Movie of the Week: The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

If I could stick my pen in my heart
And spill it all over the stage
Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya
Would you think the boy is strange?
Ain’t he strange?
– “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It),” The Rolling Stones

In the late summer of 2000, I attended a performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre in Toronto.

I loved the Pantages.  Beautiful place, full of history.  Toronto is a great town.

The Pantages is now known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

I still hate that damn musical, though.

There have a been a lot of Phantom productions over the years, a lot of people have slipped behind the organ to grind out the music of the night.  Lon Chaney’s performance as the Phantom in 1925’s silent film remains unrivaled, both on screen and on the stage.  Chaney was a make-up genius and a phenomenal actor.  The unmasking scene is a testament to Chaney’s, and the film’s, power.

But have you seen Robert Englund’s turn as Erik, the Phantom?  There’s a good chance you haven’t, unless you’re a die hard horror fan, or a major Englund fan.

First, a word of warning:  Menahem Golan was a producer of 1989’s The Phantom of the Opera If you’re familiar with his name, his cousin Yoram Globus, Cannon Films, or 21st Century Film Corporation, you know kind of what to expect.  Mostly.  This isn’t some Merchant-Ivory deal, or even the Claude Rains Phantom.  Or Webber’s.

On the surface, Freddy Krueger may seem an odd choice for the Phantom.  It’s not so odd knowing the intention of this version was to be a slasher in line with all of the others of the time.  It was the eighties and slashers were the craze.  Also, Robert Englund is a classically trained actor, so there’s that.

The movie involves a modern-day opera singer, Christine (Jill Schoelen) who sings a rare composition for an audition.  The piece is Don Juan Triumphant by Erik Destler.  Destler was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil for his music to be popular.  The Devil, in turn, disfigured the composer, peeling the skin off his face.  Jill learns a crazed Destler may have been a serial killer, because what are you gonna do when the Devil himself rips your face off?

At the audition, Jill is involved in a swinging sandbag accident (who hasn’t been there?).  She wakes up in 1885, nonplussed, as an American understudy to a French opera diva.  1885 Jill is also being mentored by Erik, the Phantom, whom she considers an angel of music.  He loves her, she receives vocal lessons.  Erik also moves Jill’s competition out of her way by any means necessary:  if they have to be skinned alive, so be it (Erik needs the pieces for his face).

This movie has most of what you would expect from any version of The Phantom of the Opera, I think.  There’s opera, there’s costumes, creepy sewer canals, and none of it looks too terribly bad.  It looks pretty darn good, actually.  And sounds good.  Believe it or not, the soundtrack won a Brit Award.  That’s kinda highbrow.

Yet, lest we get too highfalutin, there’s also quite a few stabbings, a midget as the Devil, skinless victims, a fair amount of blood, and Robert Englund cutting old pieces of flesh off his face and sewing new scraps on.

But the score won a Brit Award.

And I like this version better than that damn musical.

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