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The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Following the revival of Universal Studios’ Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer Studios, turned to Gaston Leroux’s Phantom Of the Opera, originally published in serial form between 1909 and 1910. For movie goers the story had become eternally famous following Lon Chaney’s iconic unveiling at the hand of Mary Philbin in the now classic silent film of 1925. In doing so it allowed Hammer and director Terence Fisher to bring back to movie screens another of Universal Studios beloved monsters from the golden era of Hollywood.

What do I know of the original story by Leroux? Absolutely nothing. Unless of course there’s been a thoroughly faithful adaptation of the story brought to the screen. Following the Chaney version the story lay dormant until Universal cast Claude Rains in the role for a technicolor redo in 1943. Unlike the studios other cash cows, the Phantom never spawned a long running series or made appearances in the monster fests that were to follow. Strangely enough he never ran into Abbott and Costello once they began to parody the studios stable of creatures.

Always looking for a reason to rewatch a “Hammer Horror” I’ve signed on to feature the Phantom in a blogathon celebration put forth by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society that is meant to coincide with the 110th anniversary of the story’s original publishing date. I’m not about to make comparisons to the earlier films but rather will shine the spotlight on Hammer’s take and the efforts of Herbert Lom and company to provide the chills for the audiences of the 1960’s forward.

Before we get into the plot I have to say I love the opening credits as Fisher’s camera gets closer and closer to the Phantom’s one visible eye.

Just as the curtain is to go up on opening night at the London Opera House for the latest opera, Joan of Arc, the production seems cursed. A strange figure haunts the leading ladies dressing room, the poster is slashed and the conductor’s music sheets have been torn and are missing pages. Sabotage seems to be ruining opening night of the arrogant Michael Gough’s latest composition. It will all end spectacularly when the leading lady screams a crescendo as a corpse comes swinging down from the rafters, hanging by the neck in one of the theater’s stage ropes. Cue the curtain and the show is put on instant hiatus. With the leading lady refusing to appear a new singing voice must be discovered which will be the motivating factor in this latest rendition of the Phantom.

Into the story comes the girl next door songstress who dreams of taking the lead as Joan of Arc, Heather Sears. She possesses a magnificent singing voice and the producer Edward de Souza is convinced he’s found his newest leading lady. The pompous Gough might be in agreement provided she’s willing to let him give her some private singing lessons. Yes the casting couch is rearing it’s ugly head and if there was ever a character you want to hate then look no further than Gough’s.

“You’re a delicious little thing.” 

I’m actually having to restrain myself here from telling you how I really feel about Gough’s characterization. He’s that despicable and I guess we should give the actor himself some props.  He’s so convincing that I have to question what he was really like when the cameras stopped rolling. Unfair I know but I really want this guy to suffer a cruel death at the hands of the Phantom.

“I am going to teach you to sing Christine.”

Let’s not forget this is a movie about the Phantom and when De Souza as our leading man and romantic interest for Miss Sears takes it upon himself to dig into the mysteries of the Opera House he will be led to the story of one Professor Petrie. It’s in a flashback sequence that we will learn of Lom’s apparent death and subsequent life as the Phantom. As De Souza suspects, it’s Gough who has stolen Lom’s music and opera for himself. Have I mentioned how much I despise Gough’s Lord Ambrose D’Arcy? The details of the gentle Lom’s backdrop will allow him to subsequently come off as a sympathetic character as opposed to an outright villain behind the mask. Even as he borders on the edge of sanity he’s to be pitied, not feared.

I won’t bother with the outcome because there is only one left in the Phantom’s future and that involves a giant sized chandalier.

Being this is a Hammer production there are many familair names involved in the production and yet it offers viewers something distinctly different in the overall effect. Fisher was of course the studios go to director having done the previous rebirths of the classic monsters and among the cast you’ll spot the usual stock company members. Thorley Walters, Michael Ripper, Miles Malleson and Patrick Troughton all take a turn with a few scripted lines. One of the them will end up an unfortunate victim of the ….. no it’s not the Phantom who goes about killing members of the film’s cast and I’m not about to blow the whistle on anyone. With Lom’s Phantom being cast as a sympathetic character it wouldn’t sit right if he was the one weilding a knife and doing some cutting.

Names behind the scenes that Hammer fans should be accustomed to include Roy Ashton as the Make-Up artist who designed Lom’s look beneath the mask, Bernard Robinson who again gives the film a splendid look with his production design and as the film’s producer, Anthony Hinds, who again did double duty as the screenwriter under his pseudonym, John Elder.

One thing that is noticeably different in this production at Hammer is the music. It’s not composed by studio regular, James Bernard, but by Edwin Astley. Not only did he compose an original score for the film itself but also for the opera within the film. I suppose one other aspect that is absent from this Hammer film is the tradition of the plunging neckline upon a rather “healthy” leading lady and to be honest it wouldn’t have matched the character that Miss Sears portrays. With nary a vampire in sight looking for easy access to Miss Sears neck, the high collar outfits are not out of place.

At just 84 minutes in length it does seem as if the studio slashed a scene or two near the end of the film as it makes a long leap in narrative to having Miss Sears in the role of Joan of Arc on stage after Gough condemned her to the streets after rejecting his stomach turning advances but it doesn’t upset the overall drive of the film because it’s the only way the film could play itself out towards the end. While I don’t think the film is as good as the other reimagined horrors that Hammer initially put out it’s still a worthy film in their catalogue to revisit or view for the first time.

