Phantom of the Opera, The (1962)

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Out of the hell-fire of horror unimaginable rises the figure of terror incarnate!

A poor composer, Professor Petrie, is angered when he finds out that the slimy Lord D’Arcy is stealing his work by printing his own name on the top of an opera he had composed. Petrie sets out to try and put an end to the printing but an accident in the press horribly burns his face with acid and he escapes into the sewers, forced into hiding. Years later, D’Arcy is about to start production on one of Petrie’s plays. But Petrie has not died and decides to terrorise the opera house to make sure that the play doesn’t go ahead.

 

Hammer struck gold with their reinventions of classic horror icons Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy so it was inevitable that the studio would turn to other famous literary characters to keep the bandwagon rolling. In their second wave of remakes, Hammer gave the Gothic treatment to the Wolf Man in The Curse of the Werewolf, Dr Jekyll in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll and here with The Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunately this second wave was not as commercially successful as the first and these films tend to be overlooked within the Hammer canon. Most people will associate the Phantom with Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent film but the story and character has since gone on to become one of the most adapted works of all time. Would Hammer’s trademark Gothic spin make any difference?

Well Hammer didn’t exactly produce a dud with The Phantom of the Opera but the film falls way below the high expectations that it set itself with previous successes. I think it’s just because, as a character, the Phantom himself is never mentioned in the same top-billed breath as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy (and even the Wolf Man too) and that instantly makes him become something of a second class movie monster. Perhaps this is made more so with the fact that neither Christopher Lee nor Peter Cushing star, the two names most synonymous with the glorious Hammer Technicolour horror revolution of the late 50s, were signed up to star and lend the film some much needed star power. Hammer rustled up some decent names for the film but none with the same marquis value as the two legends. Hammer’s most famous director, Terence Fisher, was once again tasked to breath new life into a Universal classic but even he can do little with the film. It looks good and flows perfectly fine but never really kicks into life like the earlier horrors did.

The film itself is one of Hammer’s more sedate films – its low on violence and gore (we don’t get a clear shot of the Phantom’s disfigured face which I had been hoping for) and it drags quite a bit in places as the plot unravels slowly. The focus is on melodramatic elements, not the horror aspects, and getting the audience to sympathise with the character of the Phantom, even though he isn’t given too much time on the screen. And as the film is based around opera, you’re going to have to sit through quite a bit of singing as well (though obviously not as much as any of the musical stage adaptations!). I just get the impression that Fisher and the production team were playing it safe here. Far from ground-breaking gore and Gothic flavour in The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, where Hammer took some risks which paid off, The Phantom of the Opera is too plodding to ever really set the world alight.

Herbert Lom is great as the Phantom and the script focuses a lot more on his psychological state. It doesn’t quite know whether to treat him as mad or misunderstood as he’s built up to be a villain throughout the film, only to show his true colours towards the end. As the actual ‘Phantom’ he doesn’t have an awful lot to do but in person there’s a lengthy flashback scene which shows us how he came to be in the state he is. His lair looks superb for a low budget set and is one of the best that Hammer ever designed. There is a sewer running through it as well as a massive organ as its centre piece and everything is sculpted around the rocks. Bond villains didn’t even get real estate as beautiful as this!

Michael Gough steals the show as the slimy Lord D’Arcy. I don’t know whether it’s just me but I’ve always thought that Gough looked a little sinister and creepy and this film really plays on it. He chews his scenes with glee, firing employees, lusting after female opera singers and, of course, stealing music. There are a whole host of other character actors on show including Thorley Walters, Patrick Troughton and Hammer cameo regular Michael Ripper makes an appearance too. It’s a solid cast and I wouldn’t expect anything else from Hammer. It’s just a pity that what they have to work with is so, well, lacklustre.

