The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

There have been countless adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Turn of the Century novel Le Fantome de l’Opera on stage and screen, but it’s hard to argue that any have been as influential as the 1920s silent film starring Lon Chaney. Along with Chaney’s turn in the silent horror adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera was a massive hit for Universal Pictures, launching a decades-long moneymaker in the studio’s Famous Monster’s brand. Before Lugosi & Karloff would come to define the Universal Monsters look, Chaney was the (hideously disfigured) face of the production company’s horror division. The ripple effect of the silent Phantom of the Opera’s success achieved a far-ranging influence (from Lugosi & Karloff to, disastrously, Dario Argento), not even matched by the name-recognition commanding stage musical from Andrew Lloyd Weber. Not to shatter any illusions to the contrary, but shameless remakes & reissues of lucrative intellectual properties are far from new to Hollywood, so the Lon Chaney Phantom’s success meant it would be a well Universal returned to often – first in a 1933 reissue of the original film with a (since lost) soundtrack that mutated into a talkie, then as this 1943 Technicolor remake. Graduating to sound & color wasn’t the only cinematic adjustments Fantame de l’Opera had to make in those first couple of decades either. As much as the 1940s remake is obviously indebted to the Lon Chaney original, its aesthetic is so current to its time that it rarely shows its silent horror roots – or even resembles horror at all.

The basic plot of a standard Phantom of the Opera adaptation remains intact in this Technicolor remake, with Claude Rains taking over from Chaney as the titular Phantom. Here, the distantly admiring, disfigured creep who haunts the Paris Opera house and promotes the career of his favorite singer under threat of violence to those who might block her way to success starts the film as a violinist in the orchestra before being burned with acid & retreating to the shadows. Most of his subsequent kills in the periphery are lightly handled: off-screen stranglings, attempted poisonings, a recreation of the falling chandelier stunt from the previous version, etc. Even the reveal of the Phantom’s purplish acid burn scars feels delicately handled in comparison to Long Chaney’s genuinely horrific makeup in the original film. Some of the stark silent era horror influences of the original echo in this remake, especially evident in shots where the Phantom appears only as a menacing shadow on the wall. For the most part, however, this remake plays much more like a dramatic “women’s picture” of its era, focusing more on the opera singer’s choice between pursuing operatic career opportunities or a “normal” life as a housewife. It’s like The Red Shoes by way of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas in that way, with the Phantom’s role being relegated to a side character in the female lead’s A-plot. This is more of a comedic drama about a woman at a professional crossroads than it is a shock-a-minute monster movie about a crazed, disfigured violinist.

In a 2010s update to this version of the Phantom tale, it’s likely the opera singer herself who would have been driven mad to the point of monstrous transformation, but actor Susanna Foster is never afforded her own proper freak-out in the style of a Red Shoes or a Black Swan or a Perfect Blue (so many colors!). That’s not to say that Claude Rains’s secret, murderous admirer of her work is entirely detached from the themes of her professional/romantic dilemma either. His menacing, pushy presence just out of eyesight in the opera singer’s professional life is in some ways a pitch-perfect representation of how all the men around her apply too plentiful & too intense romantic pressure she doesn’t ask for or need in the early days of her professional career. The Phantom is only one of three men in the singer’s life, joining the ranks of a police officer & a fellow musical performer, both of whom wish to court her into marriage. Just as the Phantom pressures the singer into making bold leaps in her still-early career at the opera house by threatening & murdering higher-ups on her behalf, the two suitors pressure her to choose romance over fame & art, giving up the stage for “a normal life.” The general mood of the film is light & flavored with comedy, especially as the suitors trip over each other in dual proclamations of love, but there’s also an underlying tragedy throughout in this poor woman being pressured to make choices between art & romance instead of being allowed to live as she pleases. It’s a very Sirkian conflict, one that’s handled with appropriate visual beauty & emotional melodrama.

