Today, Robert Englund is horror movie royalty. The Universal Monsters era gave us Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. And Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing anchored Hammer Films, while Vincent Price enjoyed a productive working relationship with Roger Corman. Early in his career, Englund popped up in supporting roles in horror movies Eaten Alive and Dead & Buried as well as the 80s mini-series, V and V: The Final Battle. But today’s he’s best known for playing the iconic Freddy Krueger. At the peak of his Elm Street days, however, Englund almost landed a second horror franchise. A modern twist on Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera may have sounded like a good idea on paper. Sadly, lackluster box office numbers and a poor critical response has left this late 80s slasher largely forgotten.
In modern day Manhattan, young opera singer Christine Daaé discovers an old, unfinished piece entitled Don Juan Triumphant. When she auditions for a role using the same piece, an accident sends her back to 1885 London where she is an understudy to the opera house diva. Lurking in the shadows of the opera house, a shadowy figure referred to as ‘The Phantom‘, obsessed with Christine, secretly advances her career. But the means The Phantom uses to help his muse put Christine in increasing danger.
Phantom of the Opera Gives the Classic Tale a Slasher Re-Imagining
There have been quite a few adaptations of Leroux’s classic French novel. Universal Studios produced two classic versions of the story before Hammer Films took a break from their Dracula and Frankenstein series. Even Joel Schumacher – of Batman & Robin infamy – gave the story a shot with his 2004 effort. And there have been attempts at setting the story in a modern times with mixed results. Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is a fun, quirky cult movie, while Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge probably has limited appeal. In the late 1980s, one could see why re-imagining Phantom as a slasher movie might have seemed like a good idea. Even if the ‘golden age’ of the slasher was in decline, the Elm Street series was still raking in box office money.
Though it’s bookended by a contemporary Manhattan setting, Phantom of the Opera is a period piece horror movie that eschews Gothic aesthetics for slasher sensibilities.
And that’s exactly what 21st Century Films did with their 80s update of Phantom of the Opera. Though it’s bookended by a contemporary Manhattan setting, Phantom of the Opera is a period piece horror movie that eschews Gothic aesthetics for slasher sensibilities. It’s an interesting, but odd, compromise between the styles. On one hand, the 1989 re-imagining never looks as grimy or exploitative as early 80s slashers or their late 80s, VHS-counterparts. Yet this Phantom lacks the lushness from its backdrop you’d find in more prestige period-piece movies. To some extent, Phantom of the Opera looks like what you’d imagine Hammer Films might produce in the 1980s.
Phantom of the Opera is Never Dull, But Often Underwhelming
Though critics dismissed it, Phantom of the Opera fares much better on a subsequent viewing years after its release. If the contemporary Manhattan setting feels unnecessary – in part due to a planned, but cancelled, sequel – it still adds a unique wrinkle to a familiar story. And at just over 90 minutes, Phantom of the Opera rarely drags or feels like it has overstayed its welcome. Director Dwight H. Little (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Natty Knocks) includes a handful of gross moments that probably earned it an R-rating. Yes, this type of graphic violence seems at odds with its source material. But if you can just accept that this is a slasher re-imagining, it ensures the movie never feels listless or dull.
…Little’s handling of even the slasher moments are what ultimately ensures Phantom of the Opera is never more than a guilty pleasure.
However, Little’s handling of even the slasher moments are what ultimately ensures Phantom of the Opera is never more than a guilty pleasure. Similar to his work on the Halloween franchise, Little delivers workmanlike quality that lacks imagination. He doles out the requisite death scenes with no suspense or jolts. Some of the action-oriented scenes also seem superfluous to any attempt to generate fear. Having Robert Englund play the ‘Phantom’ may have seemed inspired on paper. And Englund is having fun with the role – he’s the best part of this movie. But the movie seems content to present Englund’s ‘Erik Destler’ as just another Freddy Krueger, making the movie feel like a retread rather than something new.
The Phantom of the Opera …
How much one enjoys this forgotten iteration of The Phantom of the Opera depends on expectations. Anyone hoping to find a lush, nuanced, and haunting interpretation of Gaston Leroux’s French novel will be disappointed. And if you’re expecting something closer to vintage early 80s slashers you’ll also feel let down. On the other hand, this period-piece (mostly) slasher plays much better than older horror fans may recall. Though Little’s direction is limited, he stages a few decent shocks. And Englund is still having loads of fun, even if he’s mostly just doing a lesser imitation of Freddy Krueger.