Growing up, I was a huge Freddy Krueger fan. I had also become infatuated with Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, which made me a pretty easy mark for Dwight H. Little’s (Halloween 4) 1989 film based on the popular work of fiction. Focusing more on the horror contained within Leroux’s original story, this version is a wickedly ghastly and blood-soaked tale of obsession that allows Robert Englund the room to do what he does best as a performer- go nuts. And after recently checking out the Scream Factory Blu-ray, it was great to see just how well Little’s inventive adaptation has held up over time and how much fun the film still remains, despite its age.
In this Phantom of the Opera, Jill Schoelen portrays an aspiring singer by the name of Christine Day who gets knocked unconscious during an audition, an event that mysteriously transports her back in time to 19th Century London where she’s the understudy in the famed Opera House’s upcoming performance of Faust. The young Day dreams of stardom, something she’s promised by a secretive musical angel who visits her in order to help her train for greatness. The thing is though, the angel Day has put her trust in is actually Eric Destler (Englund), a composer tormented by his own shortcomings who once sold his soul in order to fulfill his own musical ambitions- an act that costs Destler his visage and forces him to hide away from the world.
As Destler’s obsession with Day grows, he reacts by removing any obstacles that may stand in the way of the young starlet’s opportunity to take over as the lead of Faust, allowing his prodigy the chance to shine in front of an audience and hopefully win her heart along the way. As those familiar with the story of The Phantom know, Destler’s idea of romance ends up being a bit too violent for Day’s liking, forcing her to stand-up to Destler before his deadly obsession costs her everything (and everyone) she cares about.
There’s a bit more to Little’s adaptation but for those of you who may have never experienced this version of The Phantom of the Opera before, I’ll keep those twists under wraps as they really do work better if you don’t know what to expect. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of really great stuff going on in this version of Leroux’s timeless tale of obsessive love and I think that the risks that Little takes here story-wise really work towards the benefit of the viewers and make for a truly satisfying throwback horror movie.
Something else I was also a big fan of was that Little decided to take his Phantom in more of a slasher-esque direction, allowing his iconic villain to embrace his nastier tendencies which was far more in line with Leroux’s story than say anything associated with the name Andrew Lloyd Weber ever was. That also gave Englund some room to play around with the role, thus Destler firing off a few one-liners as he disposes of anyone who objects to his intended love’s success becoming something of a tribute to Englund’s most memorable cinematic role of all-time, Freddy Krueger.
Schoelen (who many horror fans may remember from films like The Stepfather or Popcorn) is as adorable and charming as ever in The Phantom of the Opera and her performance is a warmly entertaining contrast to Englund’s cold-blooded killer tendencies. There’s a couple of other familiar faces in Phantom as well, including Bill Nighy (Underworld, Hot Fuzz) and Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live), with a few veteran character actors like Alex Hyde-White (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and Mark Ryan (Transformers) rounding out the supporting ensemble.
The kills in this Phantom are also gleefully visceral and often shockingly gory which gives the Victorian backdrop a nice gut punch, making the film all the more effective as a slasher story as well. Englund’s make-up as the horribly scarred Destler looks great too, with the villain’s alternative look (via attaching pieces of human flesh to hide his deformities) being an inventive touch on the character’s disfigurement. Both the cinematography and the production design on Phantom are both killer as well, fully immersing us into this lavishly detailed world of 19th Century London.
It’s been probably over two decades since I last watched Little’s highly ambitious slasher-fied twist on The Phantom of the Opera but the highly underrated cult classic absolutely stands the test of time as a flawed but wholly entertaining update that deserved far better treatment than it got upon its release in 1989. Scream Factory’s recent Blu-ray release of the film does an amazing job of paying tribute to oft overlooked gem and upon my recent revisit of the film, I think it very well may be my second favorite non-Nightmare performance from Englund (the first being Behind the Mask) and truly a fantastic effort by Little. This HD upgrade would absolutely make for a great addition to any horror fans’ home entertainment collection and I’m grateful to Scream for giving the film the love it so rightly deserves.
Film Score: 3.5/5, Disc Rating: 4.5/5