10/04/2017 – Remakes: The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Directed by Terence Fisher
It may not be defending Saw, but defending remakes can still be a challenging. If there is any genre that has been well served by remakes it is horror. Sure there are plenty of garbage ones, but if you go by Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crap, it’s just that the remakes are going to be far more public failures than the many, many obscure failures. Dating back to the silent film era where multiple films were released based on the same property (often as film productions became of better quality), remakes have been an essential part of the genre. As sound came into vogue, it gave only more of a reason to remake certain titles with superior versions of Frankenstein, Dracula (the Spanish version of which is superior), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bat Whispers, and The Cat and the Canary (okay I haven’t seen the original of those last two yet) for example being released in the 1930s.
The genre as a whole took a bit of a downturn in the 40s and early 50s but we still got improved versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), The Lodger, The Picture of Dorian Gray (again an assumption or the quality of the original), and especially House of Wax as well as the mediocre Phantom of the Rue Morgue. It was Hammer Film Productions that kicked off a new wave of remakes, generally inferior but still at the very least alright starting in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervillesfollowed and AIP jumped in there with House of Usher as part of its Corman-Poe cycle.
Another break followed (the good if inferior The Omega Man being the one exception) before another boom was started as practical effects approached their peak. Horror is one genre where the effects really matter and can play a real effect in the enjoyment of it (superhero movies being another) and despite this only being one of the many periods of modernizing remakes (before and after), it is generally considered the Golden Age. Starting with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978 and continuing through the 80s (not coincidentally coinciding with another horror golden age), we got definitive versions of The Thing, Nosferatu the Vampyre, The Blob, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Fly. An argument made by many, but not me, have made claiming Evil Dead II as one and we even got a new series of Twilight Zone, preceded by a movie version which was generally inferior but overall pretty good (if uneven).
As horror itself took a dip in the 90s, all we really got was mediocre versions of Night of the Living Dead and Body Snatchers (the third of four versions of the story) and the uneven but gorgeous Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like every time in history before, the remake cycle came back around but this time it was far more controversial. With greater access to thanks to video rental stores and eventually Netflix and knowledge of the older titles thanks to the access and the internet, studios faced a bit of backlash over the remaking of so many classic films. Like I said, this was hardly a new thing and in many cases the films being complained over were remaking either remakes or films that at the time were knock offs or thinly disguised version of early films. This didn’t stop garbage like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all the films it influenced (especially by Platinum Dunes) to make a ton of money, but it sullied the genre and the art or remaking a film in the eyes of many as in many cases the updates just meant more gore (or less as they were neutered to PG-13 titles), prettier casts, and CGI (which considering horror is historically a low budget affair was often not the best). The CGI was especially depressing to many since for the first time, the improvements that had spurred new rounds of remakes were greater technological achievements (longer films, sound, color, and finally improved color film and special effects) while this just made them look worse than the decades old films they were meant to be updating. That combined with an increasing number of remakes of recent foreign films (such as the run of Asian remakes in the 00s) which as my 2015 reviews made clear, generally hit their golden age starting in the late 90s thanks to globalization, made it all seem like a waste of time.
The sad thing is, that improved remakes didn’t go away, they just haven’t made us forget the crap as they did in the past. Or rather, we have forgotten that people have always been bitching about remakes and ripoffs with time separating the wheat from the chafe. This century we got improved versions of Piranha 3D, The Crazies, The Ring, The Hills Have Eyes, My Bloody Valentine, and Silent Night and solid if inferior versions of Godzilla (okay I loved the Edwards version but it isn’t the original), Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead, Let Me In , and Quarantine. That’s not even counting the wonderful The Happiness of the Katakuris or We Are What We Are, Mother’s Day, and Funny Games where I can’t comment on the original or The Wicker Man which may be garbage but his hilarious. Hannibal got a series which improved upon every movie adaptation save Silence of the Lambs (I know there are many who would say it is the best), whose story it sadly didn’t even get to, and Bates Motel which managed to be entertaining (if once again uneven) and respect the legacy of one of the greatest horror movies ever made even as it remade it. There’s also It but I talked enough about that yesterday.
I’ll get to discussing Willard (pretty good remake), Cat People (solid if overrated original), and maybe The Town That Dreaded Sundown (decent original) later this month and I Spit on Your Grave next week but for now let’s focus on a remake of one of the most beloved silent horror titles, The Phantom of the Opera. Back before it was a musical making insane amounts of money, The Phantom of the Opera was a novel published between 1909 and 1910. It’s been made into a film over 20 times including Song at Midnight (the third adaptation and was remade a number of times itself), the rare Chinese horror film and a movie I’ll likely get to on Sunday. The second (though the earliest extant) and most famous version is the 1925 Lon Chaney starring version. It’s the second Universal Monster movie (after Hunchback of Notre Dame) and one of the better silent films I’ve seen. Still, as someone who isn’t a huge silent film lover, I have no real attachment to that version (the best part being Chaney’s makeup) and am still looking for that definitive version (besides the awesome Iron Maiden song.
Not that I have any hope that it will be the sixth adaptation and one from Hammer horror. As I explained in the link above, Hammer and their Universal adaptations just haven’t really aged all that well, a common fate for movies praised and condemned for their “shocking” content at time of release.
The film stars Herbert Lom of the Pink Panther sequels as the Phantom and Alfred himself, Michael Gough as the Lord SPOILERS and true villain. END OF SPOILERS The story tells of a disfigured man in a mask stalks a stage in Victorian London, an urban legend of the stage as he steals music, destroys equipment, and torments the lead actress of an opera about Joan of Arc. His voice haunts a boxseat and the dressing rooms, he commits senseless SPOILERS murders (well actually the murders are being committed by a dwarf at the behest of the Phantom but you know, semantics). END OF SPOILERS We don’t even get a glimpse of him and his bemasked face until 15 minutes in and his masked face half an hour in and near the end by the time we see his real face.
Turns out SPOILERS The Phantom was a professor who was wrote the opera and who was burned near to death in a fire, his work was stolen by the villainous Lord who paid him for the right to publish it and then put his own name on the work. The Phantom is a classic tragic figure but hardly a sympathetic one what with murdering a stage hand and a rat catcher for no real reason and you know kidnapping someone and forcing them against their will to sing until they are weary. Consent later doesn’t make it okay asshole. The Phantom dies saving the actress’ life and bam movie over. END OF SPOILERS It’s a rather abrupt end for the movie with not even a pithy line to sum it up which while generally silly, does make it feel more natural.
The film is fine. It’s standard Hammer Horror in look albeit trading the bright red blood and sex appeal for lots of scenes of the Opera being performed and better suspense than normal. Hearing “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” made me super happy but I just can’t take it seriously anymore as ominous music, partly through overuse watering down the impact, and partly cause it just makes me want to play some Gyruss. Still, it’s the first movie this year to leave me completely satisfied and with no major issues hanging over it which is enough to celebrate.
Next up: I catch up on the latest entries of the venerable Chucky series with a doubleheader of Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky while I discuss the series as a whole.