This is my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Hammer Films version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962), up now in the May 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.
Remember, if you enjoy this column, my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT book, a collection of 115 In The Spooklight columns, is available as an EBook at http://www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Hammer Films’ remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) starring Herbert Lom as the Phantom is not my favorite version of the Gaston Leroux tale. That honor goes to the Lon Chaney silent classic from 1925, followed by Universal’s elaborate and colorful remake from 1943 with Claude Rains.
And while Hammer struck gold with their Frankenstein and Dracula remakes, their version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was not a commercial success when it was released in 1962.
That being said, it’s not a bad film. It’s just an uneven one.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA gets off to a great start. The first half of this film is extremely well-done, and had the entire film played like the first half, Hammer would have had another classic on its hands.
The film starts with the Phantom already at large, already wreaking havoc at the opera, which is a return to how the story was told in the Lon Chaney version. In the Claude Rains remake, the emphasis was on drama and the musical numbers, not horror, and Rains’ sympathetic character doesn’t become the “phantom” until well into the movie.
Here, the menace begins immediately. There are some stylish murder scenes, showing off director Terence Fisher’s considerable talents, including a hanging body swinging onto the stage, and later, a chilling sequence involving an encounter with a rat catcher, played by Patrick Troughton. The Phantom’s first appearance is also well-done, with a very dramatic and eerie first entrance at the top of a staircase.
The music is also very effective here, with a low disturbing hum whenever the Phantom is on screen. It’s a fine score by Edwin Astley.
In this version, while the mysterious Phantom (Herbert Lom) is terrorizing the opera, he’s also keen on helping young Christine (Heather Sears) sing the lead role, but she’s shunned by the villainous and sexist producer Lord Ambrose d’Arcy (Michael Gough) who intends to sabotage her career because she refused to sleep with him. The opera’s director, the young and dashing Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) is a much fairer man, and when he steps in to help Christine, he too is fired by Lord Ambrose.
What’s a recently unemployed opera director to do? Why, investigate the Phantom of course!
And it’s here, in the film’s second half, where it loses steam.
Whereas in the first half of the movie the Phantom appears to be a menacing and frightening figure, once Hunter begins his investigation into the Phantom’s past, a sympathetic figure emerges, and we learn that the true villain in this movie is the pompous blowhard Lord Ambrose. In fact, by the time things are all said and done, this Phantom becomes even more sympathetic than the Claude Rains’ Phantom, becoming a respectable and even heroic figure by the film’s conclusion. Sadly, this doesn’t quite work.
This particular interpretation of the Phantom makes sense when you realize who Hammer originally had in mind to portray their Phantom. With neither of their two stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, involved with this project, Hammer intended to turn to another even more famous star to anchor their latest production: Cary Grant.
Grant had even signed a contract with Hammer to play the Phantom, but backed out at the last minute when he wasn’t satisfied with the script, a script Anthony Hinds had written with Grant in mind for the lead role, leaving Hammer scrambling to fill the part, which they did when they hired Herbert Lom. But the film was intended to be a vehicle for Cary Grant, which explains the more heroic interpretation of the Phantom.
Herbert Lom is an OK Phantom, although he doesn’t come close to Lon Chaney or Claude Rains. He fares better early in the film where he’s seen fleetingly in scenes that seem to be setting up the Phantom to be like Lon Chaney’s violent psychotic interpretation, but unfortunately, this doesn’t turn out to be the case.
The rest of the cast runs hot and cold. Heather Sears is rather dull as Christine, and while Edward de Souza fares slightly better as the gallant Harry Hunter, at the end of the day, he’s a rather uninteresting character as well.
Only Michael Gough stands out as the vile Lord Ambrose. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Gough do before, but he’s very good at this sort of thing.
The film does have a nice cast of supporting actors who probably do a better job in this movie than the film’s leads. You have Thorley Walters as Lattimer, Lord Ambrose’s assistant, who is forced to bite his tongue at Ambrose’s constant shenanigans. Patrick Troughton is a rat catcher, and appears in one of the movie’s scariest segments, and Hammer favorites Harold Goodwin [FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)], Miles Malleson, and Michael Ripper are also on hand, with Malleson and Ripper each playing a cabbie.
Roy Ashton’s Phantom make-up is disappointing to say the least. It’s as tepid as it gets, and it’s even less chilling than the make-up on Claude Rains. And just like in the Rains’ version, we don’t see the Phantom’s face until the very end, and all too briefly. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Unlike the Chaney film where we see the Phantom’s face throughout, and the famous unmasking scene happens in the middle of the movie, not the end, the unmasking doesn’t happen here until the final scene, as it does in the Rains version, which in both cases is too little too late.
The Phantom’s mask in this Hammer version is actually pretty decent. I’ve always preferred the mask in the Claude Rains’ movie, but my reason for this preference is how it’s used in the film, rather than the actual mask. It’s just a white mask, but it’s the defining characteristic of Rains’ Phantom, and is used to such effect that it’s one of the most memorable parts of that movie. The mask that Herbert Lom wears, by contrast, is actually a bit more sinister looking, but it’s not used as effectively as the mask in the Rains’ film.
The movie also ends way too abruptly. The story should have gone on beyond the unmasking of the Phantom, with perhaps a final act where the Phantom, upon seeing Christine nearly killed on stage, snaps, whisking her off to the “safety” of his underground lair.
Terence Fisher, Hammer’s top director, was largely blamed by the studio when the film flopped, which is too bad, because it really isn’t his fault. The film’s script is the problem, not Fisher’s direction, which, during the first half of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is on par with his finest work. In fact, the first half of this movie ranks with Hammer’s best horror. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t sustain this high quality through to the end.
Hammer’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA scores below the two versions of the Phantom story which came before it, but taken as a whole all these years later, it remains better than any rendition made since.