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.