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.