Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Phantom of the Opera

At least 10 movies – plus a 1990 tv miniseries starring Burt Lancaster – have been based on The Phantom of the Opera (1910) by Gaston Leroux, some more loosely than others. A number of books, aside from novelizations, have been based on an amalgam of Leroux's novel and one or more of the movie versions: they include Phantom (1990) by Susan Kay, which won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Maskerade (1995) by Terry Pratchett. In fact, Leroux's original story is somewhat banal – as if he were making it up as he went along: the abiding importance of the POTO as a fantasy/horror Icon, as marked by the number of movie remakes and quasi-remakes – not to mention the 1986 musical – is almost entirely as a result of 1.

1. The Phantom of the Opera US movie (1925). Universal/Jewel. Pr Carl Laemmle. Dir Robert Julian. Photography Milton Bridebecker, Virgil Miller. Screenplay Elliot J Clawson, Raymond Schrock. Starring Arthur Edmund Carewe (Ledoux), Lon Chaney (Erik/Phantom), Snitz Edwards (Florine Papillon), Gibson Gowland (Simon), Norman Kerry (Raoul de Chagny), Mary Philbin (Christine Daae). 101 mins. B/w. Silent.

Christine, a young hopeful at the Paris Opéra, finds her path to stardom eased by a series of fortuitous deaths and resignations. The author of these crimes is the mysterious Phantom, occasionally seen in the shadowier parts of the building, furtively fleeing. As Paris worships at her feet she tells fiancé Raoul she can never marry him, for the Opera is now her husband. Soon after, a voice speaks from the walls telling her that she must, indeed, think henceforth only of her career and of her "master". In due course, the now-masked Phantom seizes her not once but twice to his lair, five levels below the Opéra: the journey there, rich in fantasy motifs, is as through a series of Portals; she is escorted on a white horse down stairs and tunnels, then sculled across a lake of dark water. In his lair he tells her that his love for her is what she should regard, not the leering Mask he wears and the hideous face she reveals when she strikes the mask from him. In due course she is rescued by Raoul and the Phantom dies, but this is all of less importance than the portrayal of art (in this instance Music) as the product of pain: the point is powerfully made; also powerful is the sequence in which, almost as self-Parody, the Phantom brings a Masque to a standstill by appearing masked as the Red Death (> Masque of the Red Death; Edgar Allen Poe). The Phantom himself can be taken as a symbol of the new ideas of music that became current from the early decades of this century, in particular the notion that, if one probes far enough beyond a veneer of ugliness, one can find beauty. Such evocations more than compensate for the movie's frequent creakiness, the dynamic between the two qualities being encapsulated in Chaney's performance, which is at the same time a crass caricature and a reification of the tormented soul. [JG]

2. The Phantom of the Opera US movie (1930). Universal. Most credits as 1, but with Ernst Laemmle and Edward Sedgwick additionally credited for direction, Charles Van Enger for photography, and Frank McCormack and Tom Reed for screenplay. B/w, with some colour and tinted sequences. 89 mins.

Universal released this revised and truncated version of 1 to take advantage of the new technology. Most of the climactic scenes remain silent, and some of the dubbing is clumsy; the colour is restricted to the masque scene and some views of the Opéra. This version flopped. [JG]

3. Phantom of the Opera US movie (1943). Universal. Pr George Waggner. Dir Arthur Lubin. Mufx Jack Pierce. Screenplay Samuel Hoffenstein, Eric Taylor. Starring Nicki André (Mme Lorenzi), Edgar Barrier (Raoul Daubert), Nelson Eddy (Anatole Garron), Jane Farrar (Mme Biancarolli), Susanna Foster (Christine DuBois), Frank Puglia (Villeneuve), Claude Rains (Erique Claudin/Phantom). 92 mins. Colour.

Filled with the joys of sound and colour, Universal turned its remake of 1 (Columbia's The Face Behind the Mask [1941] can be viewed as a partial remake) into a musical extravaganza, complete with Nelson Eddy, and drowned most of the fantasy and Psychological-Thriller elements in excruciatingly long, ostentatiously lavish operatic productions and some oafish humour. Paris Opéra understudy Christine is loved by leading baritone Garron and local police inspector Daubert – and also, though she does not know it, by modest veteran violinist Claudin, who has been secretly funding her career these past three years. When Claudin's fingers fail him and he is sacked, he tries to publish his piano concerto. A comedy of errors deceives him into justifiable homicide; the putative publisher's mistress throws etching acid in his face. Clad in cloak and Mask, leading a Wainscot existence in the sewers beneath the Opéra, Claudin – the "Phantom" – obsessively works and murders to further Christine's career. Various stratagems – including Liszt (played by Fritz Leiber's father) performing Claudin's concerto – are used to lure the Phantom into the open, but not before more murder and the abduction of Christine to Claudin's subterranean home. The final unmasking lacks any shock, presumably through reluctance to lower the tone of this lush concoction by presenting anything more than tasteful disfigurement. The theme cried out for a gutter treatment – just what it got in 4.

