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.

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