October 6, 2012

The Poor Man's Phantom

Poster for The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Now Playing: The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Pros: A prime example of Hammer's famous lavish look on a small budget; A Phantom who is both frightening and pitiable
Cons: Wasted dramatic possibilities; A mildly irritating plot "cheat"
R.I.P. Herbert Lom (1917 - 2012)

When I was a kid, I knew one Phantom of the Opera, and his name was Claude Rains. By the time I got to high school, I'd seen Universal's 1943 remake several times, and ol' Claude was for me the definitive Phantom. Of course I'd seen the great, hair-raising stills of Lon Chaney as the Phantom in Famous Monsters magazine and various books, but he was from a dim, dark and very silent era -- practically another universe -- and he'd never shown up on any of the afternoon or late night creature features I loved so much.

It took some maturing ("A silent film, are you kidding me? How could anyone watch something with no dialog?!") and a little discretionary cash before I got my hands on Chaney's original, masterful film version. But by then, the damage was done. I discovered that Rains had made other highly-regarded movies like Casablanca (heard of that one?), and so over the years I kept an eye out for his stuff on TV and in the classics section of the video store. I could appreciate Lon Chaney from a sort of abstract, historical perspective, but for a kid raised on talking monsters from the '30s, '40s and '50s, he could never be the definitive anything. (Similarly, when I visualize the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I see Charles Laughton, not Chaney. I wonder if there's anyone walking around out there who only knows the Hunchback from Disney's wretched animated version -- now that would be a true shame!)

We often speak of generations when referencing pop culture influences, especially when it comes to music -- the Big Band generation, the Rock and Roll generation, the Hip Hop generation, etc. Less so for movies, but the generational influences can't help but be there. For example, I'm a '60s Monster Kid who was glued to the old black and white TV whenever a creature feature reared its ugly head on the air. (Saturday nights were a special treat at central Iowa's Gravesend Manor, one of the many locally-produced shows that featured bizarre hosts introducing Shock Theater package flicks. Manor "residents" Malcolm, Claude and Esmerelda were a hoot, and the movies weren't bad either. Sadly, only a couple of minutes of tape survives from the show-- see it here on YouTube.)

My wife, who is (ahem) a few years younger, grew up in rural northern Illinois. While she is not the monster fan I am, she managed to take in a few creature features here and there, and to this day is a huge fan of Universal's Mummy series. Interestingly, the Phantom she vividly remembers is not dashing Claude Rains, but the creepy Herbert Lom. (She also likes Andrew Lloyd Webber's version, but I try not to hold that against her.) In honor of Herbert, and recalling how creeped out my wife was by his makeup and performance, I checked out The Hammer Horror Series Franchise Collection from the library and gave Hammer's version a spin.

The film's pre-title sequence culminates with this chilling closeup
The eye of the Phantom is upon you!
A short pre-title sequence is extraordinarily eerie. The faint strains of organ music sound as a hand-held camera pans around an enormous darkened opera hall. The dirge-like organ music grows louder as the shot dissolves into the dank, dimly lit environs of the Phantom, the camera exploring the bric-a-brac of a madman's Victorian parlor somehow plopped down in a cavernous sewer. We see a dark-clad figure hunched over the organ, and then the camera pans to a dark, strange-looking gnome of a man sitting cross-legged on a dry perch above the running water, listening with rapt attention. Cut to a closeup of bluish, corpse-like hands at the organ keys. The camera quickly sweeps up and freezes on a dark, bloodshot eye staring out of a grotesque, mouth-less mask. Orchestra music swells up and the main titles appear. Wow! Nothing else that follows is quite as effective, but if that doesn't grab you, nothing will!

As you might expect, Hammer's Phantom is a remake of Universal's 1943 version with Rains, but turns what was essentially a lavish romantic melodrama with Gothic overtones into an honest-to-goodness horror film. All the familiar story elements are there: the beautiful but modest chorus singer Christine with the angelic voice; the mysterious accidents that plague the opera house; the haunted opera box that the Phantom has reserved for himself; a falling chandelier (but fortunately in this version the opera goers are spared). I especially like the recycling of the 1943 origin story for the Phantom, wherein a poor humble musician and amateur composer has his music stolen by a greedy, wealthy man who publishes his works as his own. When the aggrieved musician discovers the theft and tries to stop publication of his music under the phony's name, an accident with printer's etching acid creates a monster.

The Phantom's original creator, Gaston Leroux, would probably not have recognized this character. Leroux's Erik was deformed from birth, and was so repulsive his own mother refused to touch him; deformation of the mind and a career as a phantom followed. I find the 1943/1962 stories more compelling and poignant. An accident of nature is one thing, but we feel so much more for a man who has been victimized by greed and arrogance, and who has become a monster through his desperate, tragic attempts to reclaim his music and his name.

Hammer's distinctive touches include a London, rather than Paris Opera house setting; a hunchbacked, Igor-like henchman for the Phantom; a variation on the classic chandelier scene that is just as dramatic, but sadder and more humane; and best of all, a masked Phantom who is both chilling and heart-wrenching. With their immaculate, stylish masks, the Claude Rains and Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantoms are dapper and intriguing-looking. Herbert Lom's Phantom looks like he spent several months in the grave before being dug up by some wild animals. His clothes are worn and tattered and his hands are tinged blue like a dead man's. He wears a grimy, lumpy mask that covers his entire face. There is only one eye hole and no mouth. Even masked, he presents a horrible, frightening visage. This is no glamorous lead in a romantic melodrama. You really, really don't want to see what's behind that disturbing mask.

