Phantoms of the Opera (1993)

     by John L. Flynn

Flynn's thesis in this book is actually very close to mine (a kindred researcher!). His mission statement, as written in the book's introduction, is to "discover why this deeply-rooted, mythic tale continues to be a ubiquitous part of our popular culture and the subject of a variety of projects." Well, hot damn, that's me, too! Flynn's book (which, to be fair, was published in 1993, before the self-publishing and vanity-publishing madness began) focuses primarily on the film versions of the story up through the 1990 Richardson/Dance film, as well as discussing the Lloyd Webber musical in some depth.

 

The introduction was interesting to me because Flynn has a few psychological theories that hadn't previously occurred to me. He suggests that the reason (or one of the reasons, at any rate) that audiences identify and sympathize with the Phantom is because of a collective desire to rebel - that is, we all have a subconscious desire to be non-conformists and declare our independence, and the Phantom is the quintessential example of a man who has rejected the conformity of society. I think the idea is flawed; Leroux's Erik desperately rejects society wherever possible, but I think that's more of a function of society having rejected him first rather than a simple desire to be different.  That doesn't necessarily make all of Flynn's suggestion inaccurate, though; after all, the current largest demographic interested in the Phantom tale is the teenage one, which is generally a rebellious group, and even as adults we tend to idolize those that step outside the norm with a certain flair (superheroes come to mind as an example). The Phantom himself may not be a good example of a rebel against conformity, but doesn't mean that an audience member may not be able to project themself vicariously into the story in that kind of role.

 

Flynn may also be on to something in that this might be one of the factors contributing to the general preference a lot of audiences and readers have for the Phantom, as opposed to the other characters, most of whom are either rich, titled, successful in their chosen vocations, or all three. This concept ties in strongly with one of the trends I've noticed in recent Phantom literature, what I like to call the "entitlement of the underdog"; that is, the idea that the Phantom is more "deserving" of Christine because he's endured more hardship in his life (this idea is horseshit, obviously, especially because it demotes Christine from the role of maturing woman dealing with an impossible situation to the role of trophy to help make some dude's life better, but again, that doesn't mean it's not a very prevalent idea among viewers and readers).

 

My opinion begins to diverge from Flynn's as the introduction ages, however. He goes on to say that the Phantom story is not a horror story; he claims that the Phantom is "certainly no monster", and discusses how Erik's behavior is excused by his motives and background. I have to disagree with this, strongly; I think that the Phantom is a monster in a metaphorical story role as well as a human, and that that's one of the key components of his character. One of the most forceful ideas of Leroux's novel is the concept that society creates its own evils and its own monsters through neglect and misdeed; that is, we know that we have helped create the very things that we fear, which adds to the terror. It's the same concept behind the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, for example, and I don't think anyone can argue against that being a series of horror films that practically typify the genre.

 

Even without that concept, the Phantom story shows several hallmarks of excellent horror stories: for one powerful concept, the Phantom lurking beneath the Paris House is a classic example of the fear of an unknown evil invading what should be a safe place (an idea explored in almost every major horror film, though Kubrick's The Shining or Hitchcock's Psychomake very good exhibits). My problem with the Flynn's argument, which is summed up in the introduction when he says that the Phantom's "acts of violence are committed solely for the woman he loves and to protect his world of anonymity", is that it seeks to excuse frightening and horrific behavior by saying that the character in question was acting in a way that he thought to be morally acceptable. But a large number of horror villains do believe that they're behaving morally, and are still no less terrifying, and I really think that's the case here (honestly, I'd say that the Phantom story has endured so amazingly over time because it is such an effective horror story; if it were just another Victorian pulp romance, I suspect it might have been lost to the mists of time like so many of them). The Jigsaw Killer of the Saw horror franchise believes that his actions actually better his victims, but, as the series' popularity can attest, that doesn't make his horrifying behavior any less frightening.

 

When Flynn says that the word "horror" is inappropriate because it "suggests an intense, painful feeling of revulsion or loathing", I wonder if he's reading the same story that I'm reading. Yes, the Phantom is sympathetic - very sympathetic for a nineteenth-century supernatural antagonist, which is one of the things that makes him interesting and complex, but that doesn't mean that he's not also horrific.  The other characters are so horrified that they literally can't stand him in his natural form, and his murders and behavior are no less frightening to either the characters or the reader. I could not disagree more with his closing phrase on the subject, wherein he states, "These terms might more aptly describe the best-selling potboilers of Stephen King or Whitley Strieber, or the splatter films of Herschel Gordon Lewis or Tobe Hooper, but certainly not the work of Monsieur Leroux." Not only do I think that Flynn is entirely overlooking the possibility of sympathy and complexity within the horror genre, but I also think that Leroux's mysteries were often exactly the same type of entertainment in their day.

