The Film: 4/5
No other movie studio came to define the gluttonous sleaze and delirious excess of the 1980's the way that Cannon Films did. Unfortunately by the end of the decade Cannon had collapsed under a mountain of debt and the partnership of showboating producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus that had made the company the exploitation powerhouse audiences around the world knew it as had suffered an irreparable breach. Golan took over running the smaller independent production outfit 21st Century Film Corporation from Giancarlo Parretti not along after the fall of Cannon and attempted to mold it into a less risk averse distributor resembling his previous company. One of the first projects he initiated at 21st was yet another screen adaptation of Gaston Leroux's classic 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera, but as this was to be a Menahem Golan production it would feature more sex and violence than previous film, television, and stage versions had been able to feature. This would be a Phantom for the 80's; it would be more horrific than romantic and with Dwight H. Little (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) in the director's chair the project would be sold based on the appeal of one of the horror genre's biggest modern stars - Robert Englund.
The man forever known as Freddy Krueger was aching to work out acting muscles that weren't being put to good use in the later Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Taking on an iconic role that had previously been portrayed by the likes of Lon Cheney, Claude Rains, and Herbert Lom offered Englund the opportunity he craved. The role of the Phantom, reimagined by screenwriters Duke Sandefur (Atlas Strugged II: The Strike) and Gerry O'Hara (The Bitch) as disfigured composer Erik Destler, held the potential for the actor to play a villain far removed from the dream-dwelling child slayer Krueger. The victim of an ill-advised deal with the Devil (represented as a dwarf), Destler was a simple piano player in a brothel who traded his handsome visage for the ability to craft the greatest music the world has ever known. He achieves great fame but in order to show his face in public he has to patch over the hideous scarring with pieces of human flesh. Of course since he can't find any willing donors Eric has to brutally murder them in order to skip past the pesky issue of consent. When he's not performing his own plastic surgery he makes his home in the catacombs beneath the grand London theater where his compositions are performed nightly to the rapturous applause of the city's elite.
An ocean and century away, Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) is a second year opera student at Julliard who needs a great piece of music to make an impression at her next audition. Her friend Meg (Molly Shannon, years before her memorable Saturday Night Live stint) comes through with a long-forgotten work of Destler's called "Don Juan Triumphant". At her audition Christine is on the verge of winning over the opera's producer when a sandbag hanging above the stage falls and knocks her unconscious. When she awakes she finds that she's in 19th century London and the understudy to La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence), the star of Destler's opera and a petulant diva who is very jealous of Christine's talent. Eric is in love with Christine and willing to take any necessary action to elevate her to the star of the show, even if that means killing those who stand in the way of his plans.
The story of The Phantom of the Opera is slightly older than the hills and has been parodied more than it has been faithfully adapted for an artistic medium outside of print, but more than a century after its publication Leroux's novel remains the stuff of nightmares. Using sets constructed in Budapest for Mack the Knife, the Golan-directed adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, director Little set out to make a film of Phantom that embraced its horror roots more overtly than any version previously attempted. Elements of tragedy and unrequited love have been left in the story, but with Robert Englund as the star this Phantom was bound to have a higher body count and gruesome prosthetic special effects that would have made Lon Cheney giddy with possibilities. Make-up effects legend Kevin Yagher first worked with Englund on the second and fourth Nightmare on Elm Street movies and on the syndicated Freddy's Nightmares television series and he was brought up to create the look of this newer, and infinitely more evil, Phantom of the Opera. His crew included such giants of the industry including John Carl Buechler (From Beyond) and Everett Burrell (Phantasm II) and despite having a lower budget than films of this type usually cost the work of these modern masters of latex terrors is truly exemplary here. Phantom isn't a wall-to-wall bloodbath but the FX team still managed to pool their resources into creating some wonderfully graphic death scenes with skill and restraint. One of Destler's victims is skinned alive while another has their head viciously sawed off in better time than actually possible given the weapon the killer uses. Other death scenes have minimum blood content but they deliver where it counts.
Like previous Phantom adaptations Little's film is big on atmosphere, and the director exploits the leftover sets and rich European locations to great effect. Destler's lair is a creepy marvel and the tunnels that lead the way drip with ungodly muck and scurrying rats. The cinematography by Peter Lyons Collister (The Replacement Killers) and Elemér Ragályi (Hanna's War) make hauntingly beautiful use of the deep, menacing shadows and candlelit sets to create a captivating Gothic look for the film. The British horror classics from Hammer played a part in creating the visual identity of this Phantom, as did the various adaptations of Dracula. Composer Misha Segal (The Last Dragon) contributes a fantastic music score brimming with baroque drama and soaring emotion that works magnificently with the original opera pieces created for this film.
Englund gives one of the best performances of his underrated career, giving life to Eric Destler and investing pathos and a pitiful romantic longing in the character that allows us to understand why he commits the terrible crimes to win the love of his darling Christine. Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) brings poignancy and tenderness to her besieged heroine role and proves to be someone a man would either kill for or face down the fires of Hell to save. Alex Hyde-White (Catch Me If You Can) plays Christine's dashing and heroic lover and plays him well. That's about all I can about him. Terence Harvey (From Hell) commands what little screen time he has as the Scotland Yard detective investigating the murders. Stephanie Lawrence (O Lucky Man!) plays up the worst character traits of the diva La Carlotta with glee and gets a sexy bubble bath scene, while a young Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) chews into some of the wittier dialogue in the screenplay as the opera house manager scheming to derail Christine's ambitions.
Scream Factory's 1080p high-definition transfer for The Phantom of the Opera is MPEG-4 AVC-encoded and framed in the film's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Naturally this is the finest it has looked on home video but with a minimum of grain left behind in the print, sharpened details, and a lush color scheme that has been bolstered without creating further defects this effort is much better than Scream has shown us lately. The Blu-ray comes with two English DTS-HD Master Audio options; the 2.0 mix is slightly higher in volume and lacks in distortion, but the 5.1 mix is much spacious and should do nicely if you're watching this Phantom with a home theater set-up. English subtitles have also been included.
Director Little and star Englund team up for a pleasantly conversational audio commentary track where no topic is left unmentioned and which is overflowing with great stories about the film's making. The new retrospective documentary "Behind the Mask: The Making of The Phantom of the Opera" (38 minutes) brings in most of the main players, including the commentary participants and Englund's co-stars Schoelen and Hyde-White, for a more detailed look back at the production and reception of their version of Phantom. Composer Segal talks about creating the score and his role in staging the opera sequences while Yagher and Buechler discuss the make-up effects in detail. Before the film's release there had been talk of a sequel and the ideas bandied about are mentioned in this solid doc. A still gallery, the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), a 30-second television spot, two minutes of radio spots, and trailers for the Scream Factory releases Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Phantom of the Paradise, and From a Whisper to a Scream close out the bonus features.
The 1989 Phantom of the Opera is a Hammer film made for the excessive 80's with all of the sumptuous imagery, theatrical performances, bloodshed, and sex appeal it demands. Robert Englund shows he can be an effective and sympathetic screen monster without being hindered by a script full of lame gags and I will never understand why Jill Schoelen didn't become a bigger name in the genre because she's excellent here. This is a well-crafted Gothic horror epic absolutely worth your viewing time especially now that Scream Factory has given it a solid new high-definition transfer and some terrific supplements.