Lon Chaney Phantom

The best, worst and weirdest adaptations of Phantom of the Opera

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Sep 23, 2018

In the early 1900s, Parisian journalist Gaston Leroux worked for various French publications. He was a court reporter and theater critic, but he also traveled extensively to cover major events like the 1905 Russian Revolution. One story involved writing about the majestic Palais Garnier, home to the Paris Opera. In 1896, a counterweight to the house's iconic chandelier broke loose, fell through the auditorium ceiling and killed a concierge. There had been gossip for a long time that the opera house was haunted, and Leroux decided to use this premise as the foundation for the great gothic detective novel he'd always wanted to write. Over the course of four months between September 1909 and January 1910, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra was serialized in the French daily newspaper Le Gaulois and was popular enough to warrant an English translation.

The rest, they say, is history.

The Phantom of the Opera is a curious little book. It’s a horror crime pulp gothic romance morality tale that’s positioned as a true story and partly exists to exalt the beauty of its own setting. In terms of the era’s horror novels, it’s not exactly an undisputed classic or literary marvel, but it zips along nicely and has a killer premise. A mysterious figure haunts the Paris Opera House and reveals himself to be a scarred genius with an obsessive interest in a young soprano. It’s not hard to see why this book would inspire the sheer plethora of adaptations and re-imaginings that have followed in its shadowy footsteps.

The adaptations are almost too numerous to count and cover an array of media, from film and television to theater, music, novels, video games, and even pinball machines. Unlike, say, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera is also more heavily defined by a handful of specific adaptations. You could ask ten people what they think of Dracula and the chances are they could all name different adaptations, be it the Coppola film, Nosferatu, Hammer Horror, or the Universal classic.

With Phantom, nine times out of 10, their first point of reference will be Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. That in and of itself is a fascinating phenomenon worth exploring, and we'll get to it. How does what is basically a dime-store pulp crime novel of questionable literary quality become not only a horror legend but the vessel for a highly specific kind of romantic antihero? However, it is also worth looking at some of the other adaptations of Leroux's novel. As with all great public domain properties, there are great adaptations, terrible ones, and the kinds that make you wonder what the hell was going on during the production process. This piece won’t be all-encompassing, simply because it’s unmanageable, but it will focus on the most notable adaptations as well as some hidden gems you may have missed and the chandelier wrecks that you just can’t ignore.

GOOD: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The beginning is a good place to start. Well, as close to the beginning as we can get. There was actually another silent adaptation of Phantom that was filmed before Universal’s, but as with the depressing majority of silent cinema from that era, it has been lost to time. However, this film remains a landmark of the medium. Without the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney Sr. in the eponymous role, there would be no Universal horror lineage. It kickstarted a whole new era of horror cinema that influenced decades of filmmakers, and it stands as a pioneer in make-up and special effects work. Every Phantom adaptation that follows this one has borrowed something from it. Indeed, the history of horror on film would look very different without the shadow of The Phantom of the Opera looming overhead.

Remarkably, much of the film holds up very well to modern eyes, similar to Nosferatu. Universal put a lot of money behind this production and it shows, with a lavish opera house set and crowds of extras. The film leans in heavily to the book’s horror aspects in a way many adaptations that would follow tend to avoid. Lon Chaney Sr. reminds audiences of why he is the legend of silent cinema. He did all his own make-up and even under those rudimentary prosthetics, he gives an exceptionally expressive performance. It’s not hard to see why contemporary filmgoers reportedly screamed in horror when watching his famous unmasking scene.

The Phantom is an undisputed villain here, but is still someone viewers can sympathize with, and a lot of that is down to Chaney. The only downside of what is otherwise probably the most faithful adaptation is the major ending change, as the story’s poignant climax is turned into a full Hollywood chase scene. Still, there are few moments in silent cinema as breathtaking as the reveal of the Phantom in his majestic Red Death outfit, a burst of color amid the black and white.

