot-out in a crowded theatre showing "Smoking Gunn II" and a "top of the world" final showdown utilizing a mechanical billboard for Lang's film, heralded by his warning about the "third act" in a vindictive plot. A lot of quirky satire is mined from the act of smoking cigarettes throughout and it culminates in spectacular fashion in the end.

The chemistry between Jimmy and Mikey is just as unexpectedly deft as the Dreyfuss/Estevez coupling from Stakeout, perhaps even more so given the vast gulf between their warring knowledge of reality. But John Badham also wants to preserve the film's more violent edginess, so the Party Crasher is presented as a grinning fanatic who justifies the murder of innocent civilians in his sanctimonious super-villainy. A crucial divide between Moss and Lang stems from the instillation of post-traumatic stress, testing their limits through the danger of wrongly spilled blood. And Lang's manic desire to establish his movie star commitment is lent gravity by a couple of sobering circumstances.

Badham tempers such distressing elements with the kind of pop culture savvy which dominated his Short Circuit, leading to the ultimate realization that for all his commitment, Lang's claim to adulthood is just him doing a Bruce Willis parody. There is a heavy Hitchcock hand to that aforementioned rooftop squabble, which calls attention to life imitating art even more bluntly. And in poking fun at Lang's narcissistic insularity, there is a gag involving subway riders which sticks one to the post-Bernie Goetz, post-Death Wish craze for ordinary outlaw heroes.

The essence of The Hard Way is just the pure entertainment value afforded to and delivered in spades by "hambone" savants Michael J. Fox and James Woods. This is their Midnight Run, albeit a less intriguing variation in terms of criminal antics, and they juice the screenplay for all its quippy, incompatible liquid gold. Coming at the end of a genre that was about to be the domain of lone wolves instead of the bumbling duos, Badham sees this trend off with more energy and efficiency than he would demonstrate in his straight sequel Another Stakeout. The Hard Way is easy going, to be true, but at least it's persistently, procedurally hilarious.

The cast also includes Conrad Roberts (The Serpent and the Rainbow) as the wheezy-voiced gun runner Witherspoon and, among many in Moss's precinct, John Capodice, Luis Guzman and LL Cool J, whose "Mama Said Knock You Out" inconspicuously opens and closes the film. Me personally, I prefer James Woods dusting off the old Max Renn wardrobe for his big Dirty Harry moment in the subway. "See you in Pittsburgh, punk."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

(R, 21st Century Film Corpopration, 93 mins., theatrical release date: November 4, 1989)

The mounting success of the Nightmare on Elm Street series back in the 1980s turned Robert Englund into the definitive superstar of the slasher era. Not too many onscreen bogeymen of this time lent themselves to making household names of their performers, as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface were played by a wide variety of stuntmen and one-flick wonders. Englund, though, was lucky in that the Freddy Krueger character had such a distinctive personality to match his classical talents, and he secured his legacy based on the original Elm Street franchise, seeing it through many promotional tie-ins, spin-offs and even convention appearances.

By the end of the decade, it seemed like no surprise to learn that in the tradition of fellow horror heroes like Lon Chaney, Claude Rains and Herbert Lom, Englund would essay the iconic Phantom of the Opera, the most durable anti-hero of 20th century literature, theater and film. As far as cinematic embryos are concerned, Englund as the Phantom is a virile conception. New Line Cinema could do no wrong by installing a new bedroom into The House That Freddy Built.

It's a shame to know that the paternity test revealed not Bob Shaye as the daddy, but instead one Menahem Golan. You know what that means: Robert Englund would have to be fired out of a Cannon to get this role.

The Englund-centric update of Phantom of the Opera was originally slated for production by the notorious Cannon Films, but their trio of over-budgeted, under-performing Tobe Hooper genre films led to the company's bankruptcy. The dissolution of the Golan/Globus partnership meant that the project would wind up in the hands of one or the other, and with English exploitation maven Harry Alan Towers on his side, Golan kept that particular project after becoming the new CEO of 21st Century Film Corporation.

The pedigree was initially British, seeing as how it was originally written by Gerald O'Hara and offered to director John Hough, who once upon a time made films like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and The Legend of Hell House. Hough also worked steadily for Disney in the 1970s, making the two Witch Mountain films as well as The Watcher in the Woods. However, the 1980s saw him stinking up his resume with the likes of The Incubus, American Gothic and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare. Golan wisely replaced Hough with Dwight H. Little, who had made a splash with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and would go on to make competent popcorn pictures with Steven Seagal (Marked for Death) and Brandon Lee (Rapid Fire). Also, O'Hara got demoted to a "based on" credit after Duke Sandefur, who previously scripted the 1988 Charles Band obscurity Ghost Town and would later claim a co-writing credit on Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike, was brought in for cost-cutting rewrites, especially since Golan couldn't afford to shoot a chandelier crash with his diminished cash flow.

