Thursday, May 10, 2012

I am Don Juan Triumphant!

 Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
 The 1989 version of "Phantom of the Opera" is the most uneven adaptation of the Gaston Leroux Gothic novel and perhaps the strangest. It is allegedly a love story but it is also a slasher horror picture, with a dose of Freddy Krueger mixed in with a Roger Corman Gothic-redux of "The Pit and the Pendulum." It has the right atmosphere that can give you goose pimples and a great musical score but it hardly compares to most other film versions of this oft-told tale.

Robert Englund is the composer Erik Destler, the Phantom who lives in the sewers below the London Opera House (the novel's setting was actually in Paris). Instead of a mask, he sews dead skin on his charred, rotting face every night before getting his own seat at the Opera to hear for the umpteenth time, Gounod's "Faust." The story goes that Erik sold his soul to the Devil (played by the late John Ghavan, a dwarf with an alarming, echoing voice that must have been dubbed) so that his music would become immortalized - part of the bargain dictates that no one will ever love Erik himself and so the Devil burns his face. I actually enjoy this revisionist take on Leroux's novel - Brian De Palma's electric, rock and roll version called "Phantom of the Paradise" also aimed for a Faustian subtext. I do object to the movie's bastardization of the Phantom, making him a newly supernatural character - he can materialize anywhere, he decapitates people, he hangs them with rope traps, he utters Freddy Krueger lines ("You're...suspended!"), but he does love the new opera singer in town. That would be Christine Day (Jill Schoelen), who can sing like no one's business provided she is guided by Erik himself.

The movie's bookends feature Christine in modern-day New York City, finding the lost musical notes of a forgotten opera called "Don Juan Triumphant." She is ready to perform the piece for an audition but is hit on the head by a sandbag. Then we travel back to London in the 1880's. The movie never makes it clear if Christine is having a fever dream from being hit on the noggin' or if she in fact does time travel back to the 1800's. Who needs a Delorean or H.G. Well's time machine when all you require is a sandbag? It is hinted in a line of dialogue that the Phantom had been around for centuries but a tinge more backstory would've been beneficial.
"The Phantom of the Opera" is often mesmerizing and visually stunning, especially the candlelit sewers, but its core themes of romantic love and passionate longing for music are disrupted by gratuitously gory violence and bookends that deter from its original source. A sequel was planned but never actually made, which explains the bookends that feature the return of the Phantom. Englund overacts as expected, and Schoelen is laid-back and a pleasing presence as always (her singing voice had been dubbed, which is odd since she knows how to sing but maybe opera was a little out of her range). The original novel did deal with the possibility of the Phantom finding love when he had never even been kissed, let alone loved by anyone except Christine. That would fit the long-running Broadway version that later became a 2004 Joel Schumacher flick, and the creepy classic 1925 Lon Chaney picture. This "Phantom" hints at love but it is really a grisly horror flick for the "Nightmare on Elm Street" crowd. Odd hybrid, and no falling chandelier either.

Footnote: This was the only Jill Schoelen film I saw in theaters, after becoming a fan of hers when I saw "The Stepfather."