BAD: Phantom of the Opera (1943)

It was The Phantom of the Opera that kickstarted Universal's horror boom, so of course it would be Phantom they would return to after establishing themselves as the kings of the genre. Now, with Technicolor in full force and a much higher budget, the studio could bring the grandiosity of the Palais Garnier to the big screen. Their 1943 remake is certainly lavish — the auditorium set is the same one from the silent film and the costumes are undoubtedly stunning — but this film has very little in common with the original movie and the source material.

The Phantom is introduced as Erique Claudin, a violinist with the opera house who is fired after illness causes him to lose the use of his left hand. He remains Christine's benefactor, secretly funding her singing lessons, although it's never really explained why he is interested in her. To earn money, he submits a concerto he has written for publication, but then due to a ridiculous and super minor misunderstanding, he ends up killing a man then being scarred in the face with acid. Then the Phantom hauntings begin. It's admirable that the studio did not want to re-tread ground already explored with their pioneering original Phantom film, but the viewer can't help but spend most of this movie wondering why various creative decisions were made.

Claude Rains, who plays Erique, is very good (although much better as The Invisible Man) but there’s no emotional connection to his struggles or feelings for Christine. There’s also no explanation given for why he snaps and strangles a man to death over nothing, or why he has to keep his status as Christine’s benefactor secret. She barely seems to know who he is. This is mostly a story of wasted potential. An original draft of the story imagined the Phantom as a PTSD suffering World War I veteran who, while physically unharmed, suffered delusions of mass scarring. The original director for this film had the Phantom as Christine's father, which would make his secrecy in this version somewhat more reasonable. As with many remakes, this film just makes you want to re-watch the original.

BAD: Hammer Horror's The Phantom of the Opera

The British legends of Hammer helped to rejuvenate cinematic horror from the 1950s onwards thanks to hits like Dracula that brought the scares (as well as the blood) back to the genre. While their vampiric exploits are their most well-known, Hammer delved into the worlds of classic horror frequently: Christopher Lee played Frankenstein’s monster as well as The Mummy; they adapted classic BBC sci-fi like Quatermass, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, and even did a gender subversion of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. It seemed inevitable that they'd dip their toes into Phantom, and they did in 1962.

The issue is that this one is bereft of all the stuff that makes Hammer Horror so iconic. There’s a distinct lack of blood, there’s no sensuality, it’s not really scary, and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing aren’t anywhere to be seen. All in all, this one is mostly boring. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, nor does it do much with the Phantom premise beyond adding an evil killer little person, which has aged very badly. It begs for the regal presence Lee could convey without even trying or at least full commitment to the gothic theatricalities it hints at. Of course, it’s a simple truth that all horror movies are made better by the presence of Christopher Lee.

GOOD: Phantom of the Paradise

Nothing about Phantom of the Paradise should work. It’s a rock-pop musical take on Phantom as well as Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray, made in the 1970s by emerging auteur Brian de Palma, with songs written by the guy who wrote "The Rainbow Connection" for The Muppets (who is also playing the villain), with an overriding arc about the corruption of the music industry, and there’s also a subplot about selling your soul to Satan. And to be fair, it didn’t work upon release, as it flopped with audiences everywhere except for Winnipeg. Eventually, it became the cult classic it deserved to, with figures like director Edgar Wright and electro legends Daft Punk citing it as an influence. If you’re looking for a new midnight movie musical to put next to Rocky Horror Picture Show on your shelf, look no further than Phantom of the Paradise.

In terms of nailing the novel’s feverish pulpiness, this is the adaptation that comes the closest, even if it is pretty loosely adapted in most places. There are major changes to the source material — this is another version where the Phantom is scarred through circumstance rather than being born with it — but Paradise has the strongest understanding of the mania of creativity. Here, the Phantom is a songwriter named Winslow whose musical masterpiece — a cantata of Faust — is stolen by the nefarious producer Swan and bastardized into whatever musical trend is popular that day. The story is a blistering satire of the 1970s music industry at a time when the medium was in major flux, from the rise of glam rock to the ‘50s nostalgia wave inspired by Happy Days.

