Robert Englund's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA takes center stage on Scream Factory's special edition Blu-ray.
Hopeful New York singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen, THE STEPFATHER) wants something fresh for her audition. Her friend Meg (a pre-SNL Molly Shannon) discovers "Don Juan Triumphant" – lyrics by Harriet Schock of "Dancing with My Father" and "Hollywood Town" – a lost manuscript by obscure composer Erik Destler (Robert Englund, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) who was believed to have been involved in a number of grisly murders and the disappearance of a young singer in turn-of-the-century London. Christine feels a connection to the piece, and an accident involving a sandbag during her audition transports her back in time where she is a young American singer at the London Opera playing Cybil in "Faust" while understudying the lead Marguerite under imperious diva Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence, O LUCKY MAN!) and being romanced by opera co-manager Richard (Alex Hyde-White, BIGGLES: ADVENTURES IN TIME). Christine has been taking vocal lessons from "the angel of music" who she believes was sent by (or may be) the spirit of her musician father, and she gets her chance to sing Marguerite when Carlotta is struck dumb when she discovers the flayed corpse of stagehand Joseph (Terence Beesley, IN ASCOLTO) in her wardrobe.
Although Christine surprises the audience with her debut, opera co-manager Barton (Bill Nighy, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) convinces esteemed critic Harrison (Peter Clapham, THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA) to give Christine a bad review in order to placate Carlotta. A devastated Christine visits her father's grave and the phantom lures her into his lair where he makes her pledge herself to music and to serve no other master. Upon learning that Harrison has been brutally murdered, Christine fears for Richard's life and tries to avoid seeing him. Inspector Hawkins (Terence Harvey, SKY BANDITS) has linked the deaths of Joseph and Harrison to Christine and determines that the phantom – who he believes responsible for other flaying deaths in London's West End – is residing under the opera house. When Christine breaks her promise not to see Richard, the phantom storms the opera's masquerade ball as the Red Death and spirits her away to his lair (a gag involving a severed head serving the same diverting purpose as a budget-unfriendly chandelier fall) with Richard and the police in pursuit.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA began life as a big budget Cannon production scripted by Gerry O'Hara (FANNY HILL) to be shot in London's Elstree Studios which Cannon had acquired in 1986 but sold off in 1989. With Cannon facing bankruptcy, the company was taken over by Giancarlo Parretti's Pathe Communications in 1989. While Yoram Globus would stay on at Cannon with CEO Christopher Pearce, Menahem Golan was given the company 21st Century Film Corporation – which had been acquired by Parretti when it went bankrupt (although Tom Ward retained the earlier titles it distributed) as part of his severance, and took a number of projects with him including PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (which Golan started developing upon learning that Leroux's estate had passed into the public domain). When Dwight Little joined the production on the heels of HALLOWEEN 4, he commissioned Duke Sandefur (GHOST TOWN) to rewrite the script. Budapest, Hungary would stand-in for Victorian London (as it did for producer Harry Alan Towers' other simultaneous "Jekyll and Hyde" production EDGE OF SANITY where the same exteriors had a more artificial feeling) and the standing sets for Golan's "Three Penny Opera" adaptation MACK THE KNIFE would be redressed for use on PHANTOM. In the eighties, Hungary was a more affordable shooting location with cityscapes that could substitute for various European cities (it had already substituted for Paris in the 1983 TV adaptation of the Leroux story and would also be utilized by Dario Argento in the nineties for his adaptation). Romania would replace Hungary as the Eastern European go-to for economic studio and location shooting a few years later when Charles Band co-founded the studio Castel Film with producer/cinematographer Vlad Paunescu for his Full Moon productions).
While the producers wanted to cash in on Englund's popularity as Freddy Krueger, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has its share of grue – including the Phantom's Freddy-esque disfigured face designed by Kevin Yagher (who had worked on the second, third, and fourth NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films as well as FREDDY'S NIGHTMARES) and his "mask" made up of the skinned flesh of his victims – but it was mounted by director Little and star Englund as a Hammer tribute. Little took full advantage of the available resources from the British supporting cast to the Hungarian technicians and craftspersons, and the film impresses visually on an almost shot-by-shot basis with many nods to German expressionism courtesy of art director Tivadar Bertalan (who had already designed Curtis Harrington's MATA HARI for Cannon) and cinematographer Elemer Regalyi's whose lighting is alternately low-key and strikingly colorful. Where the film fails is in conveying a palpable love of music – although the orchestral score of Misha Segal (THE LAST DRAGON) is one of its finest assets – with the opera and musical sequences being prelude for a number of death set-pieces (most of which were snipped for an MPAA rating) and Christine forced into a union with the phantom when she is vulnerable rather than seduced by the music (although Sandefur's script does draw a parallel between the opera's current production of "Faust" and the phantom's naïve pact with the devil that promised he would be loved only for his music). The phantom's true face is unveiled to the audience before it is to Christine, lessening the impact when the phantom reveals it to her (although Christine gets to do another subsequent unmasking at the end). For horror viewers, it's a surprisingly beautiful-looking film and a nice alternative to Andrew Lloyd Webber's sappy musical. Both director Little and effects artist Kevin Yagher have subsequently worked on the Fox forensic crime series BONES.