Although many have been quick to point out the ways in which O'Hara and/or Sandefur's script demonstrates fidelity to Gaston Leroux's inaugural novel (paying more than due respect to Leroux's fondness for Faust), the fact is that this is clearly more in line with Golan's unwavering opportunism. The pizza-faced poster art and Englund's cackling, hack 'n' slash interpretation of disgraced, lovelorn Erik [Destler] are obvious concessions to the Freddy phenomenon. There is no room for tragedy this time around, just brazen condescension.

The old adventures of New Christine also reflect a severe mistrust of the source material, as Erik spends more time predictably stalking than credibly seducing the girl soprano, embodied here by teen dream/scream queen Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather). Her Christine Day is actually a modern ingénue looking for her big break in Broadway, the "welcome to prime time, bitch" arriving via a runaway sandbag which knocks her into an unconscious time warp during her audition. Waking up in ancient London instead of Gay Paree (and recreated in Budapest), Christine is revealed as a cast member in Charles Gounod's opera of Faust, particularly as the replacement for spiteful diva La Carlotta (the late Stephanie Lawrence, undoubtedly cast for her association with Andrew Lloyd Webber).

Under the guise of a fatherly angel, Erik grooms Christine into a powerhouse performer and then bloodily orchestrates her ascension to center stage, eliminating their various foes along the way. The body count is so transparently beefed-up as to include a trio of tavern thugs who accost Erik down a foggy alleyway, and their demise is plucked straight from an Elm Street sequel script, glib retorts and all. Eventually, Christine's gentleman suitor Richard (Alex Hyde-White) and grizzled Inspector Hawking (Terence Harvey) work together to rescue Christine from the risible affection of the wicked Erik, who will have her for eternity dead or alive.

The Phantom's back story this time around involves an unfinished opera called "Don Juan Triumphant," which is discovered in present-day bookends by Christine and meant to create the sense of serendipity that binds them together in the past. Erik capriciously makes a deal with a pint-sized Devil which will allow his music to live forever at the expense of his love life, or at least Englund's hyena-style handsomeness. The rules in regards to how the Phantom is to be unleashed collapse through the stage floor when some shots reveal him as a blue-tinted shadow figure staring out superimposed over Christine in her dressing room, and others deliberately reveal Erik's face, or at least whatever visage he can assemble from the trophies of his victims.

Essentially, Erik Destler is Ed Gein in this scenario, and director Dwight Little offers no shortage of moments where Erik is sowing the skin of others onto his own disfigured flesh. This is meant to be the kind of splatter-punk inversion of the traditional Phantom disguise, but all it does is kill the mystery enough to render much of the action utterly ridiculous. This is especially true when Hawking conducts his search and seizes upon a motive, calling Erik "an artist who specializes in flesh." You'd figure he could catch Erik without the need of a rat-catching stool pigeon, but the script is so formulaic as to be utterly boring, especially when Hawking's search party heads into the sewer and get subsequently picked on and bumped off by the puckish Erik.

Englund's Phantom has no real chance to show genuine romance in regards to his pursuit of Christine, only coming across as another campy pervert (he even shackles up with a harlot to vent his sexual frustrations, calling her "Christine" instead of Maddie) and basement-occupied deviant. The chemistry between him and Jill Schoelen is non-existent, and I thought less of sparks flying than of embers dying, especially when I remember Schoelen would play out this same plot in the subsequent Popcorn, with a faceless serial killer swooping upon a cineplex. Here, Schoelen comes across more like a wooden child bride than a confused young woman, and she is sold distressingly short despite her beaming, bright-smiling charms. Bill Nighy and Molly Shannon, both of whom would make pretty big names for themselves later on, have minor roles as the show's immoral producer and Christine's best friend in the Manhattan wraparounds. Aside from them and Stephanie Lawrence, the rest of the cast are instantly forgettable.

The allure of sensual immortality and the deployment of skinned corpses immediately remind me of Clive Barker, who understands the delicate alchemy used to make proper viscerally-charged dramas of gore and gumption. Sadly, nobody behind the scenes of this are on that level of skill, and The Phantom of the Opera '89 reveals itself to be quite a stain. As an adaptation, it is misguided; as a slasher film, it's tedious; as a vehicle for Englund and Schoelen, it's half-baked. The movie does have a particularly nice level of Gothic detail in the cinematography and production design, but the staging and situations are not at all worthy of this craftsmanship.

Skip to either Dario Argento's 1987 Terror at the Opera, if you want this done right, or the Italian provocateur's own Phantom of the Opera retread from 1998 starring Julian Sands, if you need something amusingly bad. This mercenary murder-fest is the sad ghost of a brilliant idea, and better to call the curtains on it.