Yet, like its source material, it’s also a genuine attempt to understand the torment of a creator, one who struggles to let go of his masterpiece and will exact its potential at all costs. The layers to this story are never-ending: It’s a campy rock musical satire about selling out, having your vision be corrupted and the unbeatable power dynamics of corporate greed, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun! As a Phantom adaptation, it’s the closest we’ve probably gotten to the intensity of the novel’s central message as well as real sympathy for its Phantom without watering down the sheer evil he commits (Winslow kills a lot of people in this movie, and always with a maniacal laugh). This is also flat out the best soundtrack any Phantom adaptation’s ever had. Sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

WEIRD: Phantom of the Mall – Eric’s Revenge

The 1980s were an interesting time. Horror was in a new age as Wes Craven birthed Freddy Krueger, the Vorhees clan terrorized sexually active teens everywhere, and Clive Barker brought BDSM to the genre with unique results. Surprisingly, there wasn't a rebirth of classic monster stories during this period, or at least not in the expected ways. Vampires became metaphors for the decade's ills (The Hunger), werewolves got funny (An American Werewolf in London), and the video nasties pushed boundaries with the genre that created international scandals.

Of course, there was also a lot of shlock during this period. Horror could be made quickly, cheaply and with a guaranteed appeal to teenagers looking for easy scares. Still, this reasoning doesn’t entirely explain how anyone managed to pitch a contemporary slasher retelling of Phantom that featured an evil mall developer played by Chandler’s mom in Friends and Pauly Shore flashing his backside.

Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge is clearly the bastard child of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises in how it mostly exists to show off an array of unique and vaguely comical death scenes (yes, a man dies while on the toilet because the Phantom put a snake in the pipes). Here, Eric (with a C) is a former high school jock whose family and home were destroyed by evil property developers who wanted the land to build their new mall on. In-between killing people and working out, he plans to blow up the mall on the eve of its grand opening.

The movie doesn’t necessarily deserve the label of “weird” because it’s far too mundane for that. However, it remains astounding that this pitch ever made its way out of committee. Were the hip young teens of the 1980s really all about The Phantom of the Opera, even after the musical became a smash hit? Phantom of the Mall doesn’t even have the decency to lean into the kitschy qualities of its synopsis, but it does feature a fireside sex scene and the Phantom roundhouse kicking a man in the face while he wears a baseball cap.

BAD: Robert Englund’s The Phantom of the Opera

In the 1980s, Robert Englund had firmly established himself as one of the great horror villains thanks to his iconic turn as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. However, by the end of the decade, Freddy himself had gone through a few changes, moving further away from the full-on terror of the first film to a more comedic approach. Think of the daft one-liners and winks to the audience over how silly proceedings have gotten.

That Freddy is all over Englund's take on Phantom, which is a nasty horror time travel mish-mash that still finds time for a few death puns. His Erik is a composer who sold his soul to Satan in exchange for everlasting adoration of his music, but the deal left him disfigured, so he kills people and sews their flesh onto his face as a mask. His Christine has traveled through time to London of 1885 but might actually be dreaming or having a past life regression (the film isn't really sure either).

This adaptation certainly isn’t short of ideas and Englund is clearly having the time of his life. He plays the Phantom with such scenery-chewing gusto that you can practically see the teeth marks on the furniture. However, the overall production is oddly lifeless and unsure of its own concept. It seems to struggle with whether it wants to be a gleefully grizzly bloodbath or a more deftly drawn piece of phantasmagoria. Englund can take comfort in knowing that his film’s version of the unmasking scene is easily the most horrifying.

GOOD: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

It’s easy to downplay the impact Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical has had on pop culture. Not only is the show still running on both West End and Broadway, it’s one of the most profitable pieces of entertainment ever made. Everyone and their mother have seen Phantom. Some fans have seen the show literally hundreds of times and still go back for more. Lloyd Webber managed to tap into something embedded in the source material and amplify it in ways that have inspired millions of ardent fans. That basic formula is actually very simple: Take the Phantom’s obsession for Christine and play it as a high romance.

The book itself is not especially romantic, as Leroux plays Eric’s fantasies as something to fear and pity, not yearn for. He is a tragic character but still clearly a villain. For Lloyd Webber, the character became a full-on misunderstood sex god, one who is clearly positioned for large portions of the show as the more interesting romantic option than Raoul. He has a lovely suit, he keeps his underground layer impeccably decorated, he writes incredible music and has the most astounding voice, and he’s even nice enough to have a wedding dress ready for Christine! If you ignore all the kidnapping and murdering and major damage to a historic building, the Phantom’s not bad!

The parallels between the show and the composer himself have bypassed absolutely no one (Lloyd Webber wrote this show for his then-wife Sarah Brightman, a young soprano and dancer whose career he tried to boost at every turn.) The central gender politics of the show have been rightly criticized over the decades but it’s tough to deny that inherent appeal, the key to the formula that has enraptured so many. This is a mega show with mega emotions. Everything is turned up to the level of “just a bit too much” and it works. It’s arguable that people are familiar with this version of the story than the original and it’s not hard to see why. The appeal is simply easier to grasp when the story is streamlined, the themes made more concise and banging electric guitars added. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera was a game changer. May it run for another 30 years.

WEIRD: Phantom of the Megaplex

If you thought a 1980s slasher version of Phantom was weird, how about a Disney Channel movie one? The kids are all about Gaston Leroux. During the 2000s, the Disney Channel made a lot of original movies and the chances are, if you're of that age bracket, you remember a hell of a lot more of those titles than you're willing to admit. These films covered a surprisingly wide array of genres, so why not go for a horror inspired Phantom remake?

Phantom of the Megaplex moves the action to a multiplex cinema haunted by the ghost of the old theater that once inhabited the land of the new Megaplex. As with many films from the Disney Channel oeuvre, the jokes are very broad, the acting highly suspect, and the tone knowingly and unashamedly silly. Say what you want about a film like this but it knows exactly what it is and who it’s made for. Like Phantom of the Mall, its weirdness is more in the fact that it even exists.

BAD: Love Never Dies

Making sequels to musicals is a bad idea. Historically, they’ve been critical and commercial flops, and there’s just no way to please everyone in your massive fan base with a follow-up to the story they loved. If nothing else, Andrew Lloyd Webber should at least get kudos for having the nerve to sequelize the biggest show of his career, one with a gargantuan and intensely dedicated fandom. It almost didn’t happen after Lloyd Webber’s cat deleted the in-progress score from his owner’s keyboard (yes, really). Alas, arrive on the West End it did, and the reviews were abysmal. One blog infamously labeled the show, “Paint Never Dries.”

So, why is the show so bad? Given how fundamentally Lloyd Webber and his team redefined The Phantom of the Opera through his original show, it’s kind of astounding how much he misses the point of his own work in the sequel. Partly based on Frederick Forsyth’s unofficial sequel to Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of Manhattan, Love Never Dies follows the Phantom across the pond to Coney Island, where he runs a freak show burlesque hybrid that has invited Christine to perform. Her young son is with her, as is the now drunken waste-of-space Raoul, and the Girys now work for the Phantom as spiteful confidants who are ever so jealous of Christine. Oh, and there’s an entire musical number dedicated to how the Phantom and Christine had one great night of sex. Oh, and her son is his son. It only gets more soap opera weird from there.

The story of The Phantom of the Opera is already camp but Love Never Dies inflates it to absurd levels then plays the whole thing completely straight-faced. It also undoes every beat of character growth from the original show, forcing the Phantom to revert to his possessive man-child status. The whole damn point of the show’s climax is that he has grown to understand that even though the world has been ceaselessly cruel to him that does not give him permission to treat others the same. He realizes that he loves Christine as something to possess, not as her own person, and her moment of kindness reminds him of that. Having her then come back for a one night stand goes beyond fan-fic wish fulfillment and ends up in bonkers misogyny territory. She pities him. That’s not love, but then Love Never Dies decides to do away with that nuance and have him be even worse and still win Christine’s affection.

