Don’t get your hopes up. Freddy doesn’t sing.
There are few filmmakers I find more woefully underrated than Dwight H. Little. As the man behind Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers — my favorite of the Halloween sequels — as well as the Brandon Lee vehicle Rapid Fire (one of my favorite action movies ever made and itself an under appreciated classic) and Marked for Death, one of Steven Seagal’s best efforts, Little proved himself to be a great genre filmmaker but rarely gets the credit for being so.
Another underrated Dwight H. Little movie that will hopefully now get its due thanks to a Scream Factory Blu-ray release is his 1989 adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera starring Robert Englund as the titular Phantom. Also known as Erik Destler, The Phantom is the composer of the opera Don Juan Triumphant, which is being staged at an opera house in 1881 London. Erik becomes infatuated with Christine Day (Jill Schoelen, The Stepfather), the understudy for the diva Carlotta (stage actress Stephanie Lawrence, Buster), and will do anything to get her to play the lead role. That usually involves murdering people.
The Phantom of the Opera is a fascinating entry in the 80s horror canon. It came at a point when the genre had basically worn out its welcome, and because audiences had already grown weary of Englund slashing people up with his jacked-up face, the movie made barely any impact at the box office (it grossed under $4 million in 1989). It’s a movie with one foot in classic literature and the other in the gore-heavy ‘80s, part gothic costume drama and part blood-soaked slasher movie. The result is a movie that has a hard time satisfying any audience, too violent for those looking for a “classier” horror picture and too “classy” for those looking for England’s next iconic slasher. Englund and Little admit on the special features of the disc that they were looking to old Hammer films as inspiration for their adaptation and it shows: the ’89 Phantom combines Hammer’s predilection for sumptuous production design and atmosphere as well as their knack for piling on lots of graphic bloodshed — and because this one was made in the ‘80s, the bloodshed is even more gruesome and splattery. Some of it even had to be cut for the movie to receive an R rating.
The movie represents a clear effort on Robert Englund’s part to shed some of his Freddy Krueger persona and demonstrate that he was capable of doing more. It’s strange, then, that he would try to avoid becoming typecast by once again donning elaborate facial prosthetics to play a madman who is disfigured and spends the movie stalking people and killing them. The Phantom is basically 1800s Freddy — he even gets to do a couple of wisecracks. To Englund’s credit, though, he doesn’t just do Freddy redux and instead gives the Phantom a different kind of theatricality. The character is less playful and more informed by Englund’s roots as a stage actor. Jill Schoelen, the childhood crush of many an ‘80s horror fan, is lovely as ever and incredibly sympathetic but occasionally out of her depth; there is a flatness to some of her line readings that feels much more at home in 1989 than it does in 1881. A younger-looking Bill Nighy shows up as the owner of the opera house, as does a pre-Saturday Night Live Molly Shannon in the movie’s bookend sequences, which place Christine in present-day New York.
Because they are the best, Scream Factory continues to release every underrated horror movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s on Blu-ray. Add the ’89 Phantom of the Opera to that list. The 1.85:1-framed 1080p transfer represents a big step up from MGM’s previous DVD release; this is an attractively photographed movie, and the Blu-ray brings out the best in the visuals. Color reproduction is good and fine detail is mostly strong throughout, with very little visible print damage despite the film being more than 25 years old. Two lossless audio options are available: a 5.1 mix and a stereo mix. Both are serviceable and aren’t really very different; though the 5.1 mix offers more activity in the surround channels, it doesn’t necessarily benefit the soundtrack all that much. Both options handle the dialogue well and maintain balance with Misha Segal’s strong original score.
The disc is worth owning just for the newly recorded commentary by director Little and Robert England. If you know anything about Robert England, you know the guy can talk; he loves to dig deep into discussing the acting process and explains the literary and mythological origins of every choice he makes, regardless of the part he’s playing. Both he and Little cover almost every aspect of the production, from their intentions and influences (both of them wanted to remake Phantom by way of Hammer Films) and the difficulties they faced during the somewhat tumultuous shoot. It’s a great conversation, and the rare commentary that’s worth revisiting. Also included is another of Scream Factory’s great retrospective documentary, which includes interviews with Little, England, Schoelen, makeup effects designers Kevin Yagher and John Carl Buechler, composer Misha Segal and several others. Running over 30 minutes, the piece gives a good overview of the movie without going as in-depth as the commentary does. Rounding out the bonus features is a collection of trailers, both for The Phantom of the Opera and several other Scream Factory titles.
The Phantom of the Opera ’89 is a messy movie, but it’s a good mess. It’s a horror movie unlike much of what was being made at the time, it offers a chance to see an iconic star like Robert Englund do something very different. While it’s not the best entry in Dwight H. Little’s filmography, it is a film that looks better now than it did in 1989. For being the umpteenth adaptation of a novel that’s been adapted over and over again in every medium from silent film to musical theater, this one stands out.
A different take on a familiar story. Not guilty.