 

Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera does contain a lot which is worth viewing. If you like your films a little more sedate (and with plenty of opera singing no less!), then check this out. It’s not a Hammer classic in the same vein as The Curse of Frankenstein but it’s still worth at least one viewing.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Scarecrow Slayer (2004)

Scarecrow Slayer (2004)

He cuts to the chase

Dave and Karl are two friends looking to join a fraternity and are given the initiation task of stealing a scarecrow from a nearby farm in order to join. However, when the farmer finds the friends moving the scarecrow, he shoots and kills Dave. But he doesn’t die and his soul is transferred into the scarecrow, bringing it to life. The scarecrow then sets about killing anyone who gets in the way of his quest to turn his former girlfriend into a fellow scarecrow so that they can be together forever.

 

Sequel in name only, Scarecrow Slayer is just as bad, if not worse in some respects, as the original and even the presence of legendary horror actor Tony Todd can’t save this one from the farmer’s bonfire. I’m not sure who deemed Scarecrow sequel-worthy – certainly the title character had potential to be scary if he hadn’t been totally the opposite by opening his mouth and spouting one-liners and doing all of those silly back flips and combos that he did in the original. Well he’s sort-of back in this one, be it a different scarecrow, and at least the kick ass cover art returns, easily the only part where a bit of talent was noted in the whole production (Todd aside).

Some films just don’t click right from the start and once the credits have rolled and the main story begins, you just know that Scarecrow Slayer is going to be one of those films. Fair enough there are the sub-plots about the college initiation and the story about the scarecrow killing Caleb’s father which kick us off. If only these sub-plots had been dragged out a little more and allowed to run separately for a little longer (or even if Todd was allowed to make more than an extended cameo), then maybe the scarecrow coming alive and killing everyone would have a little more impact. As it stands, these two mildly interesting sub-plots converge too quickly and the scarecrow is unleashed.

The revenge mission that the scarecrow sets out upon is wound up far too quickly and then what is left is a below-par slasher flick with a killer scarecrow slicing up his former friends. What made him so bitter and twisted towards them, since he was supposed to be a ‘good guy’ before he was shot dead? Why kill his best friend and his girlfriend’s mates? If he loves his girlfriend that much, why bother turning her into a scarecrow? It’s almost as if he’s killing people simply because he’s meant to be a killer scarecrow, not a friendly scarecrow. I can’t see any other reason behind it.

Thankfully, the acting across the board (Todd being the exception) is as abysmal as one would expect so when the scarecrow does kill off a few of the characters, you feel like it’s a mercy killing. The gore factor seems to have been toned down from the first flick too, with some cheesy-looking CGI gore moments substituting badly for true make-up effects (though some of the kills are a bit more elaborate overall). Even the scarecrow seems to have been photoshopped in to some scenes via some bad computer animation. He attacks a lot during the day too, totally ruining any sort of suspense or scares that a semi-lit scarecrow might have created in the dark, turning the character into something of a lost party-goer on his way to a fancy dress ball.

I’m still not sure why Tony Todd is in this. Granted he’s hardly the most famous actor in the world and would find more mainstream roles harder to come by. But….that voice! He’s got one of the most commanding, sinister voices I’ve ever heard from an actor so it’s a shame he’s so underused in cinema in general. But back on topic…..why? What did he do to deserve this? Is the family going hungry? Did the producer have incriminating photos of Tony? Did he sign the contract drunk? It’s a baffling choice but by default, Todd is the single best thing about the film. Even in his short role, he manages to lift the material way, way higher than it deserves to be (before it crashes down with a thud after his exit).

I think the worst thing about Scarecrow Slayer, and something that I’ve only found out since watching, is that it was made by The Asylum. You know – the ‘mega-monster’ specialists who bring the world ‘mockbusters’ for a fraction of the talent and budget of Hollywood blockbusters. Even when they’re not ripping off big blockbusters with rubbish like this, their low production values and general lack of interest in making decent films is evident.

 

Scarecrow Slayer is worse than the original but better in some respects i.e. the fact it had Tony Todd in it. I hear that they’re making another couple of sequels to this dire series. Move over Leprechaun because a new “worst franchise ever” has seemingly stepped in your first place spot.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