The Phantom of the Opera is a story that’s been told so many times, it’s hard to sift the gold from the dirt. Of course, the original 1925 version is a classic, everyone knows that, but what about the remakes? The 1943 version with Claude Rains is generally well-received, but then, so is the dreadful 2004 version featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hilarious techno music. And don’t even get me started on the Robert Englund version from 1989. But while the remakes fluctuate in quality from fair to foul, there’s at least one you can depend on: Hammer’s 1962 version.
The Phantom of the Opera (Hammer)
Lord Ambrose d’Arcy (Michael Gough) is ready to premiere his new opera, ‘Joan of Arc’, but it seems the very forces of nature are out to get him. The opera receives sabotage after sabotage, eventually resulting in murder. Christine (Heather Sears), recently cast for the lead, is haunted by a disembodied voice in her dressing room and a strange black figure lurking within the sub-corridors of the opera house. Producer Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) investigates the matter on behalf of the lovely Christine and discovers the terrible truth about the “Phantom” (Herbert Lom).
Like all of Hammer’s remakes, the plot receives a bit of an overhaul, remaining similar to the source but receiving some refreshing alterations. Many of the story’s most memorable and famous moments are reworked to the point where you might not recognize them as even being throwbacks (the unmasking scene is totally different, as is the chandelier scene), while some of the most fantastic sequences are removed altogether (the Bal Masque, for instance). This might seem like heresy, but as with Hammer’s reworkings of Dracula and Frankenstein, the changes function well within the context of the updated plot and keep you from predicting how things might turn out.
Of all the changes to the story, I appreciate what they did with the title character, the Phantom, the most. The Phantom is always referred to as this tragic figure, yet if you watch such revered versions such as the original Lon Chaney film, the Phantom comes across as a murderous nut bordering on being a supervillain, not a sorrowful romantic individual. Here, the Phantom is given a detailed background making his activities more clear and pitiable. True, the Phantom loses much of his edge in this version (which is why scenes such as the Bal Masque and the original version of the chandelier drop wouldn’t have worked), but in the process he gains humanity and depth. I’ll take that over “Marry me or I’ll blow up the opera house, Mwa Ha Ha Ha!” any day of the week.
The cast is a well-assembled lot. There’s Herbert Lom as the Phantom, doing some of the best single eyeball emoting I’ve ever seen. You don’t get to see much of him until the end, but when you do, Lom really sells the role. You fear his appearance at first, but once you come to understand him, all you can do is feel sorry for him. By the time his mask comes off, revealing his gory countenance, you hardly feel grossed out since, well, the poor guy is just so sad. Michael Gough plays such a tremendous prick in Lord d’Arcy that you simply can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Edward de Souza, our protagonist Harry Hunter, has this smug, swashbuckling “Mr. Perfect” attitude about him that had me thinking Errol Flynn. His cheerful, confident demeanor, especially when faced with certain peril, slightly diminishes the tension of the moment, I have to confess.
Terence Fisher, Hammer’s go-to guy, takes on directing duties. As I’ve said before, Fisher is tremendous at getting great performances out of the cast, particularly during long stints of dialogue which would otherwise be dull. However, his camerawork has always felt far too static and outdated, even for the period, remaining much too stationary and lacking a certain dynamic spark. It’s serviceable, and the Dutch Angles during the Phantom’s flashback sequence enhance the scene wonderfully, but in the end, it’s just standard Terence Fisher.
If anything really underwhelmed me about this version of Phantom of the Opera, I suppose it would have to be the overall production value. The Phantom of the Opera is supposed to be this romantic epic, with massive sets which dwarf the players, labyrinthine catacombs winding deep beneath the opera house and just an overall sense of size and grandeur that leaves the audience in awe. Hammer takes a far more economical approach to the film, with the subterranean maze being reduced to a single sewer tunnel and cave, and most of the “bigger than life” moments lacking that “wow” factor which was so prevalent in the Lon Chaney version.
The Phantom of the Opera is a story that has been remade over a dozen times, so I wouldn’t expect you to have the patience to hunt through them all in order to find the rare handful of decent re-interpretations. So to save you those hours you’ll never get back, let me recommend you give this version a shot. As economical in visuals as it may be, the updated story adds some nice twist and turns to the plot, the cast is wonderful and the Phantom has never felt more human. Certainly one of Hammer’s better outputs.