However, this version was extremely successful; Universal and Waggner capitalized on it the following year by producing, using the same sets, The Climax (1944), a sort of cross between the normal Phantom plot and George Du Maurier's Trilby (1894; >>> Svengali): a murderous doctor, played by Boris Karloff, brings a young opera singer under his hypnotic control. [JG]

4. The Phantom of the Opera UK movie (1962). Hammer/Universal. Pr Anthony Hinds (1922-2013). Dir Terence Fisher. Mufx Roy Ashton. Screenplay John Elder (Hinds). Starring Harold Goodwin (Bill), Michael Gough (Lord Ambrose D'Arcy), Herbert Lom (Professor L Petrie/Phantom), Heather Sears (Christine Charles), Edward de Souza (Harry Hunter), Ian Wilson (Dwarf). Voice actor Pat Clark (Christine singing). 90 mins. Colour.

Caddish D'Arcy has become, to general astonishment, a fine composer these past few years. His new Opera Joan of Arc (or St Joan – posters differ) has been bedevilled by bad luck and malicious pranks from the start, and its opening night is interrupted by a hanged stagehand swinging into view. The prima donna, Maria, quits, and producer Hunter hires ingénue Christine in her place. Alone in her dressing-room, she is addressed by a disembodied voice, warning her of D'Arcy. Later the voice speaks to Hunter and Christine together, a Dwarf murders the theatre's ratcatcher, and the Phantom tries to lure Christine away. Christine has spurned D'Arcy's advances; he fires both her and Hunter. The two – romance blossoming – start probing the past of one Professor Petrie, a brilliant musician who, face accidentally covered in acid, threw himself in the river and presumably drowned; clearly D'Arcy stole the dead man's music. That night the murderous dwarf (the Igor to Petrie's Frankenstein) abducts Christine to the subterranean lair where his master plays sepulchral Bach organ music and teaches Christine properly to sing – using corporal punishment when necessary. A re-hired Hunter tracks Petrie to his watery lair, overpowers the dwarf, and elicits from Petrie the tale of how he was disfigured while burning copies of his music printed with D'Arcy's name as composer. By agreement Christine has more tuition under Petrie, and her opening night is a sensation; but then Petrie, D'Arcy's nemesis, in saving her from a falling chandelier is himself killed.

Cheap but superbly crafted, with an accurate eye and ear and a pleasing sense of Grand Guignol, this version (set in London) is like a breath of refreshingly foetid air after 3; the wash of vigour affects even the music (by Edwin Astley). Led by Lom, most of the players give joyously hammy performances. Because of the inverted plot the effect is of a chillingly effective Ghost Story (this is not, despite Horror tropes, a Horror Movie) transmuting into a Rationalized Fantasy. The whole, despite much kitsch, is riveting. [JG]

5. The Phantom of Hollywood US movie (1974 tvm). Pr Gene Levitt. Exec pr Burt Nodella. Dir Levitt. Mufx William Tuttle. Screenplay George Schenck, Robert Thom. Based loosely on Leroux's novel. Starring Skye Aubrey (Randy Cross), Jack Cassidy (Otto Bonner/Karl Bonner/Phantom) (movie lacks proper credits). 78 mins. Colour.

Decades ago Karl Bonner was being groomed for stardom, but then his face was accidentally mutilated. Since, he has lived in hiding beneath Worldwide Studios' Lot #2, shielded from detection by his studio-archivist brother Otto. But now Lot #2 is being sold off as real estate. Accordingly, masked as the Phantom and wielding a morningstar (later he switches to bow and arrow), Karl murders various bit characters – teenaged vandals, survey engineers and a security guard, before very publicly slaying his brother. He kidnaps Randy, daughter of the studio's boss, and attempts to use her as a bargaining counter; she sympathizes, but is rescued just before the final, climactic battle between the Phantom and the demolition bulldozers.

