Robert Englund as the Phantom of the Opera

*contains spoilers

What must be horror actor Robert Englund’s (1947-) best performance outside of the Freddy Krueger franchise has to be the Phantom of the Opera (1989).

Actor Robert Englund

What appears to be originally a The Cannon Group film, it was inherited by Menahem Golan (1929-2014) under his new aegis as CEO of 21st Century Film Corporation, which he joined after resigning from the soon to be dissolved Cannon banner.

The Phantom of the Opera was a flop both commercially and critically and led to the eventual perishing of 21st Century Film Corporation as well.

As for this movie, which I hold in pretty good esteem as a 1980s horror movie, its original script was written by Gerry O’Hara (1924-) who wrote and directed the Joan Collins (1933-) movie The Bitch (1979) based on her sister Jackie Collins’s (1937-2015 breast cancer) book.

However, it wouldn’t be O’Hara’s script which would be used in the end, and if it is his, it has been altered, especially the fact that it was originally set in Paris.

Englund as Freddy Krueger

Since Cannon was involved, it is not surprising that Harry Alan Towers (1920-2009 after short illness) is producer as he worked on that studio’s Platoon Leader (1988) and American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989) among others before they went bust. Towers was the type of producer to work on remakes such as And Then There were None (three of them), Count Dracula (1970), the Fu Manchu movies of the 1960s starring Christopher Lee… the list goes on. So, to find Towers producing another remake of the Phantom of the Opera is only natural. Especially so since Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical was travelling across America to great success on tour at the time the film was produced.

Cannon’s Platoon Leader (1988) is better than its reputation suggests

This version of the Phantom of the Opera was made between Englund’s continued success in the role of hideously disfigured serial killer Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). Englund stumbled a little later with Tobe Hooper’s Night Terrors (1993) which I find plain awful.

There was probably a chandelier scene in Jerry O’Hara’s original script which was excised because of budgetary restraints… The falling chandelier is famous as it appears in nearly all of the versions of the Phantom of the Opera since it was first filmed with Lon Chaney Sr. (1883-1930 throat haemorrhage) as a silent movie in 1925.

the Phantom of the Opera (1989) poster

A writer by the name of Duke Sandefur (no info) took over the script and it is the short running time without such set pieces as the falling chandelier in the opera house which may have ended up with the story being bookended with scenes set in modern-day New York. It is in the opening bookend that the star soprano Christine hits her head and it transported back in time to – not the Paris – but the London Opera House, such that it is, in 1885.

Writer Sandefur has few feature credits to his name and his final one listed is Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (2012) for which he was nominated for a Razzie for worst screenplay. He seemed more suited to television, but he hasn’t come a cropper here as the results are rather good. But it’s that same old tale of who is responsible for what in a final screenplay?!

Herbert Lom’s Phantom was made in 1962 and also set in London

Originally, the film was also going to be directed by John Hough (1945-) who was responsible for the previous year’s American Gothic (1988) although that one was filmed in 1986-87. Hough also directed the respectable The Legend of Hell House (1973) and the bloody The Incubus (1982), so he would have been suited to the material as this version of the Phantom is a gory one.

But Hough was abandoned along with O’Hara’s original script.

John Hough’s American Gothic (1988) trailer

The first hint this is a gory movie, except for the poster art, which has a disfigured Robert Englund as the Phantom rather prominently in it, is in the opening bookend where heroine Christine discovers the original composition by the Phantom who is named Erik Destler in an old bookstore, apparently one of the rare occasions where the Phantom is given a surname. Anyway, this slightly burnt parchment starts to seep blood when Christine begins to sing from it… This 19th Century composer we learn is recorded in history as possibly a serial killer… So there, we have a hint of the horrors to come.

Special effects man John Buechler and friend

Actually, John Carl Buechler (1952-2019 prostate cancer) is responsible for some of the effects in the movie. Buechler was a well-respected special effects man who directed Troll (1986) and Cellar Dweller (1988) before he did work on Phantom. His effects work can be seen in films such as Mausoleum (1982), From Beyond (1986) and Dolls (1987). His work was considered good enough to earn him a directing segment in the Charles Band (1951-) produced The Dungeonmaster (1984).