Like with Sirk or The Red Shoes to follow, the Technicolor Phantom remake is at the very least worth seeing for its staging, especially for the intense use of rich, bold color in its costuming & lighting. Even if the trading in of silent era horrors for love triangle humor & one woman’s professional indecision is not what you’re looking for in a Phantom of the Opera adaptation, the film is still worthwhile for the visual pleasures & emotional payoffs therein. Even though it chooses to conclude on a comedic note, its adaption of the Phantom’s lingering, unwanted threats & pressures to its central narrative of a woman stuck between competing men’s designs on her life’s plan is also a new angle on the material that justifies the impulse for a remake in the first place, no matter how light on horror. There would be plenty of pointless Phantom of the Opera remakes to come in the decades following this big studio Technicolor melodrama as filmmakers grappled with the original film’s influence on horror at large. It’s doubtful there are many that are this purposeful in their modernity-minded updates to the source material, however. 1943’s Phantom of the Opera seamlessly incorporates the basic elements & structure of the original silent work into a genuine participation in the “women’s pictures” of its own day, to great artistic & thematic payoff. A brief glance at the disparity in terror between Lon Chaney & Claude Rains’s makeup as the unmasked Phantom is alone enough to indicate the differences in those film’s basic intent, but what the Rains version loses in horror it more than makes up for in another, unexpected genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Il fantasma dell’opera (aka The Phantom of the Opera, 1998)

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“When you hear my thoughts, you’ll know where to go.”

Oh. Oh my.

I was looking forward to Dario Argento’s 1998 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera with something like macabre excitement. After all, it was identified by TV Tropes, among others, as being widely regarded as the worst adaptation of that source material, in any media form, ever. Still, I expected that there would be something noteworthy or praiseworthy about it. After all, Phantom is a work with a huge body of reimaginings and revisions; Wikipedia lists twenty-eight different film adaptations (although some of these are homages rather than direct translations of the source), thirty stage versions, forty-six literary retellings, and an additional fourteen literary versions made for children. That doesn’t even include the radio plays, television shows, and comic books that retell or revisit the story. That’s no small feat, considering that the original novel was published barely over a century ago. Personally, I don’t quite understand the story’s enduring appeal, although that may simply be because I’ve never read the original novel, although I know the plot largely as the result of cultural osmosis through the various homages to the narrative that show up in other media from time to time. Such a large body of adaptations bespeaks a kind of fanaticism that made me question whether or not the “worst adaptation” moniker applied to Argento’s version was accurate or should be interpreted as a criticism on par with one made by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. I expected that this might be the case, but I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

Il fantasma dell’opera may very well be the worst Phantom adaptation of all time; I have not seen or read enough versions to say this definitively. I can say, however, it is the worst film of Argento’s that I have seen as part of this project, and is without question one of the worst movies I have ever seen, if not one of the worst movies of all time. I would dare venture to say it is one of the worst adaptations with regards to conceptualization as well, foregoing some of the most basic elements of the narrative for no identifiable reason (the Phantom isn’t even disfigured!). The acting is atrocious across the board, the overwrought dialogue is like something written by an overzealous student with delusions of grandeur (“Your perfume, your female smell–it pulses through me like the rolling ocean!”), and the direction so uninspired that I was shocked to learn that the stagey sets on which the film was shot weren’t sets at all, but the interiors of a real Victorian opera house in Budapest. It took me four attempts to make it through this movie without either falling asleep or losing interest completely. I have stared deep into the abyss of bad movies, and it gazed deeply into me also. Hell is this movie, and this movie is hell.

The film opens as a baby is placed in a basket and floats down the river, like a late-Nineteenth Century Moses. The basket washes up in some catacombs, where the infant is rescued by rats before the bassinet is able to flow over a waterfall. Some years later, three construction workers are dabbling in a well (I think?) when one smashes through the wall and accidentally discovers the series of catacombs. Christine Daaé (Asia Argento, in her third collaboration with her father) is a young ingénue opera performer who sneaks onto the deserted stage one night and sings; her impromptu performance is overheard by the Phantom (Julian Sands), who is immediately smitten with her, and she with him. Meanwhile, a character known only as The Rat Catcher (István Bubik) continues his crusade to rid the Opéra de Paris of all the rats hiding under its foundations. The Phantom, who was raised by the rats that saved him (and who taught him perfect English diction, apparently), takes offense at this and psychically forces the man to shove his hand into one of his own traps. A police inspector begins to investigate the strange occurrences that are credited to the Phantom, and is told that the specter is often accompanied by a cold wind and that he can compel people to perform actions against their will. (This features an interaction in which the investigator is informed of the temperature phenomenon by a seamstress, and then both of them rub their folded arms in the stagiest way possible while he asks “Did you just feel a sudden chill in the air?”)

Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), the brother of a minor duke of some kind, is also infatuated with Christine, who has begun to fall in love with the Phantom. Their communiques take the form of telepathic conversations, meaning that most of this romance consists of Asia Argento staring into space and verbally responding to unheard directives, which somehow still sounds more engaging than it actually is. She is torn between her two unremarkable suitors, however, wondering if “Knowing nothing of love, [she has] fallen in love with both men at once.” Various minor characters make their way into the catacombs only to be dispatched by the Phantom, and there is meant to be some symmetry between the people who go below the opera house and the rats who ascend into it and how both are killed, but it’s not very important, considering that this would make the Phantom and the Rat Catcher mirrors of each other, and that’s not relevant in any other sense. There’s also a subplot about Degas and his fondness for underage dancing girls who take classes at the opera house; another man who is also obsessed with the young girls is killed by the Phantom when he chases a girl (who looks about ten) into the catacombs in an attempt to molest her. This, too, is completely irrelevant to the plot save that it shows one of the Phantom’s victims is deserving of his fate.

Christine eventually accompanies the Phantom to his lair, where the two sleep together. It’s not sexy; the tableaux in the scene where the Phantom bends over Christine with his long, greasy hair calls to mind the Peter Paul Rubens painting of Cronus devouring one of his children more than anything else. Despite her reasonable wishes not to be left alone in his rat-infested cave while he returns to the opera house, he leaves her so that he can frighten and injure the diva Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) so that Christine can take her place. Throughout these scenes, a subplot involving the Rat Catcher building a small vehicle (it looks like a steampunk Wacky Racer) that will increase his rat killing productivity. He and his heretofore unseen little person assistant take the rat-killer into the catacombs and do significant damage to the rat population before crashing accidentally; the Rat Catcher then climbs his way out of the catacombs, but not before witnessing Christine and the Phantom together. The Phantom returns to Christine, who wants nothing more to do with him, so he rapes her; while he thinks she is sleeping, she spies him cuddling with his rat buddies and escapes back to the opera house, where she takes the stage in Carlotta’s place. During the performance, the Rat Catcher finally reappears and makes his way onstage, where he interrupts the performance to accuse Christine of cavorting with the monster. Amidst the ensuing chaos, the Phantom abducts/rescues her, before he is mortally wounded by Raoul. The police arrive as he is dying, and he tells Raoul and Christine to abscond, fearing that Christine will also be killed. Looking back as he dies, she begs him not to leave her and… roll credits.

This movie is awful. Just terrible. The Phantom story is, in its way, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, filtered through some Beauty and the Beast archetypes and updated to what was a contemporary setting at the time of the novel’s composition. More than either of those, however, the narrative turns the heroine into a Bella Swann, eternally enraptured by a man who is creepy and possessive in addition to being a beast. At least in the novel and in other adaptations, the relationship between the two is founded on the Phantom’s instruction in the musical arts from which Christine benefits; here, he’s just a stalker who can communicate with her telepathically. There’s no reason for Christine to find him so appealing, even if this version foregoes the very important plot element that the Phantom is disfigured; here, he’s just Julian Sands with gross hair, psychic powers, and an affinity for rats. In the original novel, the affection between Christine and the Phantom never transcends to become physical; here, the two have consensual sex and then he rapes her (which makes her later declaration of love for him all the more disgusting). And the unnecessary subplots about Degas et al. and the Rat Catcher serve only to distract. There’s some decent gore, but there’s also some very bad CGI work (the scene where the Phantom sits on the rooftop and daydreams about a rat trap full of humans in particular) and much of the violence is irrelevant to the plot. There is nothing here to redeem this movie. Nothing. Avoid at all costs.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond