Greetings, readers! Apologies for the delay of this week’s blog entry. But here it is. Since October is Halloween month, I thought it would be a perfect time to spotlight some of my favorite Hammer horror productions. This week my selection is The Phantom of the Opera. The story about the disfigured phantom who haunts an opera house in Paris has been done multiple times as a movie and of course as a Broadway musical. While the silent version with Lon Chaney is my favorite, Hammer’s take on the classic tale is definitely worth a look.
In the 1962 version, the setting has been changed from Paris to London. There are also a few other changes to the story, including the film giving us some background on the phantom.
The corrupt Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough) steals the life’s work of the poor composer Professor L. Petrie. (Herbert Lom). In an attempt to stop the printing of music with D’Arcy’s name on it, Petrie breaks into the printing office and accidentally starts a fire, leaving him severely disfigured. Years later, Petrie returns to terrorize a London opera house that is about to perform one of his stolen operas.–IMDB
I’m not sure the phantom’s back story was completely necessary. But it does give the film a fresh take on the classic Gothic tale. My biggest quibble with the change in the story line is that it makes it feel more like a straight up revenge story. In the original novel and previous versions, we felt for the phantom because he was an outcast due to his appearance and his plight to be loved. It was a great spin on the idea that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But I digress. Let’s talk about the things I really like about this version of The Phantom of the Opera.
Many people have played the disfigured phantom over the years: Lon Chaney, Gerard Butler, and even Robert Englund (yes, the same man who played Freddy Krueger). Herbert Lom plays him in this version. His more subtle approach is an interesting choice. Lom plays the role more grounded in reality and more like a straight up dramatic part. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have his very theatrical moments. But it does keep the story grounded in reality. I also enjoyed the performance of Michael Gough as Lord Ambrose. He makes for a wonderful villain. Gough to me is one of Britain’s most underrated actors. Modern film viewers likely remember him as Alfred the butler from Tim Burton’s Batman. This film really lets him shine, and it’s all the better for it.
There’s also the wonderful direction from Terence Fisher. I could almost have called this month Terence Fisher month now that I think about it. Fisher was for my money Hammer’s best director. He brings a unique approach to the material. Fisher did the same when he directed Hammer’s productions of the Frankenstein and Dracula as well. He never seems to be going through the motions and simply recycling the material. Every film has his own unique stamp on it.
This version of The Phantom of the Opera also deserves recognition for a few technical contributions. Edwin Astley’s score is appropriately dramatic with Gothic vibes. The production design by Bernard Robinson and art direction by Don Mingaye does a good job of transporting us to haunted London instead of haunted Paris. It seeds a tone comparable with Tim Burton’s take on Sweeney Todd. Arthur Grant’s cinematography creates a great moody atmosphere. Finally, Roy Ashton and Frieda Steiger’s makeup cannot be denied. Lom really is a terrifying looking phantom. One of my quibbles with Gerard Butler playing the role a few years ago is that he looked less like a disfigured man and more like a model for GQ magazine with a mask on. That’s not the case here.
Is this the best version of The Phantom of the Opera? No. But it is worth seeing for its effective atmosphere and Herbert Lom’s unique portrayal of the character. Terence Fisher proves himself once again to be the best director working at Hammer. It’s worth seeing at least once.