Would you believe that at one point Cary Grant was attached to the film? So the story goes that Hammer/Hinds had written the script for the Hollywood Icon knowing in the end they’d have to recast. Of course one would think that somehow Christopher Lee with his baritone voice might have somehow become attached but in the end it wasn’t meant to be and this proved to be Lom’s only “horror” film with the studio. He had appeared in one of their earlier films, 1952’s Whispering Smith Hits London prior to the studios finding it’s box-office formula with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Lom would find a home and everlasting fame in the Pink Panther films as Chief Inspector Dreyfuss always doing his best to control that nervous twitch in the face of Clouseau.

This version of the Phantom is rather easy to locate on both sides of the pond whether it’s on DVD or blu ray. Might I suggest the Universal 8 pack of Hammer titles on blu ray for a crystal clear transfer while pointing to the Final Cut Entertainment release from overseas for a 30 minute making of featurette narrated by and starring Phantom’s leading man, Edward De Souza.

On the topic of Hammer’s production I’ll end by asking, “did I mention that Michael Gough is a lecherous son of a bitch in this film.” Pardon the language but there’s just no other way to phrase it.

Please be sure to visit the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to read some of the other “takes” on the Phantom by fellow bloggers and maybe even learn something about the original source novel by Leroux if you’re like me and have never actually read it.

15 Comments »

  1. I have to admit that so far this is the least favorite Hammer film I’ve seen, but it’s still good for what it is, and offers Herbert Lom a rare opportunity at a sympathetic role. Patrick Troughton’s entrance for his cameo still holds up as a good practical unease, not necessarily scary.

    • The Troughton scene is really good and those rats will make a lovely pie Miss. Agree that this isn’t as good as their other re-imaginings but it’s Hammer so I’ll give it a pass though one mistake is the fact that Gough doesn’t die a miserable death which strikes me as odd. He’s the true villain here and goes unpunished.

  2. Whenever someone writes about Heather Sears, I think of: ‘Room At The Top’ (1959), and a little known television play: ‘A Corner Of The Garden’ – although she had a brilliant career, not only in films, but on the stage and in television. Herbert Lom played the psychiatrist who helps Ann Todd overcome her conversion disorder, in: ‘The Seventh Veil’ (1945) – a most interesting psychological drama, with James Mason as Miss Todd’s neurotic guardian. Lom also gave an excellent performance in a double part in: Mr. Denning Drives North’ (1951). As to: ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’, I find it absurd. The same applies to: ‘The Mystery Of The Wax Museum’, and the later version with Vincent Price.

  3. Not a great film per se, but fun nevertheless (I’m incapable of trashing a Hammer or Amicus movie 😉 ). Anyhow, yes, I thought Sir Lee would have been a great “Phantom”. And what about Peter Cushing in Gough’s role? 🙂

    • lol. yes I have a hard time trashing anything from those studios. Too many fond childhood memories making me a fan of the studios and actors within as well. Had it been a Lee Cushing film I think history looks at it somewhat differently. The same can be said of plenty of Hammer thrillers without them that are pushed aside at times.

  4. There’s never been a very faithful adaptation of Leroux’s original book. Mainly because it’s so damn odd! I really like it but I can see why some people wouldn’t. We learn about the Phantom’s history – he designed torture devices for some Eastern despot if I remember correctly… He also has a room filled with metal trees under the Opera and various other tricks and traps. There’s also a character called the Persian (not in a any off the films as far as I know) who knew the Phantom before he was the Phantom and helps out the young hero. It’s never clear why he does this and we never find out who he is! I can’t recall the Hammer version too well – it’s been years since I saw it – but if they threw in that bit about the Phantom wanting revenge for having his music stolen – that’s not in the book at all. I think filmmakers have put that in because the Phantom doesn’t have any clear motivation in the book apart from his love for Christine. Before he sees her, he’s just kind of hanging out underneath the building digging the tunes! The weirdest thing is that I’ve read about a dozen more of Leroux’s books and they are all completely normal crime and mystery dramas. They are well structured, everything is explained & there’s nothing strange or gothic about them at all…

  5. Now that’s what I get for diving into comment before I’d read the whole article! Just saw you hadn’t read the book and went straight in there. So, the stolen music was part of the film. It may have been the first time that storyline was used – don’t think it’s in the earlier ones. It’s definitely in ‘Phantom of the Paradise’ though and, for all it’s 1970s-ness, it’s still my favourite version. If you enjoy watching Michael Gough as a dastardly villain, you should check out the wonderful ‘Konga’ (1961) if you’ve not done so yet… It’s hilarious!

  6. I only recently watched the Claude Rains version, and I was surprised how much I liked it…but that’s been my only ‘Phantom’ movie so far. This one sounds interesting, but alas, I’m already NOT a Michael Gough fan, so to see him even more unlikeable might be too much for me! And knowing that he DOESN’T get his comeuppance…well, there’s just no point in watching now, is there? 🙂 And yeah, a Lee/Cushing pairing would’ve been pretty cool…as long as someone added Ingrid Pitt to the mix as well!

    • Gough was probably the nicest guy you could meet but he had a way of playing arrogant, pompous bastards that are so grating on one’s senses. The film has that wonderful Hammer look so isn’t that bad overall but does get left behind quite often in Hammer conversations. ahh Ingrid. The highlight of The House That Dripped Blood.

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