This is Englund’s Phantom in all his glory

Gore moments in Phantom include a body which has been skinned alive and Englund’s Phantom sowing dead flesh onto his face for what seems like no other reason than to shock the audience.

As usual, his Phantom haunts the Opera House – with what appears to be a theatre in Budapest filling in for London – and as Gaston Leroux’s (1868-1927) original novel tells, the Phantom wants Christine to be the lead in the theatre’s latest production of Faust. And the phantom is willing to kill for this to happen, especially in this movie version.

The chandelier scene from one of the other Phantom movies

This dislocation of the story no longer being set in Paris but instead being London while not actually being filmed in London – adds to the atmosphere of this possible cult item.

Christine is played by Jill Schoelen (1963-), who was a bit of a minor scream queen in the 1980s for her appearances in The Stepfather (1987), Cutting Class (1989), Popcorn (1991) and the tv movie When a Stranger Calls Back (1993). She retired shortly after this last film to raise a family. She was apparently engaged to Brad Pitt but broke off the three-month engagement while filming of the Phantom was underway in Budapest.

But it is Englund’s film as he taunts the police and performs many a gory scene which includes ripping out people’s hearts and then leaving the body for the rats to feast on.

Yes, Christine I really love you… wedding march or funeral mass… You decide!

“This is either a wedding march… or a funeral mass… you decide,” says Englund, slightly over the top at one of the movie’s climaxes as he plays his organ to Christine in the bowels of the Opera House. His cheek and nose are missing which has earlier caused Christine to shriek upon first gazing upon him. The Phantom was never going to win any beauty contests or hearts, especially those of which he has just torn out.

Cutting Class (1989) trailer

The end of the film does lead back to the beginning… This Phantom of the Opera is almost a recurring dream or a nightmare in the same vein of Dead of Night (1945) if not strictly in the same form. The film in total seems to be unending in the sense as so is the curse of the Phantom and even Christine who must relive her crime, but more on that later…

Yes, so when Christine finds the Phantom’s composition as I said, scorched by fire… it follows that she sings at an audition at the beginning of the film which ends with a sandbag falling on her head… It is then that there is a shattering of a mirror which is also near the end of the movie just before the final bookend which is in modern day New York again.

Christine’s time in 1880s London starts with a shattering mirror and ends with a shattering mirror and the voice of the Phantom crying out: “Christine, Christine… come back!” It is almost a time warp if it isn’t the beginning and the end of a nightmare.

Christine is knocked into another realm by concussion at an audition

The true nightmare is what greets the Phantom everyday as he looks in a mirror, the result of him selling his soul for the success of his music. That the mirror breaks, is like a momentary relief or death for the Phantom perhaps even a moment of freedom or orgasm before the reality of being unable to escape that image of his true self without Christine… When the mirror is broken, his true pure longing is revealed beyond him wearing flesh and make-up as a mask and he knows he is trapped forever in this form. This could all be a stretch and a load of bull but, of course, the breaking of any mirror otherwise symbolises bad luck. And it is eternal in this movie for the Phantom and Christine.

The story of the Phantom and Christine is one of purity and loss

The story of the Phantom is one of purity and its loss. Erik has lost his physical and spiritual purity through his deal with the devil – they mutilate his face in return for his music living eternally. Christine gets close to selling her virginity to the Phantom for her possible success as a singer, but that’s it, she’s too pure to make the exchange and thus the love between the pair of them is one of extreme purity. That is the poignancy of the novel I would imagine.

But in his film, it is also a tale of extreme evil by the Phantom as he not only murders but often mutilates his victims. Possibly broken shards of a mirror at work.

He is kind to a sex worker though during the main part of the film and tells her to keep the room dark: “Tonight your name is Christine.” He tips her well and leaves her sexually satisfied while the encounter inspires him to compose. Here is the moral divide between the Phantom and the virginal Christine of the central tale.

Christine and the Phantom in the 1989 version

The idea that the Phantom must forever face the mirror despite the shattering of the dream is also eternal as it is hinted in the movie that the Phantom does not die and cannot. The artist as narcissist only to create something which will outlive him or herself, shows that they will do anything for immortality… which makes for a classic story such as Faust.

