The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

     directed by Dwight H. Little

          starring Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, and Alex Hyde-

            White

Folks, I hate horror movies. Not in the oh, ha ha, that was so scary, let's go get ice cream kind of a way. In the way that I'm traumatized for weeks and can never be alone anywhere ever again and cried when I had to watch Ringu for a film class and had to be physically restrained to make it all the way through 13 Ghosts and was actually so physically ill during Hostel that I had to go outside and sit on the floor on my porch with my head between my knees to keep from throwing up all over everyone and then passing out. In the way that even seeing trailers for horror movies makes me panic and demand in increasingly hysterical tones that John fast forward RIGHT NOW, even if we're in a movie theatre at the time. I don't do well with horror movies; there's a disconnect between the part of my brain that sees terrifying things and the part that should be reminding me that they aren't real.

 

And, of course, this is Robert Englund of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, so I was prepared to be a very sad panda for a very long time after watching this. I was rescued by the fact that the horror element of this film had been severely over-hyped (it's Robert Englund... who would have guessed that it wasn't that bad?), so that it turned out to be an experience I could, at least, survive with most of my nerves intact. Don't get me wrong; it was still scary, and it definitely had plenty of moments that made me say, "Oh oh oh oh OH OH NO NO STOP IT," while thrashing in my seat on the couch, but I made it through and even managed about three hours of sleep afterward. Eventually.

 

We start out with an interesting quote, which caused me no end of perplexity and heartbreak. The opening text is set over what is presumably part of the score of Don Juan Triumphant, and reads as follows:

 

Pray for them that giveth their immortal life unto Satan...

For each is damned to relive that wretched life...

Through all times.

--St. Jean Vitius of Rouen, on the day of his execution

 

My confusion comes from the fact that I set out to try to find out who St. Jean Vitius of Rouen is, and came up with jack. The internet, tome of information that it is, apparently has no idea who this person is supposed to be. The full name only returns me discussions on this film. Wikipedia has never heard of anyone named "Vitius". There's a St. Vitius cathedral in Prague, but I can't find much on whomever it was named after, and the same goes for St. Vitius' Day, which was mentioned in an article on Kosovo. There's a rare nervous system disease called St. Vitius' Dance (Andy Warhol had it and it sucks, apparently). There's a doom metal band called St. Vitius, so apparently he was hardcore, whoever he was. Then I got lost in a labyrinth of Serbian terminology and linguistic connections, none of which would be particularly interesting to anyone, until finally coming to the conclusion that the makers of the movie (and by extension, all these other people I had found on the internet) had misspelt his name. Because there is, in fact, a St. Vitus, and since his big claim to fame is the hurling out of a possessing demon and then being tortured to death for refusing to recant Christianity, I'm willing to bet that's who they meant.

 

...except that St. Vitus is totally Italian and, as far as I can tell, was never anywhere near Rouen. DAMN it.

 

Anyway, the eternal mystery of St. Vit(i)us aside, the quote is appropriate because there are going to be all kinds of supernatural, demonic shenanigans in this movie, and some kind of larger comment on recursive fate and inescapable cycles. OKAY? Okay.

 

The opening camera shots, mostly overhead shots of New York City, are shaky; at first I thought that they were intended to be point-of-view shots, and thus realistically unsteady, but this turned out not to be the case. Apparently it was just substandard camera work, but it was very short and didn't recur at any later point in the film.

 

This film's major conceit is that it's a time-travel epic (well, a time-travel something, at any rate), which begins in the eighties in New York City, where a young girl discovers part of the score of Don Juan Triumphant. She likes it so much that she decides to sing part of it for her audition, even though the score seems prone to suddenly leaking blood with no provocation - in fact, the sudden bleeding and the covering of her hands with blood is very symbolic when combined with later events, though she is unaware of it at the time. Unfortunately, while she's singing the aria, someone drops a sandbag from the roof and whacks her in the head with it, and she's knocked out and somehow teleported back in time to the late 1800s so she can be the Christine of the original story.

 

I was really hoping, actually, that the whole time travel back to the 1800s thing wasn't really time travel. There were other options:

 

     A) She got hit in the head and knocked out and this is all a hallucination or dream. 

     B) She got hit in the head and knocked out and is somehow remembering a past life wherein she was the original  

          Christine.

     C) She got hit in the head and died, and we as the audience are being shown a memory/past life sequence to

          explain why.

