Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Phantom of the Opera (1989)

The final curtain is about to drop.

While onstage at an audition, opera singer Christine Day is knocked unconscious by a falling sandbag and transported to 19th-century London. With the eagerly awaited premiere of a new opera headlined by diva Carlotta draws near, disfigured composer Erik Destler is instantly bewitched by her understudy Christine. Driven by maniacal desire, he vows to do whatever necessary—including commit murder—to make her the star of the show.


Phantom of the Opera was the fifth cinematic version of Gaston Leroux’s famous novel. Made at a time when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical version was going strong and lead actor Robert Englund was still riding high as Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, this version is the most violent and bloody to date. Jokingly referred to as ‘Freddy of the Opera’ in some quarters, it is clear where its influence lies: the UK posters featuring Robert Englund’s hideously scarred and burned face as the Phantom look uncannily like a certain Mr Krueger. The film hardly registered at the box office, making a pitiful $4m in the US and has become an obscure curiosity for fans of Englund or the classic story.

So it’s to my surprise that Phantom of the Opera fares a little better than just being a sub-par A Nightmare on Elm Street knock-off and comes across as more of an 80s version of a Hammer horror film. The Gothic vibe runs right through this, with superb period sets, exquisite costumes and a great soundtrack which gets across the operatic tone just right. Shifting the location of the story allowed the filmmakers to utilise a stunning Victorian theatre in London and, as a result, it makes the budget appear far more lavish than it actually was. These cultural elements certainly give the film the right classical literature touch to do justice to Gaston Leroux’s novel. There are some really striking scenes in the film, particularly the finale inside the Phantom’s underground lair filled with all manner of tunnels and passages to get lost in.

Director Dwight H. Little was no stranger to the horror genre, having helmed the decent Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers a year earlier. He peppers The Phantom of the Opera with a number of decent kill scenes and some impressive gore effects. Whilst the set-ups may be a tad contrived and there’s no really much in the way of tension or suspense leading up to them, the Phantom is a dab hand at offing his enemies. It’s these elements which sit a little uncomfortably with the classical Phantom-style as the two don’t mesh together well. The Gothic approach gives the film an elegance and class that few 80s films had yet the slasher elements reduce it to little more than another by-the-numbers body count film. Some of the gore even had to be cut to make the rating.

Robert Englund gets to dig his teeth into the role a little bit and away from the cartoon villain he had been playing. He’s basically a more cultured and theatrical version of Freddy here, still armed an array of dodgy one-liners ready to hurl at his victims as he brutally slashes his way through the cast. A Nightmare on Elm Street make-up effects man Kevin Yagher followed Englund across from the franchise for this outing and its evident where the inspiration for the Phantom’s disfigured look comes from. Englund, perfectly at home in layers of make-up, gets to play Freddy 2.0, peeling off parts of his face and stitching them back on whenever he needs to. His Phantom attempts to be a more tragic, poignant character but his instantly-unlikeable demeanour means he never gets the sympathy of the audience like some of his predecessors.

Jill Schoelen is the object of his affections and whilst she looks the part, she’s not got a great delivery and comes across sounding rather flat and tired. I had to cringe when she started singing – not because she’s a bad singer but because I didn’t want to watch a musical version but rather a gory slasher. The musical numbers are few and far between, thankfully. A young Bill Nighy pops up in a brief role as the owner of the opera house.


At times, Phantom of the Opera is an unconvincingly mix of old school period horror, tinged with a hint of poetry and classic literature, and gory 80s effects-driven slasher. When it sticks to either sub-genre, it works pretty well, though the transitions between the two are abrupt and awkward. It did deserve to do a lot better at the box office and whilst it not a hidden classic, it’s still decent enough to watch.





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