(To be clear: I think the original novel can definitely be argued to belong to several genres - mystery, horror, Gothic romance, and so on, so I wouldn't argue that it's only a horror story.  But horror is definitely an important element, and Flynn's determination to dismiss horror as a "lesser" kind of genre seems to be a big contributor to his desire to avoid applying it to the Phantom story.)

 

Flynn digresses for a little while to discuss the Phantom story's roots in the Beauty and the Beast fable, which is all fine and dandy with me, but his analysis there seems simplistic and lacking in several key elements as well; in particular, he states that one of the similarities between the two stories is that the Beast's soul "reflects kindness, gentility, and unselfish devotion" in spite of his outward appearance, but he neglects the idea that, traditionally, the Beast's hideous physicality is the result of a curse placed on him because of his callous misbehavior (which is, of course, an idea closely tied to Leroux's in that both characters are effectively "cursed" because of social misbehavior). The Beast was cursed with ugliness on the outside to match the ugliness on the inside, and needed redemption, just like Leroux's Erik - and characters that need redemption are not innocents. Again, both characters are definitely sympathetic, but they're not innocent of evil and they're certainly not "just misunderstood".

 

I did, however, enjoy his comparison of the Phantom story to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark". I don't think the stories actually share that many of their themes, but the idea that humanity (and, by extension, society) obsesses over physical appearance with disastrous consequences is strongly present in both.

 

Alas, there are small but noticeable typographical and grammatical errors throughout the text, which isn't super surprising in a smaller press book like this but still distracting from its content.  This is what copy-editors are for! What were they doing when this book went to press, dancing drunkenly on a bar in the hotel lounge? Flynn is trying to make some good points and has obviously done some thinking and research, but his academic writing style sometimes takes a hit when he makes errors that grad school students would get their asses kicked for, which is a shame since it might distract from otherwise salient passages. Save your authors, editors. They need you.

 

After the intellectual exercise that was the introduction, which I enjoyed in spite of disagreeing with practically everything it said, the next little chapter's "Biography of Erik" was like being pulled out of a nice hot tub and hurled bodily into the regular-temperature pool. The chapter is written as if it were a biography of a real person upon whom the story was based, which is more than a little confusing without a preamble (and, I suspect, a possible source of confusion among fans of the story who insist that reputable sources claim the story to be true despite the lack of any shred of hard evidence). For one thing, the character's name is given as "Erik Dessler", because... well, I can't tell you why, because I have no fucking idea. An asterisk and author's note says that Erik also used the names Claudin, Carrier, Destler, and Petrie as aliases, which is the biggest clue that Flynn is combining "canons" from different versions of the story; those are the names appended to all the previous film versions of the Phantom (Claudin in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, Petrie in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, Destler in the 1989 Little/Englund film, and Carriere in the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries). But no version I've been able to find anywhere so far uses the name "Dessler" (or the misspelled "Carrier", for that matter"), which seems like just a spelling corruption of the earlier "Destler".

 

The biography is pretty obviously cobbled artistically together from Leroux's hints of a backstory along with occasional elements from later versions, though other details, such as Erik's mother being a washerwoman, seem to have come out of nowhere. I'm not sure it achieved its probable goal of doing something in the same pastiche genre as Leroux's original novel's claims of the Phantom's authenticity; I came away confused, and I've already seen all the source material he was drawing on. I can't imagine faring any better if I hadn't. I didn't mind it too much as an experiment that didn't quite work in this chapter, but it also carries over into the chapter about Leroux himself, and at that point it becomes too confusing for a reader who doesn't already know what's going on to separate factual biographical information from Flynn's inventions.  It's not kind to confuse your readers!

 

I didn't have too much to say about Flynn's section on the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, though it was interesting and informative; unfortunately, a lot of information was repeated, frequently, a problem that continues onward through the text. And it's not just an overuse of a favorite adjective or something like that; no, it's use of entire phrases, which plunk down in the text time and time again. This phrase - the entire thing - appeared in the introduction and again in the chapter on Lloyd Webber's musical: "Charming, confident, and seductive, Erik proves more than a match for the lovesick Raoul and nearly succeeds in winning Christine with his 'music of the night'." And it's only the worst offender. I lost count of the number of times he reused descriptive phrases, usually of four words or more without even the slightest bit of rearrangement. This is another thing you really need editing to catch.