 

I was especially fond of options B and C, but they didn't turn out to be correct... mostly. If it weren't for one specific scene in the 1800s, B would have been spot on. As it is... I don't understand why the time travel needed to be there when I would have liked a memory or a metaphor so much better, but Little didn't ask me (they never do, do they?).

 

If I can digress for a minute to talk about Christine's hair: she's a brunette. In fact, every single movie incarnation of Christine, with the notable exception of the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, has portrayed Christine as a brunette. The Lloyd Webber stage musical and its spin-offs generally do so as well, mostly because Sarah Brightman, who originated the role, is a brunette. Why the change from Leroux's original portrayal? Well, for one thing, Christine's blondeness is connected to her Nordic background; she's very Swedish, which is important as it sets her apart from the other French women and makes her a sort of mysteriously delicate "Northern angel". Her pale skin and hair help to suggest innocence and fragility to a western audience, which are central to her character, and they lend her a uniqueness that helps underline that she is special and unlike the other inhabitants of Paris. Most modern versions, and almost all film versions, however, tend to leave out her Swedish background or change it to something entirely different (such as the 1962 film, which made her English, or the 1983 film, which made her American). Without the ethnicity argument, she doesn't need to be blonde; if the director is going to show her innocence in some other way (having her wear a lot of white, for example), he or she doesn't really need those visual cues so much. Film versions have tended away from making Christine an innocent, angelic figure, preferring to make her more of a normal woman in order to help the audience connect with her and pity her plight (after all, nobody really relates to a Christ figure, not directly); this makes her most innocent features inventions of the Phantom's mind, things that he assigns to her in his quest to make her his perfect woman, and not actual attributes of the woman herself. In these cases, bringing her appearance away from Leroux's original, cherubic girl helps to underscore the fact that the Phantom's mental instability and perceptions are the root cause of this "myth" of purity.

 

Then, too, of course, there's the pretty simple fact that Mary Philbin, the original film Christine, was brunette, which has a powerful influence over filmmakers when they follow up on the first film. I wonder if, however, there isn't an even more subtle social reason behind the change; as a generality, we no longer regard blonde hair as indicative of purity - quite the opposite, in fact. Blonde hair has gradually become associated with a stereotype of sexual promiscuity (the "beach bunny" stereotype) and a lack of intelligence, neither traits flattering or likely for a director to want to use for a Christine character. It may therefore be actually counterproductive for a Christine figure to be blonde at this point, which may also explain why she has mutated so firmly into a brunette - also not a redhead, associated with a stereotype of low socioeconomic class and/or bad temper.

 

This is the first version of the story to give Erik a last name: Destler. Since this film is determined to vex me, I can't figure the meaning of this name to save my life; it sounds Germanic, or possibly Dutch (i.e., one who "dests"), but there doesn't seem to be a root word attached to it. There is a Dutch city called Deest, so the name could perhaps mean "one who is from Deest" (the same way Rothenburger means "one who is from Rothenburg"), but that's speculation. Fine, then, be that way. So I won't know the name's origin. I do think it's interesting that the writers felt the need to give him a last name at all, however; it probably has more than a little to do with the fact that they seem to have set him up as a known, even rather famous composer, and he would need a last name to function in society. This decision - to make Erik a part, even if clandestinely, of society - changes his character fundamentally. He is no longer an outcast hiding from the society that rejected him; he is now a dangerous sort of fraud, an outcast hiding from society in the knowledge that if they did learn who and what he was, they would reject him. The dynamic is subtle, but very important to our understanding of the character.

 

As in Leroux's original novel, the show in question for most of the action is Gounod's Faust, but this particular film takes the parallel to an impressive extreme. Faust doesn't just mirror some of the miseries of Erik's condition or the transcendence of Christine here; it is actually almost a dead-on retelling of the Erik's situation (without the original happy ending and redemption, alas).

 

Christine is played by Jill Schoelen, who is apparently a rock singer (and who also appears in another horror film that was loosely based on the Phantom story, Popcorn), but I don't know if she was singing her own part in all these opera shenanigans. I would be surprised and impressed if she were; not that the opera singing on Christine's part is particularly stunning, but there's a big difference between belting out rock tunes and singing in operatic style, even if the opera is as easy as this Don Juan Triumphant seems to be (composing genius, my foot. It's not even written for a soprano, not really... more of a mezzo role). Even if she did record the singing herself, however, someone needs to teach this woman how to lip-sync, because she is miserable at it. Come on, Schoelen - stand up, straighten out your spine, stop windmilling your shoulders around, stop tilting your head, start opening your mouth, stop closing up your throat with your tongue, and don't stick your chin out like a goddamned chicken. You'd sound like a harridan if you tried to actually sing like that. You should probably try to keep your lip movements in sync with the recording, too. I'm pretty definitely sure she was dubbed for the Faust performances; the singer has production problems and sounds young, but is definitely classically trained and was probably stunning a few years after this, which is nicely realistic for a Christine learning to sing.

