The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most revered of all the Hammer horror films. Eerie? Check. Atmosphere? Right on. Over-rated? Absolutely. While The Phantom of the Opera is a welcome addition to the shelf of horror classics, when I hear Hammer experts talk about this film as director Terence Fisher’s “best” or Hammer’s “best”, I have to wonder what the hell they are talking about.
There’s no use adding a summary, as Hammer didn’t deviate much from the traditional Phantom plot that we’ve all come to know and love. This isn’t to say that this version is simply a rehash of what came before. The origin of the Phantom is brand new. Revealing the origin would ruin the mystery for most people, so I will just say that Hammer moves away from the “deformed freak full of rage” as seen in most versions of the Phantom, and instead gives him an intrinsically human quality. This made it easier to sympathize with him (for almost any classic horror monster to work, there has to be some level of sympathy), and it worked very well in the film. Also, the origin actually gives a discernible reason for the Phantom to be haunting the Opera in the first place instead of the “oh, him? He’s always been there.” tactic that most versions have used. That just made you more emotionally invested in both him and the story, which makes it one of the better versions of the tale ever told. But as far as it being the “best” Hammer film or even the “best” Terence Fisher film? It is not.
I’m going to talk about the negative points first, because that’s the type of girl I am. Let me just go on record by saying that these points are only meant to dispute the rampant overrating of this film. And the reason I do this is to prevent a backlash. When people go into a film that has been rated obscenely high, they will probably be disappointed if it was just merely good. And this is bound to be what happens with The Phantom of the Opera. It really is a good film for reasons I’ll mention later. I’d even go so as far as to label it as required Hammer viewing. The problem is that it’s being labeled “infallible”, and it isn’t. So, with that being said, on with the pessimism!
I’ll first dispute the “best Terence Fisher film” assessment. It’s certainly his biggest production by sheer volume of actors and the set design. But bigger does not always mean better. Fisher is well known for his signature eerie lingering shots. In this film, only one scene jumps to mind as being really exceptional -- a lingering upward shot when the Phantom is at the top of the stairs. It gives the Phantom a larger-than-life feel (much like the camera tactics used to play off on Christopher Lee’s height when he plays Dracula). But other than that, it's simply standard Hammer horror tactics. This is not a bad thing, as the film overall works. But to compare typical horror fare to Fisher’s ground-breaking Curse of Frankenstein? That’s just crazy talk.
Not to mention, there seems to be a lot of Crap No One Cares About. The love story between Christine and the manager of the opera is emphasized far too much (and the carriage scene really should have been deleted entirely). It doesn't deter your interest at all, but it doesn't contribute to the film’s ending, as the only thing that really matters is the Phantom’s relationship to Christine. I daresay the romance angle is completely unwarranted in this version, and the film could definitely have benefited from deleting those scenes in lieu of spending more time developing the relationship between Christine and the Phantom. Also, the Igor character seems somewhat lost in the story. And when the script actually takes time to describe Igor’s origin, we get, “oh him? He’s always been there.” I guess that rule must be incorporated in every version of Phantom somewhere, but it comes off as weak. And see, I just disputed the “this is the best Hammer film” argument. Aren’t I efficient?
All right, the icky stuff is done now. See, that wasn’t that painful.
So why is it worth seeing? A couple of reasons. The main reason is that the Phantom’s backstory is written so divinely that it obscures all other missteps the movie makes. As mentioned previously, you know that this isn’t “just another Phantom.” This is a Phantom with a purpose, and his history is revealed in such a manner that you have to keep your eyes to the screen. It reminds me of watching a standard modern day “twisty” suspense tale. You know upfront who the bad guys and good guys are, but how they GOT there is the whole ride. And in this vein, Phantom doesn’t disappoint. Being intentionally ambiguous as not to ruin the surprise for future viewers, his backstory is one of the most interesting and well thought out of all the Hammer characters, ever. And that’s a tall order to fill, folks.
The main reason the Phantom’s backstory works so well is due to Terence Fisher. He drops subtle clues early on indicating that the Phantom holds a deeper secret than what is being revealed. As the movie progresses, more and more clues are revealed, but he leaves the “big bang” for the climax. This formula never seems to fail when Fisher is behind the wheel. A good comparison would be to Hammer’s Captain Clegg, in which the audience know there is something more to the story than what is occurring, and it is this suspicion that keeps the audience’s attention. I dare say Phantom does it better, because the secret is more subtle. Whereas Captain Clegg is just a series of random scenes that you have to “wait and see how they connect,” Phantom leaves you with the feeling that there COULD be a deeper secret, but it is entirely possible that there isn’t. This subtlety is not often seen in Hammer, but when it’s done, it’s often done to perfection.
Also, even though the film does not star anyone particularly famous, the actors are quite good. This is mostly because all the characters are one-dimensional, except of course for the Phantom (which, given the emphasis on the Phantom, is how it should be). Michael Gough, who is the Lenny Briscoe of English cinema, gives a great look to the evil Lord Ambrose D’Arcy. But the true star of the tale is Herbert Lom as The Phantom. He has the perfect blend of vulnerability, ambition, and sheer rage for the role. I’m actually surprised he didn't have more of a presence in Hammer films, given the sheer depth he displays here. He does a simply amazing job.
The Phantom of the Opera is a Hammer classic that will be enjoyed by all those who love Hammer or classic horror monsters. But like most enjoyable Hammer films, it has flaws that can hardly be ignored, which makes it undeserving of the pedestal it is given. Go in with high expectations, as it will surely meet them. Just don’t go in thinking this is the quintessential Hammer experience, as you’ll be setting yourself up to be disappointed.