Although most of Golan's other 21st Century theatrical releases were handled by Columbia Pictures (including Tom Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake), PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was self-distributed by 21st Century (along with MACK THE KNIFE) and released on video and laserdisc by Columbia Pictures. 21st Century had gone bankrupt in the nineties (while Golan was trying to get his production of SPIDERMAN underway) and the company's assets had been acquired by MGM. MGM's 2004 double-sided DVD featured an anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation of the film with the film's Ultra Stereo mix in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround with the film's theatrical trailer as the sole extra. MGM's HD master made its Blu-ray debut in Germany courtesy of Ascot in 2012, and then in the UK from 101 Films in 2014 (the 2.0 mixes of which seem to have duplicated only one of the channels resulting in a lopsided mono mix).
Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 transfer adds a new layer of gloss lacking from the softer and grainier MGM DVD. There is a bit of noise in the blacks during the opening credits aerial shot (as well as the blacks in the New York bookending sequences which were shot by THE AMITYVILLE HORROR remake's Peter Lyons Collister), but the photography benefits greatly from the new presentation, affording a better look at the gorgeous sets, locations, and costumes that made up this low-budget production, as well as some of the subtler touches of Regalyi's lighting. The Ultra Stereo mix highlights the epic score of Segal and the busy backgrounds of the opera and London streets (both sets and Budapest exteriors), and is available as a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track and a 5.1 lossless upmix. English SDH subtitles are also available.
Director Little and actor Englund are featured on a new audio commentary track in which they discuss their love for Hammer Films and how they tried to tap into that atmosphere in this film (while giving the producers just enough Freddy). They discuss the cast including Schoelen and the now ubiquitous Nighy, as well as Harvey (who works prolifically on British television), Lawrence (who had played Evita on the London stage alongside Ryan who had played Che), and Efroni (a regular of Israeli films, including Golan's Cannon and 21st Century productions). They are newly appreciative of Ragalyi's photography, the authentic locations, the costumes, as well as the redressed standing sets. Little recalls fighting with Golan to shoot the bookending segments in the first place and then to retain them in the final cut, and how a high-speed camera had to be rented from Germany for the slow-motion shots. Englund recalls how much longer the make-up job took than his Freddy sessions (and how the look of his "masked" self was modeled after busts of Beethoven), and both recall the severely relaxed film safety regulations in Cold War Hungary. Englund is annoyed that the American poster spoils the reveal of the phantom's disfigured face and prefers the German poster, while Little mentions that a new generation of female fans who might have earlier preferred the musical have sine discovered the film on DVD in the last decade (particularly goth girls, according to Englund).
Also new is "Behind the Mask: The Making of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA" (37:43) which features interviews with several cast and crew members. Little recalls that he was still getting script pages from Sandefur while on location and that the production missed its small window to shoot at the Budapest opera but found a regional opera house where they would shoot for four weeks (he also discusses some of the other locations and the difficulty of blocking some of the larger sequences). Englund was on the verge of taking an extended break after the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films when he was offered the role of the Phantom, which was both a lead and an opportunity for a more melodramatic part. Schoelen attributes her status as horror starlet to the rise in popularity of horror films at the time but enjoyed the shooting experience more so than the final product as she felt the slasher aspect detracted from its more dramatic ambitions. She and Hyde-White also recall the unsafe working conditions, particularly during the fiery climax in the phantom's candle-strewn Styrofoam cavernous lair.
Yagher designed the phantom make-ups but was unable to go on location in Hungary, so they were applied by Everett Burrell (who had started working for Yagher after a stint with Greg Cannom). John Carl Buechler's (DOLLS) Magical Media Industries would do the effects for most of the kill scenes, and John Vulich (CASTLE FREAK) recalls having to rig together a couple severed heads on a short schedule in the bathroom of his Budapest hotel room (Burrell and Vulich would form company Optic Nerve soon and do the effects for Tom Savini's Golan-produced NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). Composer Misha Segal is also on hand to discuss his score and how he avoided the Webber musical so as not to be influenced by it. Little and Englund also discuss how the ending was set-up for the sequel PHANTOM OF MANHATTAN which Little was apparently involved in early on (although posters announced it with MY BLOODY VALENTINE's George Mihalka at the helm and ideas from it were reportedly recycled into Greydon Clark's DANCE MACABRE which was shot in Russia for Golan's 21st Century). Also included from the MGM DVD is the film's theatrical trailer (1:53), but Scream has also added a TV Spot (0:31) as well as two radio spots (2:03) and a stills gallery (5:26) with sixty-five behind the scenes photos including more coverage of a gory decapitation that was lost to the MPAA. There are also trailers for CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM. The cover reproduces the crass American poster art rather than the more stylish European ones (or even the relatively subtler MGM DVD cover). (Eric Cotenas)
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