 

Anyway, nineteenth-century Christine was also apparently hit with a sandbag, just like her twentieth-century counterpart; she wakes up and is hurried off to her room to recover, and seems to be perfectly at home in her environment, which seems to debunk the time traveling theory for now. Certainly, she recognizes everyone and knows what's going on and doesn't seem to think anything's odd. The audience, if they know the story, wastes some time trying to figure out why the Phantom is throwing sandbags at the object of his affection until it is revealed that the stagehand, Buquet, accidentally dropped it and then blamed the Phantom to get his ass out of the fire. Erik, unsurprisingly, is not amused. It is interesting that the Buquet of the original novel and the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, the creepy, gross old man that liked to leer at the ballet girls, is here transformed into a young and rather handsome guy; his only faults seem to be an unseemly fondness for alcohol, which he drinks on the job, and his regrettable tendency to blame his mistakes on the Phantom.

 

This change is most likely in order to make him more sympathetic for the audience, since Erik proceeds to do very bad things to him shortly after he blames the Phantom for Christine's near-death experience (another stagehand is heard to suggest that Buquet may occasionally pull a creepy stalker and masturbate over Christine in the flies, another big no-no as far as Erik is concerned that probably contributed to this). We don't get to see Buquet's unfortunate end, but it involves a very small knife (warning signals blaring in my head: VERY SMALL KNIFE! VERY SMALL KNIFE! SOMETHING IS AMISS!) and quite a lot of blood splatter. We get our first real clue as to Erik's nature when he first stabs Buquet with his wee little knife; he obviously gets an almost erotic thrill out of the act. His eyes roll back and almost close, his mouth opens despite the blood spray, and his smile is eerily satisfied, almost sexually so. This Erik is not a nice man, and he obviously enjoys what he does. The rationality of it is an important change from Leroux's original Phantom, who was so far advanced in his dissociation and ostracization that he could be interpreted as killing without real understanding of the lack of humanity in what he was doing; Englund's Erik knows exactly what he's doing, and has no remorse for it.

 

The setting is changed, as it was in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, to London rather than Paris; again, I'm not really sure why, except that it was probably easier to realistically handle for the filmmakers. As she was in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, Christine is an American here (her last name is accordingly changed to Day, which at least has sunny connotations), which allows her to be a stranger with the accompanying naivete of learning a new situation, but also keeps her very immediate and relatable to the audience. Neither change is particularly irksome, though I would have preferred a more concrete rationale for them.

 

Following the lead set up in the 1983 and 1962 films, Erik's underground haven is positively bedecked with candles. It's really almost ridiculous. Just as Christine's portrayal in film has changed over the years, so, too, has Erik's underground; it has gone from the fairly palatial residence described in Leroux and mostly adhered to in the 1925 film to a dank, rat-infested hole. In 1925, it was a nice house with rich furnishings and gas lighting; sure, it had a coffin in it, but it was a home, and a pretty impressive one at that. By 1943, it was more of a cellar; there was a piano and general homey touches, but it looked a lot like someone's dusty fruit storage area had been converted. By 1962, it was a slum off of an open sewer, mostly lit by scattered candles, and by 1983 it had devolved completely into a dirty, candle-lit cave with a few broken-down pieces of furniture and an intensely dank feeling about it. The change reflects the change in the portrayals of the Phantom as time has gone by; from his original stance as a gentleman (an insane, estranged, middle-class gentleman, but a gentleman nevertheless) who wanted to be like everyone else, we have gone to an old man who was unfairly divested of his life's work, to a madman seeking revenge for his wife's murder, and finally here to a completely sociopathic evildoer. As the Phantom becomes more of a monster (a man-made monster, of course, but no less monstrous for all that) and less of a person with serious social problems, so his residence has become less of a home and more of a lair.

