Monday, August 4, 2014

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Terence Fisher, 1962)

Hammer’s rather dull and boorish remake of the classic Universal 1943 version invokes more violence and bloodletting but excises romance and sentimentality to bring the whole affair to a yawning conclusion.

Director Terence Fisher films in splendid saturated colors to bring this turn-of-the-century Victorian horror tale to half-life. Fisher utilizes some of the largest set-pieces ever seen in a Hammer film by filling the Opera House with hundreds of extras and hiring a full orchestra for the opera scenes. The opera within the film is SAINT JOAN (never mind that Joan of Arc wasn’t canonized in 1900) and is solidly staged and acted with grand designs and bombastic score: it is often more interesting the story we’re watching! The film does look wonderful and seems that Fisher realized the story’s innate weaknesses so he dressed each scene with rich period details as eye-candy. There are some nice transitions such as the actress (who would be replaced by our heroine) turning to see a dark figure in her room which briskly cuts to clashing symbols. Herbert Lom as the wicked and betrayed Phantom is perfectly cast; he can show maddening violence checked by his sympathy, an artist whose very heart pumps musical notation, his very lifeblood sucked dry by the despicable Ambrose D’Arcy. Unfortunately, Michael Gough’s performance as D'Arcy is so evil and spoiled that it unbalances the film because the romantic interest, Edward de Souza (Harry Hunter) is rather bland and uninteresting. Even Christine Charles in the lead role of Heather Sears is nothing more than a meek and reactive child, a one-dimensional cipher for the film’s virtually static drama. She isn’t terrible, she’s just….there.
The story itself is rather weak and leaves one with some unanswered questions. The narrative unfolds as the lead actress in SAINT JOAN quits the opera after a murder/suicide during a performance. It is never explained why this poor soul was murdered: was he somehow in league with D’Arcy? We never discover if he deserved this cruel fate. We are then introduced to Christine as she auditions. After accepting the role she begins to hear a taunting voice. As she and Edward investigate and begin to uncover the mystery, a rat-catcher is also murdered in the Opera House with a gruesome pick in the eye! There is no explanation forthcoming for this act and we are later left to forgive the Phantom and his animalistic sidekick.

Soon, Edward discovers that a writer named Petrie actually wrote the opera SAINT JOAN and D’Arcy stole it from him. This resulted in a fire at a local printers and Petrie being scarred by acid and disappearing, presumed dead by the police. But he floated into a storm drain and into the underground lair beneath the Opera House. We are then left to suspend our disbelief that Petrie/Phantom moved a giant working organ and his many peripherals to this bunker and has not been discovered in ten years! When he captures Christine he cruelly forces her to accept his tutelage as if he can train her in a few days. Though D’Arcy gets his comeuppance it’s not severe enough: he just runs screaming when he sees the Phantom’s scarred face. It’s also never explained who gets credit for the opera: is it Petrie, de Souza or still the knave D’Arcy? It’s difficult to find sympathy for Petri as we never know why he sold his lifetime’s work for such a small sum of 50pds. We also have to forget the innocents murdered (such as the hanged worker at the beginning and the rat-catcher)during his reign of terror even if his companion did the dirty work.

The denouement seems tacked-on or made up at the last moment. The Phantom is given a heroic ending that fails moral judgment. Perhaps if he were to revenge upon D’Arcy and they both perished it would have felt more justified. Finally, it happens that during the final scene of the opera, the hunchback companion is discovered watching from the rafters above. As he is chased by stagehands he accidently causes the huge chandelier to crash upon the stage. The Phantom jumps to save Christine and pushes her out of the way and is killed instead. Fade to black.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA isn’t a very good film as its slow pace and thin characterizations make for an often boring 84 minutes. The flashback in the final act brings any suspense to a complete standstill as it then finishes with a dull thud. However, the film does look beautiful and one can admire the grand set designs and brilliant colors. Herbert Lom is also wonderful though we don’t see enough of him. I recommend this film for Hammer completists only.

Final Grade: (C-)

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