 

I enjoyed Flynn's analysis of the 1974 de Palma/Finley film enormously; he certainly seemed to appreciate the spirit of parody in which its themes were presented, and while he seemed to dislike the Faustian take on things, he and I generally agree on most of the interpretation. Not so, however, his next section on the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film. I strongly disagreed with his assessment of the film as inferior and fatally flawed, and was especially bewildered by his constant ragging on the acting talents of Schell, who is not only an Oscar winner but whose nuanced portrayal of a very damaged character was one of the highlights of the film for me. In fact, the entire section confused me, starting with the photo of the Phantom playing piano in a practice session and its inaccurate caption ("The Phantom reveals his horrible visage to a frightened Maria" - actually, they're just talking and he's quite firmly masked). Flynn's discussion and dislike of the deformity makeup in the film centered somewhat bafflingly around its lack of realism and its resemblance to "leftover masks", which sounded a lot like he was mistaking the stone-like "gargoyle" mask that the Phantom wears throughout most of the film for his actual face (he is unmasked in only one scene, very briefly, and from what I recall I thought the deformity makeup was rather reminiscent of Chaney's). In Flynn's defense, there were a lot of different masks being worn by the one Phantom in that film, but I was still confused by what seemed to be a mistake.

 

All this came to a head, however, when in the introduction to the next section he stated enthusiastically that the 1989 Little/Englund film was the first since 1925 to include the masquerade sequence. Hold everything! Back it up! The 1983 Markowitz/Schell film that he'd just finished complaining about had a very extensive and lavish masquerade scene (available on YouTube as part of the whole film!), which was not only very well-presented in my opinion but which also served as the catalyst for the Baron's death and Maria's switch from pupil to refugee. What the hell? Much as I hate to make assumptions about an author, by this point I am seriously questioning whether Flynn ever actually watched the 1983 film all the way through - and if he didn't, he has no business reviewing it. It definitely had its faults and was by no means the best one I've seen, but there are a lot of mistakes and misleading statements in his treatment of the film.

 

Flynn's review of the 1989 Little/Englund film, by contrast, was again fairly close to mine; my only serious quibble was the fact that he insisted on constantly complaining that if only the film had omitted the "gratuitous and largely unneeded violence", this might have been the best version of the story to date. Y'all know I am a wuss about on-screen violence, but even so, I could not disagree more. There were a few problems with the film (the tacked-on time-travel conceit comes to mind), but the violence, in my opinion (the opinion of an extremely pathetic non-horror-watching person), was not one of them. I felt that the very visceral violence in that film was absolutely warranted for its character, and very true to the spirit of Leroux's character as well - an undercurrent of very terrifying violence beneath an intellectual and emotional attractiveness and a certain sexual subtext. Again, Flynn tries to excuse Leroux's Erik's behavior by saying that his killings were more acceptable - he says, "Yes, Gaston Leroux's mad musical genius did kill individuals in the original novel but only to advance the career of his young protege or to protect his dark, subterranean world." - but, again, I don't think that either the killings can be justified (newsflash: it's still not okay to murder people for career advancement, friends) or that the character, who should be frightening as well as sympathetic, suffers because of it. In fact, the tone of this particular article suggests strongly to me that Flynn's real issue with the film is not that it involves violence, but that said violence is too bloody and immediate for him to rationalize the same way that he does the behavior of the original Erik.

 

His discussion of the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries has a few other small, confusing issues. For one thing, he says that it was filmed in Budapest. What? Huh? No, no, the 1983 film was the one filmed in Budapest; this one was actually filmed in Paris, mostly at the Garnier itself. But the part that really got me was his comparison of Erik to traditional tragic hero tropes such as Oedipus and Othello. The tragic hero is, essentially, an admirable and heroic person who makes one critical error or has one inescapable failing (the "tragic flaw") that causes them to fall short of their goals, and usually either die or end their lives in ruin (for Othello, the flaw is jealousy, and for Oedipus, it's pride). Erik, on the other hand, has a host of problems, among them mental instability and social alienation as well as his physical difficulties, that very firmly do not allow him to fit the role of tragic hero (unless you count some of his more derivative forms; I could see the Kopit/Yeston version of Erik maybe being parlayed into a tragic hero, but definitely not the original or most of his mainstream iterations).

 

I had suspected, through a lot of the text, that Flynn was much more a fan of Lloyd Webber's musical than of the other versions of the story, and that analysis seems to be borne out when we finally arrive at the very thorough and lovingly detailed section on said stage show. I enjoyed his details on the production and spent some time engrossed in his descriptions, but I found his assertion that Lloyd Webber's version was the one that came closest to "capturing the true spirit of the novel" to be a little funny; I am a fan of the musical, don't get me wrong, and I think it's a fantastic version of the story, but it has some significant deviations from the original, and if pressed I would peg the 1925 silent film as the closest to the original source material. Flynn also states that Lloyd Webber's parody operas (such as the fictitious Il Muto) were examples of Lloyd Webber's disdain towards the staidness of traditional classical opera; I had really been thinking of it as a kind of fond mockery, but shit, I ain't Lloyd Webber, so I guess neither of us can really know.

