Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Phantom of the Opera (1989)

I well remember going to see this at the Nottingham Odeon when it came out. My surprise at it being on the cinema’s main screen (number one out of five) was matched only by the curious face-to-face warning every customer got to receive at the box office, which went something along the lines of “You do realise this is NOT a film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, don’t you?” Whether this was a legal stipulation forced on the film-makers by Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Company, or whether it was just legendary producer Harry Alan Towers (he of everything from THE FACE OF FU MANCHU to numerous Jess Franco pictures fame) having a bit of fun I still don’t know, but I was reminded of it while watching 101 Films’ new Blu-ray release of the picture because a disclaimer to the same effect pops up during the end credits as well.
So was the movie as good as I remembered it? This Menahem Golan production (not often a good sign) certainly isn't bad, and toplines Robert Englund, then at the height of his career as the star of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films.
       The movie kicks off with singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen from Joseph Rubin’s THE STEPFATHER) looking for a new piece with which to audition for a modern-day New York show. She finds it in a dusty manuscript copy of ‘Don Juan Triumphant’ by composer Erik Destler. Before she can get more than a couple of notes out on stage she’s hit on the head by a sandbag and transported back to Victorian England, where Destler’s new work is about to be premiered at an opera house owned by Bill Nighy (yes him, looking remarkably young). 
        Destler is something of a shadowy figure, but that's because he's sold his soul to the devil disguised as a dwarf in return for a mutilated face and public appreciation of his music. As the Phantom, Destler coaches Christine for the lead role, and ensures that on opening night diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) finds the stagehand he's flayed alive and stuffed into her wardrobe. The shock causes her to lose her voice and Christine to get the lead role. 
Of course there are various factions who don’t want Christine to succeed, including Mr Nighy, and the stage is set for some Phantom-style revenge, a fiery climax, and a neat little epilogue set back in the present day that gives us a new spin on the classic unmasking scene in a suitably gory 1980s way. Don’t expect a chandelier to fall into the audience, though, because apparently they didn’t have enough money for that.

Prior to PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, director Dwight H Little had just come off HALLOWEEN 4, and he does a pretty good job with this remake. In fact, if Hammer Films had kept going into the 1990s one imagines this is exactly the kind of thing they would have produced. Much is made of Englund’s destroyed face and his need for frequent skin grafts, and there are a couple of one-liners for fans expecting Freddy Krueger in a cloak which, to some extent is what you get. It’s all a lot of gory, gothic fun and I'll admit I enjoyed it at least as much as I did on its initial release all those years ago.
101 Films’ Blu-ray preserves PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, despite the back of the box telling you otherwise, so don’t worry. The transfer is a bit grainy but overall looks fine. There aren’t any extras but this is a perfectly acceptable presentation of a film from the tail end of one of the classic eras of horror cinema.

The Robert Englund version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is out from 101 Films on Blu-ray from 17th April 2014. A DVD version is also available.

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