This curiously charming movie is made with the kind of care and affection not normally associated with a tvm. There are some impressive sequences: at the start, as the camera roams the empty, haunted windswept lot, there are intriguing intercuts from decades-old movies showing the thronged sets as they used to be; in the finale, when the Phantom announces that his world of fantasy is immortal, in contrast to the real-estate development, there is once again poignant intercutting, this time between his form plunging to its death and the bulldozers pulverizing the props that support that doomed world of fantasy. [JG]

5. Phantom of the Paradise US movie (1974). Harbor/Pressman-Williams/20th Century-Fox. Pr Edward R Pressman. Exec pr Gustave Berne. Dir Brian DePalma. Spfx Greg Auer. Mufx John Chambers, Rolf Miller. Choreographer Harold Oblong. Screenplay DePalma. Based very loosely on Leroux's novel and on the Faust legend. Novelization Phantom of the Paradise * (1974) by Bjarne Rostaing. Starring William Finley (Winslow Leach, the Phantom), Gerrit Graham (Beef), Jessica Harper (Phoenix), George Memmoli (Philbin), Paul Williams (Swan). 91 mins. Colour.

Hugely corrupt rock impresario and idol Swan (scribbled, his signature reads as Satan), head of Death Records, steals the rock Opera written by unknown Leach, based on the Faust legend, and proposes to use it as the opening show for his grandiose new venue, the Paradise. When Leach attempts to rectify the wrong he is beaten up, framed for drug-dealing, sent to Sing Sing and subjected to total dental extraction; escaping Sing Sing to wreak vengeance on Death Records' hardware, he catches his head in a record-presser and is hideously mutilated, his voice wrecked. Dressed in cape and Mask, he starts haunting the Paradise, but soon strikes a deal with Swan: he will rewrite the opera to be sung by his true love, the singer Phoenix. The Pact with the Devil produced by Swan is inches thick, binding for life, and must be signed in blood. But, as the Phantom works in secret, Swan reneges, and arranges for the piece to be performed by camp heavy-metal rocker Beef; on the rewrite's completion he has Leach immured. But Leach breaks free and assassinates Beef mid-opera; Phoenix takes over and is a wild success. That night, watching Swan and Phoenix make love, Leach tries to kill himself, but finds he cannot die; as Swan explains, the "lifetime" of the contract is his, not Leach's. Plans are laid for Swan and Phoenix to be married on-stage as the climax of the opera's next presentation, but secretly Swan arranges her public assassination – her perfection offends him. Leach, prowling Death Records' video library, discovers this plot; also that long ago Swan signed a contract with his own Devil (the notion of a sort of serial Devil is interesting) giving him youth and Immortality so long as the portrait (> Pictures and Portraits) of him on the video should survive. Leach destroys the video and thwarts the assassin but – as Swan's hideousness is revealed to all – himself dies.

This is by far the most fantasticated and imaginative version of the tale; in addition to the Crosshatch elements noted there are references to the Dracula and Frankenstein corpi and (obviously) to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) (>>> The Picture of Dorian Gray [1945]), plus a glorious Parody of the shower scene in Psycho (1960); the name of Swan's greasy sidekick, Philbin, echoes that of 1's co-star, Mary Philbin. The songs (by Williams) are surprisingly good – consistently better than in the in some ways comparable The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); in defiance of verisimilitude, even Beef's supposedly dreadful performances are pretty good. The direction is occasionally a little over-fussy in the trendy '70s fashion, with split-screen, montage effects and accelerated motion being deployed unnecessarily; but this is more than compensated for by its merits. POTP, though rarely scary, is frequently very funny; most of all, it races along with a frothy vitality, its inventiveness never flagging. [JG]

6. Phantom of the Opera US movie (1983 tvm). Robert Halmi Inc. Pr Robert Halmi. Exec pr Robert Halmi Jr. Dir Robert Markowitz. Spfx Janos Kukoricza. Phantom designed by Stan Winston. Screenplay Sherman Yellen. Starring Diana Quick (Brigida Bianchi), Gellert Raksanyi (Lajos), Maximilian Schell (Sandor Korvin/Phantom), Jane Seymour (Elena Korvin/Maria Gianelli), Michael York (Michael Hartnell). 104 mins. Colour.

Beautiful but talentless Elena Korvin commits suicide after being humiliated on her first night as Marguerite in Faust because she refused to sleep with Baron Hunyadi, owner of the Budapest Opera. Her husband Sandor, the Opera's conductor, is disfigured while taking vengeance on some of the Baron's catspaws, but nursed back to health by mad ratcatcher Lajos in a chamber under the Opera House. Four years later Korvin sees the image of his dead wife in Maria Gianelli, an understudy in a new production of Faust, and starts giving her covert singing lessons ... and the standard plot is followed.