 

That concludes the in-depth articles on Phantom versions, but luckily for me and my unsatisfied craving for more, there were several small articles on less well-known versions. I was, unfortunately, disappointed. There was no mention of the original 1937 version of Ye ban ge sheng, and only a small blurb on the 1960s remakes that basically dismissed the entire franchise as uninteresting (he said "lackluster and pallid", though I haven't seen that remake yet so I can't comment) and flawed because of its deviations from the original (no examination at all of the Chinese political climate or the way the story's themes had been applied to it, which made me sad). Bizarrely, the nostalgic 1974 trainwreck that was the Levitt/Cassidy film got an entire writeup instead of these versions (and while I think that film did some interesting things, I certainly didn't think it was more vital to the examination of the story). He also mentions several theatrical productions, including the 1984 Hill production and the 1992 Kopit/Yeston one, but doesn't really go into any real depth with any of them.

 

The truly hilarious part is near the end, where he does a brief write-up of the three "alternative variation" films on his list: the 1987 Argento/Barberini Opera, the 1988 Friedman/Rydall Phantom of the Mall, and the 1990 Popcorn. I can't disagree more strongly with his extreme dislike of the Argento film; his assessment of it as "one of the worst of Argento's films" seems to be fairly singular, since most reviews I've been able to find of it have been fairly praiseful (though I do understand that it wasn't received well by critics at the time of its release, so that may have something to do with it), and his inclusion of the fact that the film was laughed off the screen at its Cannes screening seems irresponsible (since he neglected to mention that it wasn't because the film itself was bad, but rather because the Italian film had been given a heinously bad English dubbing track). While I can certainly see why he doesn't like it - if the Little/Englund film had too much gore for him, I'm sure he wasn't happy with Argento's pull-no-punches approach to body horror - I can't at all see why he would say it was a bad film. I, personally, thought it was one of the better films I've yet seen in the project, even if it did make me cry myself to sleep for a few weeks.

 

By contrast, however, he loves Phantom of the Mall. No, seriously, he does! He says that it would have been "a breakaway success" if the Little/Englund film's release hadn't overshadowed it, and says that its "very literate script" and "strong modern twist" were fresh, intelligent approaches to the story. You'll pardon me while I laugh until I can't breathe anymore, because DAMN. Phantom of the Mall is up there with the worst films I've ever seen, period, Phantom-related or not. I have no idea what he's talking about (literate script? the dialogue and hackneyed setups were mind-melting!), but my skull almost exploded when, a few paragraphs after his unremarkable writeup of Popcorn, he concluded with this:

 

"Clearly, Terror at the Opera [Anne note: the Cannes release title of Argento's Opera], The Phantom of the Mall, and Popcorn were the most serious attempts by filmmakers to impose new, contemporary ideas on the familiar tale. Even though only one of the three films demonstrated any skill or intellect, not one was a serious competitor for box office revenue."

 

Yes, my friends. Flynn is dead serious when he looks us in the metaphorical eye and tells us that Opera did not live up to the level of skill or intellect demonstrated by Phantom of the Mall (and lest I forget it, Popcorn wasn't exactly high art but it was way more entertaining than Phantom of the Mall, I gotta say). I don't know how on earth this judgment call could possibly have happened, but by the time the author was misspelling composer Jacques Offenbach as "Offenback" on the next page, he had completely lost me. I was gone forever. We had something beautiful in the introduction, but no longer. We've just grown apart, so I'm moving on and he can keep his weird theories about violence "not fitting" the character of the Phantom to himself.

 

In the end, despite some of the interesting ideas at the beginning, I was mortally disappointed. The book felt very much less than thorough, even allowing that it was published in 1993 (no mention of the 1988 Plone/Sussman film? Or the 1987 animated Guest/Mathieson film? Or any of several stage and book forms, which date back to the 70s?), and combined with what seemed like shallow examination of the materials that were included, I was much less than satisfied. It's a good jumping-off point for finding information on a few of the more obscure theatrical productions, but I'm glad that I had a chance to see the materials for myself before reading these reviews.

 

You don't know how much I wish Flynn had gotten to see Argento's second Phantom film before he put this book out.  I absolutely cannot imagine what he would have thought of that piece of cinematic history.

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