 

And then we come to one of the really awesome ideas employed by this version of the Phantom, and the first scene to make me wail in despair and beg it to stop. It's somewhat confusing to many viewers that Englund's Phantom doesn't seem to wear his mask on the cover anywhere; this is because he doesn't have one, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, he sews little scraps of flesh to his face to hide the deformity. Oh, yes, he does. With a gigantic basting needle. It is horrifying, especially when coupled with his uncanny fortitude and seeming unconcern. I begged all the gods of cinema for it to be pigskin or something, but no, it seems pretty certain later that it's stolen human skin. Eeeargh. The best part is that he has to replace it regularly, because... well... skin you take off of someone else rots. He is also a makeup master, so that after sewing large swatches of someone else's skin all over his face with thick, black thread, he then covers all the lines expertly. The result is a face that certainly isn't pretty, but it's just averagely ugly. It just looks like he might have been in a lot of bar brawls in his youth.

 

My squeamishness aside, the symbolism is impressive; rather than hiding his face behind a mask in order to avoid society, Englund's Erik creates a new face. It is an organic, living mask, one which enables him to pass unnoticed among the rest of society despite his deformity. Unlike Leroux's unhappy Phantom, who hid his face from society, Englund's character seizes control of his environment rather than choosing passivity. This Erik is subversive; he does not want to be a normal man, nor does he want to hide undetected from the rest of society. He embraces his ugliness - and, by extension, his evil - not as a curse, or an unfortunate happenstance, but as a part of himself of which he is not ashamed. He is aware that he is evil, and he is unrepentant; he is not hiding from society, but rather giving himself the means to move undetected through it. He is, in short, a very, very bad man.

 

Interestingly, Christine's sidekick in both time periods is Meg Giry. For one thing, Madame Giry's not in the film at all, so Meg becomes sort of an unknown, sourceless quantity; she is made a chorus singer in order to help offset this, which makes her at least plausible as an acquaintance of Christine's. As Meg is a very, very minor character in Leroux's novel, I'm curious as to why she is elevated here; certainly to help the time periods collude and to provide a source of exposition, but plenty of other minor characters could have been co-opted for those purposes. The only thing I can think is that Meg, as a female character close in age to Christine, is the closest thing to a friend or confidante that most re-writers see in the original novel, and since they're trying to make Christine less of a singular metaphorical creature and more of a relatable person, it makes sense to bring her in (even though the Meg in Leroux's original novel didn't much like Christine and said that she sang like a crow). I would normally examine the fact that Lloyd Webber's musical uses Meg in the same way and was really the first retelling to do so, and consider the possibility that the musical, which was released three years prior to this film, might have influenced this decision; but even though it seems like it could be, I can't find another scrap of Lloyd-Webber-influence anywhere else in the entire film, which makes me think that it was probably already planned out or in production by the time the Webber musical became an international phenomenon.

 

Carlotta is the difficult diva, as always, but she didn't do anything particularly awful aside from being a pain in the ass for the managers. Her ousting has nothing to do with anything except for Erik deciding that Christine's voice is ready and his desire to see her in the role of Marguerite instead. Instead of killing Carlotta as in earlier versions, or threatening her into submission as in the original novel, he goes for a simple and direct, "two birds with one stone" approach and leaves Buquet's skinned, bloody carcass in her wardrobe (yes, my danger sense was correct - the very tiny knife is in fact for skinning people. We know where Erik's next face is coming from. Eeeeeugh). Poor Buquet is still slightly alive, and scares the living bejeezus out of Carlotta (hello, film gods. I would like to put in a petition never to have to see a person divested of his eyelids ever again. Thank you, love, Anne). The police inspector (who will basically take the daroga's place later on in the film) makes the statement that the skin-flaying is "the work of an artist", which is very accurate for this version of Erik; he views torture and murder as an artistic medium just as much as music, meaning that both sides of his personality (the light and the dark) are creative, artistic facets. The whole business is much more effective than sending menacing notes, and the hysterical Carlotta understandably refuses to perform that night, leaving the door open for Christine to make her debut.

 

It's nice that the crowd is realistically pissed off when the announcement is made that the diva they had been promised is not singing. Too frequently, everyone seems to be okay with this or even excited about a fresh face, but the reality is that many people attended the opera to see specific artists, and would have felt cheated had they been told there was a last minute switcheroo. We see several people get up and leave before Christine ever gets onstage, and quite a few faces in the audience are very annoyed campers. Of course, she does well and gets a standing ovation from the crowd, so all is happiness... until (DUN DUN DUNNNNN) the 1983 movie influences start to rear their ugly heads. We get to see several shots of Erik hanging out in his box and watching Christine, and I had to stifle giggles; he looks exactly like my voice teachers looked whenever they were watching one of their students performs, right down to the hand gestures as though he could move her body parts around and fix the problems from afar. And she does have problems; she's still not bad, but there are straight tones and flat tones and sweet crap, woman, please stop scooping where it isn't artistically valid.