Book cover - Greasepaint and Gore: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton
And you don't, except for a very fleeting moment at the end of the film. Compared with Lon Chaney's classically horrific unmasking, Lom's is anticlimactic and pedestrian. It's his creepy masked presence at various moments that lends suspense and atmosphere to Hammer's version. The Phantom was makeup maestro Roy Ashton's biggest disappointment at Hammer (for more on this brilliant craftsman, see Roy Ashton: Monster Maker elsewhere on this blog). As a child, Ashton had been profoundly affected by the original cinematic Phantom of the Opera, and was greatly inspired by Lon Chaney. When he learned of Hammer's remake, he jumped at the opportunity. (Bruce Sachs and Russell Wall, Greasepaint and Gore: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton, Tomahawk Press, 1998.)

In typical fashion, Ashton spent a great deal of time researching Leroux's description of Erik, then exploring the macabre subject of burns and human tissue. After a lot of work and some sleepless nights, the production heads told him they didn't want anything too complicated, as the makeup wasn't going to figure into the film that much. Roy was greatly disappointed, but got a second opportunity to challenge himself when it came time to design a mask. The studio had hired a mask maker, but when his designs didn't pan out, the makeup department was called in. Once again, Roy did a lot of research, but ironically, the end result was due more to happenstance than hard work. Ashton:
"My suggestion was that the Phantom, almost certainly, would have picked up some mask from the theatre properties to conceal his features. Something readily available, because he wouldn't be able to go into any shops or anything like that… I thought about old Japanese masks as they were pictured in a sumptuous publication entitled 'Masks of the World', which I found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I invited [producer] Tony Hinds to come and have a look, but he told me he couldn't spare the time. So I made a few drawings and showed them to him, but it was not exactly what he hoped for. … Three weeks later we were in the theatre where they had to photograph Herbert Lom with his mask on, and no decision had been taken yet. 'Look,' I said, 'give me five minutes and I will make you one.' I got an old piece of rag, tied it round his face, cut a hole in it, stuck a little bit of mesh over one of the eyes, two bits of string around it, and tried it. 'Great!' they cried out, 'that is just what we want!'" [Ibid.]
For a moment's inspiration, the "rag" mask is very effective and creepy, qualifying Herbert Lom in my book as the scariest masked Phantom. Hammer's Phantom also benefits from the studio's trademark sumptuous look on a limited budget. Director Terence Fisher makes good use of London's New Wimbeldon Theatre for the opera house interiors, and the opera scenes themselves are nicely staged.

The Phantom (Lom) and Christine (Heather Sears) in the Phantom's lair
"You will sing only for me Christine, only for me..."
The acting is uniformly good, or at least interesting. Heather Sears is cute, engaging and vulnerable as the decidedly un-diva-ish Christine, the chorus girl elevated to opera stardom. Edward de Souza does a nice job as a sort of "Prince Charming" producer who recognizes Christine's extraordinary talent, and does battle with the smug, smarmy Lord Ambrose d'Arcy (Michael Gough) and the deranged Phantom to save the sweet girl. Once again, Gough plays his patented scoundrel and lecher with aplomb. He's a guilty pleasure to watch as he screws Prof. Petrie (Lom) out of his life's work, and tries to literally screw the female singers. Sharp-eyed Dr. Who fans will also get a kick out of the appearance of the "grumpy Doctor," Patrick Troughton as the opera house rat catcher. Troughton, almost unrecognizable with his grubby outfit and brown, rotting teeth, provides a bit of comic relief as he licks his chops while describing to Christine and Harry all the fat, juicy rats he's caught in the opera house (moments later, he gets a knife in the eye -- ouch! -- for his troubles).

Lom is alternately pitiful and scary as the humble music teacher, Prof. Petrie, driven to madness by Lord d'Arcy's thievery. Years after Phantom's release, producer/screenwriter Tony (Anthony) Hinds told an interviewer that Hammer had offered Cary Grant (?!!) the Petrie/Phantom role, and even came up with a device to sweeten the deal: a loyal, mute and violent hunchback to take the blame for all the murder and violence plaguing the opera house, making the Phantom that much more sympathetic. Grant ended up declining, and supposedly Lom was recruited at the last minute. Later, Hinds recanted that Grant was ever considered. (Greasepaint and Gore.) Regardless, the hunchback "cheat" seems forced and unnecessary, and serves to dissipate some of the film's dramatic energy at the climax, when the Phantom clumsily pins the murders on the poor wretch.

Lord D'Arcy (Michael Gough) wines and dines his new protege Christine (Heather Sears)
The smarmy Lord Ambrose d'Arcy (Michael Gough) appears to be
interested in more than just Christine's (Heather Sears) singing talent.
Still, as the Halloween season ramps up, this is a pretty good, pretty scary Phantom to add to your viewing list. Not a romantic melodrama Phantom, or a treacly musical Phantom, but a good, solid working man's Phantom. Luckily, this Phantom is part of the Hammer Horror Series Franchise Collection, which includes some other similarly good and relatively unheralded Hammer Horrors like Brides of Dracula (1960), Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964).

"In the shadows lurks a monstrous evil!"

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