This version is sumptuously photographed and well scripted, but the screenplay's portrayal of Gianelli as a self-centred brat makes it impossible for a somewhat wooden Seymour to capture our sympathies. The notion of Gianelli as spiritual Twin of the dead woman is dallied with but unexplored. Rather more is made of Korvin's Mask: when Gianelli strips it away to reveal his hideous face he declares that, too, to be a mask – "And what's behind it? Another mask? And another?" It is a rare moment of depth in a rather shallow movie. [JG]

7. Phantom of the Opera UK Animated Movie (1987 tvm). Emerald City/Taffner. Pr Al Guest, Jean Mathieson. Dir Guest, Mathieson. Spfx anim Julian Hynes. Screenplay Guest, Mathieson. Voice actors Aiden Grennell, Collette Proctor, Daniel Reardon, Jim Reid, Joseph Taylor (none individually credited). 48 mins. Colour.

A modest animated version – almost every line of the animation seems to have been decreed by the need for economy – yet highly enjoyable; for this is that rara avis, a version based directly on Leroux's work (albeit much simplified), and despite limitations a neatly scripted one.

8. Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge US movie (1989). Fries Entertainment. Pr Thomas Fries. Dir Richard Friedman. Mufx Matthew Mungle. Screenplay Robert King, Tony Michelman, Scott J Schneid, Frederick R Ulrich. Based very loosely on Leroux's novel. Starring Morgan Fairchild (Mayor Karen Wilton), Derek Rydall (Eric Matthews/Phantom), Kari Whitman (Melody Austin). 92 mins. Colour.

Pretty Melody Austin is hired at the vast shopping mall built on the site where, a year ago, her boyfriend Eric and his parents were burnt alive by an arsonist. Eric, not dead after all, haunts the mall's ventilation system and, masked, slaughters various spear carriers. Melody is refreshingly unfazed when the Mask comes off, but has by now fallen for Another Man ... Though predictable, this gory movie is well enough made to be not as bad as it sounds. Not quite. [JG]

9. Phantom of the Ritz US movie (1988). Hancock Park. Pr Carol Marcus Plone. Exec pr Jerry Kutner. Dir Allen Plone. Mufx Dean Gates. Screenplay Tom Dempsey. Based very loosely on Leroux's novel. Starring Peter Bergman (Ed Blake), The Coasters (themselves), Russel Curry (Marcus), Joshua Sussman (Phantom), Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Nancy). 88 mins. Colour.

Inane semi-parodic variation in which a youth disfigured in a 1956 drag-race crash today lurks murderously in a derelict theatre restored and reopened by Blake as a rock venue. The Phantom falls for Blake's girlfriend Nancy, although deploring her taste in interior decor. Made on a short shoestring. [JG]

10. The Phantom of the Opera US movie (1989). 21st Century/Menahem Golan/Breton/Castle. Pr Harry Alan Towers. Exec pr Menahem Golan. Dir Dwight H Little. Mufx Kevin Yagher. Screenplay Gerry O'Hara, Duke Sandefur. Starring Yehuda Efroni (Ratcatcher), Robert Englund (Erik Destler/Phantom/Foster), Terence Harvey (Hawking), Alex Hyde-White (Richard Dutton), Stephanie Lawrence (La Carlotta), Bill Nighy (Barton), Emma Rawson (Meg in London), Jill Schoelen (Christine Day), Molly Shannon (Meg in New York). 93 mins. Colour.

The Splatterpunk version had to come. Modern operatic hopeful Christine is hit by a sandbag while auditioning for the role of Marguerite in Faust, her chosen piece being from an unfinished opera by dead composer and Serial Killer Destler. The blow throws her back to 1889, where she is understudy in London to the Marguerite of bitch diva La Carlotta. The 19th-century Christine is secretly instructed by a music tutor she never sees, and whom she believes is an Angel sent by her dead father; in fact it is Destler, who years ago made a Pact with the Devil that his music would be loved forever and that he would have Immortality and superphysical strength – but, in the small print (> Quibbles), that he would be so hideous that none would ever love him for himself. Destler, dwelling in the sewers, murders freely and very gorily (he is a sort of Spring-Heeled Jack figure): none are safe, especially those who stand in Christine's way. At a Masque Destler (guised as Death) despatches La Carlotta (leaving her severed head in the soup) and abducts Christine to his cavern. After much more gore Christine sets all ablaze, seemingly destroying Destler; she recovers consciousness back in 20th-century New York. There she is promptly taken up by Faust's producer, Foster, whom she rapidly discovers is in fact the surviving Destler; this time she knifes him, dealing a death blow by destroying his sheet music. But yet, later, she passes a busker who seems all too familiar ...

This version owes much to 6 – notably: an attack by Destler in a Turkish bath; a plot against Christine by the London Opera's co-owner, involving a crooked opera critic who is murdered by the Phantom; the Phantom's ratcatcher sidekick; and the appearance of the Phantom's lair, with an antique organ and candles everywhere. The plot has the feel of one of John Dickson Carr's Timeslip detections, but the gore robs it of any fascination and the movie of any suspense. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.