 

Watching Faust also triggers a memory sequence for our dear Phantom, in which we discover why he is so fucked up. As I said before, Faust is not just an abstract allegory of evil as the price of genius here, but a concrete parallel to Erik's actual past. Like Swan in the 1976 de Palma/Finley film, Erik has sold his soul to the devil, in this case because he wants his music to be famous rather than mired in the obscurity it has been enjoying. In return for his immortal soul, the devil promises that his music will never be forgotten, and disfigures his face so that his music is the only thing about him that will ever be loved. I had a few unresolved questions about this sequence:

 

1) Why, if his music is fated never to be forgotten, is it totally forgotten in the twentieth century when the movie starts? They had to dig through a rare music library's stacks of crap in the basement even to find the incomplete original manuscript. Clearly, it did not catch on.

2) Why is the Devil played by a person with dwarfism? I am 10000% in favor of little people getting more acting roles in Hollywood, so I'm certainly not going to complain about that, but I feel like there's some nasty subtext here about using the image of a little person (not to mention one of the only people of color in the movie - the actor, John Ghavan, was Iranian) to represent deviancy or evil or wrongness. I'm not a little person myself, though, so I really can't comment any further than that.

3) I am not overly impressed by this disfigurement when the Devil gives it to him. It looks like a bad case of facial boils. Yeah, they're ugly, but not soul-crushingly, society-rejectingly ugly.

 

Points 1 and 3 will be addressed later on in the movie, so I'm just left to ponder 2 in silence. So, anyway, Erik's soul is damned just like Faust's, making the entire opera an extended metaphor of his life (and Christine, of course, is the Marguerite to his Faust, or so he wants to cast her).

 

As I mentioned, the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film is obviously borrowed from quite a bit (though, obviously, there are serious plot differences between the two). The single rose that was first introduced in the 1983 movie is used again here, but more major than that is the recurrence of the Conspiracy Against Christine. In this case, one of the opera managers pays off the reviewer to pan her as being miserable in order to get Carlotta back on the show and avoid further audience walkouts. Christine is extremely upset, but it's Erik who, of course, goes off to the Turkish bath (again borrowed from the 1983 film, in which Michael was assaulted by the Phantom in the public baths) and murders the reviewer by gouging his eyes out with his fingers (eeeeeugh).

 

Interestingly, Erik takes the time to try to bargain with the reviewer, suggesting that he might have been mistaken and even offering him the use of Box 5 in return for printing a retraction or a more favorable review; he only kills the guy after he refuses. This is another of many clues that Erik is much more reasoned and rational than most versions paint him: an intentional murderer rather than a crazed killer. The other, most obvious, influence from the 1983 film is the mask of flesh; it's merely the next horrifying step up from the 1983 Phantom's eerily lifelike man-faced mask. Other small touches, such as the rat-lined tunnel walls that are very reminiscent of the beggar-lined walls in the 1983 film, abound.

 

Wait, are we forgetting someone? Oh, shit, Raoul! His name is Richard in this version (probably because of the locale change to England), and he's very, very easy to forget since he's pretty much never around. He's a nice guy, of course, but extremely downplayed; the story in this version is first and foremost about Erik, secondarily about Christine, and really only very slightly about anybody else. Richard mostly serves as a point of contention for Erik to get upset over and as a foil for the Phantom's villainous actions, and in a secondary role as the catalyst for Christine's break for freedom.

 

He also serves as more character-developing exposition, when we see him propose to Christine right after her debut; she refuses, saying that she can't now (presumably because of the performance). This is a very key part of this Christine's character: she is desperately devoted to her own freedom and independence, and requires it to continue pursuing music as her passion. In the conventions of the time, her career might be over if she decided to get married - either it would be deemed inappropriate for her to continue (by her husband, who would have a controlling power over her, or society at large), or she'd start popping out babies and no longer be physically able to - so she refuses Richard's request, even though she admits that she loves him. As was done in the 1984 Hill stage show, Richard has been downgraded here from a vicomte to one of the managers of the opera, which effectively removes most of the barrier of class from his relationship with Christine; this makes their relationship more believable, but also removes that element of love that can overcome barriers.