Englund’s Phantom likes to sow dead flesh onto his face

The Phantom thought it would be his music which would live in this version of the Phantom of the Opera but as we learn from the beginning of the film, his music is all but forgotten except by – so it would seem – cult street violin buskers, a motif throughout the film.

As we learn in the second or end bookend sequence, back in modern day New York, that the Phantom seems to have eternal life… thus a planned sequel was planned but was never made due to dire box office… As I said, he is damned to look in the mirror forever… or feel the pain of that gaze into the looking glass once it has ended!

The moral divide between Christine and the Phantom is shown to be less so in the last sequence when Christine is revived from her short coma only to find she has passed the audition. Not only that, the producer, who looks a lot like the Phantom, invites Christine back to his apartment that evening and we expect a modern-day sexual encounter possibly of the like between Harvey Weinstein and his proteges. But that was before #MeToo and, anyway, Christine takes revenge when she discovers the producer has the Phantom’s music on his computer.

Englund loves nothing more than to shower in blood… except for maybe Christine

It is all based on a dream? … so when they kiss, instead of hopping into bed with the producer/Phantom, she rips off his mask, kills him, takes the music and shoves it down a drain… Who is the real psychopath? They both apparently are! Certainly, if the dream was real, she was the inspiration for the Phantom’s great works… but she only sees the dirty side of the Phantom and his apparent murders… At the end of the movie we are not sure the New York producer or Phantom is really dead.

But in reneging on her modern-day sexual encounter with her boss, Christine remains pure – except for the fact that she’s a murderer. Perhaps this would have made her the perfect partner for the Phantom in a sequel. She is a murderer now loose on the streets! What a perfect match!!

Director Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) trailer

“You’ll always be my inspiration Christine,” says the Phantom during this scene before she tries to kill him, truly revealing it was not a dream. It’s a matter of what you choose, love or music? The Phantom is damned not to have love. Christine chose music, or was it neither as she is haunted as she walks down the street by a busker playing the Phantom’s theme. Seems to be love of the self, or the mirror as she walks off almost shrugging off the fact that she doesn’t know that she too has sold her soul in a way to the devil.

Englund helps the film immeasurably even if he is looking like Freddy Krueger and delivering his Kreuger-like one-liners almost every time he sets out to kill. You can’t help but wonder though if the make-up and performance were inspired by actor Jack Palance (1919-2006 natural causes) whose face was reconstructed after a plane crash during World War Two. There is a slight resemblance.

Does Englund resemble Jack Palance or is it just the character

There are no really long takes of Englund performing, it is like fragments of a performance pieced together from a mutilated original script. It’s that idea of the broken mirror again as the Phantom scowls and says: “I never forget a face” to someone who has wronged him, even if it maybe his own face and the sense he has wronged himself for selling his soul. But the Phantom in this movie is perhaps hardly that sensitive.

The legend of Faust is central to the Phantom’s story

“The world will love you for your music but that’s all they’ll love you for,” says the devil upon the Phantom selling his soul to him. But the Phantom gets used to the idea and delivers the line later on in the movie, with revelry: “Everything has its price.”

The Phantom of the Opera (1989) trailer

And back to the eternal nightmare of Christine perhaps reliving the nightmare again and again in her head for having sold her own soul at the end by committing murder… and maybe it is just the viewer who repeats the experience by watching it again!

At the opening of the movie there is a quote albeit a fake one from someone who is called St Jean Vitius of Rouen, who upon the day of his execution said: “Pray for them who giveth their immortal soul to Satan… For each is damned to relive that wretched life… though all times.”

Guess who ended up with all the moolah in the late 1980s?

While at the very end of the movie is the disclaimer: “This motion picture is not associated with any current or prior stage play or motion picture of the same title”. That means you Andrew Lloyd Webber, who certainly made more money from his Phantom of the Opera stage show than this small film ever did.

However, this version though is a small and interesting triumph to reflect over, especially for Englund’s fans, 1980s horror lovers and even fans of the Phantom himself!

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