21st Apr2014

‘Phantom of the Opera’ Blu-ray Review (1989)

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy, Alex Hyde-White, Stephanie Lawrence, Terence Harvey, Nathan Lewis, Peter Clapham, Molly Shannon, Emma Rawson, Mark Ryan, Terence Beesley | Written by Duke Sandefur | Directed by Dwight H. Little


Christine Day (Schoelen) is a young Broadway singer in New York City. She is auditioning for a show and comes across a piece of music written by an unknown music composer named Erik Destler (Englund) nearly 100 years before. Erik had made a pact with the devil so the world would love his music, but the devil had one condition: that Erik’s face would be horribly disfigured forever. Once Christine sings his music, she is taken from present day New York to 1881 London were she is the star of the London Opera House. There she is coached by a mysterious caped figure who will do anything to make her the star of the opera even if it means murdering people, and the figure is none other than Erik Destler himself.

Back in the late 80s Robert Englund was on a horror high. His role as Freddy Krueger was hitting its horror stride with the ever-popular Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and its immediate sequel The Dream Master, and Englund was reprising his horrific role on TV in the Freddy’s Nightmares series. Meanwhile director Dwight H. Little had scored a hit with 1988’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and had already worked with Englund on an episode of the Freddy TV show. So the duo pairing on Phantom of the Opera, a new gorier take on a classic movie monster, seemed like a sure-fire hit right?

How wrong could anyone be? Sadly the new take on the Phantom of the Opera would not be the success Menahem Golan and his post-Cannon shingle the 21st Century Film Corporation were hoping for, taking less than $4 million at the US box office on its original release.

The problem? Undoubtedly Golan’s insistence on marketing the film as “An all new nightmare!” and using the tagline “Robert Englund Was Freddy. Now he’s the… Phantom of the Opera” rather than tying the film more closely to Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel – even if it does take more than a few liberties with the original story! And let’s not forget the budget problems that plagued the production, leading to a rewrite of Gerry O’Hara’s (reportedly more complex) script by Duke Sandefur – taking out some of the set pieces, including the famous chandelier fall that has been present in numerous screen versions of the Phantom of the Opera before and since.

But now, some 25 years later the film has certainly found its audience (including a thread on a popular fan fiction forum that proposes new ideas for a sequel AND re-writes the ending of Little’s film), an audience that has re-evaluated this gory, 80s take on the classic character and found plenty to appreciate about Englund’s performance and the bizarre time-travel plot contained within the film. Yes there are a number of changes to the story – the biggest being the aforementioned time travel element – this Phantom opens in the present day before moving to London in 1881 (the location has been moved from Paris to London as well for some, probably budgetary, reasons) and the fact Englund’s Phantom has been disfigured by the hand of the very devil he made his evil bargain with. But personally? I’ve always been a fan of this film, not because of Englund’s appearance or for the gory effects from Nightmare on Elm Street 2‘s Kevin Yagher. Nope. There’s one reason, in this reviewers opinion, to truly appreciate this film… Actress Jill Schoelen.

The unsung, husky-voiced scream queen of the late 80s and early 90s, Jill Schoelen only appeared in a handful of horror movies between 1985 and 1993 and didn’t achieve the same level of fanboy popularity as the B-movie scream queens of the era such as Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer – no doubt because she didn’t get naked every five minutes in each and every one of her films, as was the scream queens wont in the 80s. She was a true “girl next door” type of film heroine – who, along with Heather Langenkamp in the Elm Street franchise, was something of an anomaly in the T&A obsessed decade that pandered, for the most part, to horny teenage boys that rented horror flicks by the bucket load. Actresses like Schoelen and Langenkamp were the antithesis of the typical 80s scream queen and Schoelen in particular brought a charm and quiet innocence to all her roles – a charm and innocence that is particularly prevalent in Phantom of the Opera as she goes toe-to-toe with the manic madman performance of an at-the-top-of-his-game Robert Englund.

The new Blu-ray of this VERY 80s iteration of Phantom of the Opera is presented its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I’ve no doubt this is the best the film will ever look and despite the slighty soft, and often grainy (although like most people I prefer grain to overly DNR’d releases) look, this is a very welcome upgrade from the old MGM Region 1 DVD.

Phantom of the Opera is available on Blu-ray now from 101 Films.


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