It’s no wonder fans on the West End rejected it. However, the show has gained surprising popularity in recent years through extensive North American tours (it’s also undergone a number of rewrites). Perhaps this will finally make its way to Broadway?

WEIRD: Il Fantasma dell'Opera

Once upon a time, letting Dario Argento adapt The Phantom of the Opera would have been a brilliant idea. How could allowing the grandfather of giallo cinema making a stylistic horror film about a naturally melodramatic story go wrong? Alas, the Argento of the 1990s is a very different beast from the Argento who made Suspiria and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Il Fantasma dell’Opera makes the most baffling creative decisions for no apparent reason beyond because it can.

This version’s Phantom, played by Julian Sands, is not scarred or facially disfigured, although he does have one of the top five worst wigs committed to the silver screen. He’s also a straight up rapist who has a fetish for rats. That’s not a joke. Here, Erik is raised by rats from childhood, like he’s the Penguin in Batman Returns, and it’s never explained. And he’s also telepathic. This is maybe the most explicitly sexual adaptation in that the Phantom and Christine (played by Argento's own daughter, Asia) do consummate their relationship, but then he also rapes her. This seediness is made worse by Argento seemingly playing up half the story for laughs, although nobody could find any of this comical.

Overall, Il Fantasma dell’Opera is an exceedingly nasty film but with none of the ingenuity to make that interesting. It strives for shock value but lacks the strangeness that made Argento such a legend in the first place. To damn it with faint praise, it’s better than his version of Dracula (in 3D!), but only because this film seemed to have an actual budget. It’s a surprise to discover that a Phantom adaptation was one of Argento’s pet projects because it seems like he wanted absolutely nothing to do with this movie. Even the rats look bored.

BAD: Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera

We could not end this post without touching on the big-budget adaptation of Lloyd Webber’s musical, directed by Joel Schumacher of The Lost Boys and Batman and Robin fame. It seemed surprising that the film took close to 20 years to make given how much of a cultural phenomenon the show was when it opened. But hey, if you’re going to do a lavish movie adaptation of a melodramatic high-romance musical from the ‘80s, you may as well let the guy who put nipples on the Batsuit direct it.

Schumacher’s work here isn’t the mega trainwreck of his Gotham exploits. Instead, it’s just mostly kind of dull and a bit cheap looking. The costumes are gorgeous, but the sets seem oddly small and the cinematography is a mess. It has no idea how to make this stage show look cinematic, while its attempts into dream-like logic fall flat because they’re barely distinguishable from the moments of realism. The casting is wrong all across the board, with the exception of Minnie Driver as Carlotta, as she has the savvy to know what kind of film she’s in.

And Gerard Butler. Oh, Gerry. You tried your hardest. Now there’s an actor who just doesn’t look comfortable unless he’s punching someone or firing lasers at the weather. Schumacher wanted a younger Phantom to emphasize the sexual chemistry between him and Christine, so aesthetically speaking, his casting isn’t entirely unreasonable. He does look amazing in the Red Death outfit. But then he opens his mouth, and therein lies the horror. Tone deaf doesn’t cover it. Between this and La La Land, it’s about time we just brought back dubbing for movie musicals.

Schumacher can’t seem to decide if he’s making a serious prestige movie or a Meatloaf music video, and half-hearted attempts to gel the two don’t work. It’s melodrama but too timid to embrace it when necessary, and the moments that call for emotion are drowned out by bad dinner theater. Regardless of what you think of the musical itself, it really deserves a better movie. You know who loves The Phantom of the Opera and called dibs on directing a live TV production of it? Rian Johnson. Give him a call, Lloyd Webber! It’s what the Phantom deserves.

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