 

Erik, who is totally creepy and horrible as a person, has nevertheless seemed perfectly human up to this point. A nasty human, but a possible one. However, when a few opportunistic muggers decide that his purse wants lightening, that all goes away in a flash of WTF. In fighting off three muggers with just his tiny knife (eeeeeugh), he displays superhuman strength (when he bodily hurls a mugger into the air and then lifts another above his head with only one hand), and blinding speed that almost seems to be teleportation, allowing him to box them in. The character of the Phantom always walks a thin line between supernatural and merely clever, but this version of him clearly has supernatural abilities, due, we must suppose, to his demonic pact. Like Leroux's Erik, he is a conundrum of a character, for while he does things that seem to be impossible for anyone less than supernatural, he also seems extremely human sometimes. When he's finished killing the muggers, he puts gold coins on their eyes before he leaves - possibly out of some kind of deeply-buried compassion, but more likely as an ironic joke pandering to their desire for his gold when they were still living.

 

There is a very, very cool scene in this part of the movie as well, wherein Erik hires a sex worker with whom he spends the night. I have to admit that I've wondered about this before; while some versions of Erik are too mentally unstable or physically damaged to think about sexual intimacy, or simply seem not to be interested in the concept, many of them seem as though sexuality might be important to their character in some dimension. Sex trade was a popular solution in the time period for many men who were undesirable or otherwise had a hard time finding feminine companionship on their own, so it makes sense that Erik would avail himself now and then (especially this version of Erik, who can pretend to have a semi-normal face). The fact that he has to wear that contrived face even while entertaining a lover is symbolic of the strictures placed on him; even in the intimacy of a sexual encounter and the company of those considered the lowest echelon of society, he still has to hide his true face.

 

He renames the sex worker Christine for the night, another telling look into his character; aside from his obvious fantasy of being with the unattainable Christine, his respect of her purity and innocence are also highlighted. He cannot bear to actually make sexual overtures to her, which he would view as "tainting" her with his evil, and thus he hires a proxy instead to stand in for the fulfillment of his desires. The very end of the scene is perplexing, and a hint that the Phantom is more complex than he has so far been made out to be; he pays the woman well and leaves her not only unharmed, but apparently happy. It seems that she enjoyed herself (or at least didn't have a bad night catering to him), and while we have had hints of compassion out of Erik before this (offering the reviewer an alternative to death is the most obvious), this is the most blatant example of him treating his fellow humans with kindness. It seems likely in light of the rest of the film, however, that he has treated her so well because she was a symbolic representation of Christine, not because he had any particularly humane feelings toward her, just as Christine is the motivator behind the offer to the reviewer, as well, since Erik wanted her reputation restored.

 

The whole "angel of music" thing is in the movie, but it's rushed and mostly glossed over, which I thought was a real pity since it makes such a fantastically ironic contrast against all of Erik's demonic shenanigans. Alas, it was not to be. Christine mentions her deceased father as sending her an angel, but this is never really fleshed out that much, leaving me thinking that it wasn't really feasible for her to have such unshakable belief in him. The conceit does, however, have the positive side effect of being the reason for the first time the novel's graveyard scene is ever included in a film version (film versions tend to change the backstories too much to make it feasible, but the writers went back to Leroux for this one, and I'm grateful for it).

 

The scene, in which Erik appears swathed in impenetrable black above her father's grave and plays a gorgeously haunting violin solo, is extremely powerful. It is enhanced by the fact that Erik completely ignores Christine; by not responding to her cries and remaining a mysterious, phantasmal entity, he creates a feeling of unearthliness that gives the scene emotional and spiritual weight for both the characters and the audience. Richard arrives and attempts to shout for Christine, giving us the first set conflict of the film between the two men, but she chooses Erik's music (and, by extension, the memory of her father) over her would-be fiance, almost without hesitation and much to his extreme chagrin. Erik plunks her into a carriage that is obviously representative of damnation - it's got curtains in varying shades of red and is lit from within by a hellish glow - and off they go into the wild blue yonder.

 

The idea of immortality is a huge one in this scene; Erik's bargain for immortality is obvious, but here Christine chooses it as well, responding to his assertions that he will make her remembered forever through his music. She is moving toward that promise, yes, but the more important reason for her choice is behind her, shouting from behind the wrought-iron gates; Richard represents the painful Now, in which her father is dead, her career is apparently destroyed, and her dreams are slipping through her fingers, and so she flees him with almost child-like refusal, choosing instead to turn to Erik and the eternal future that he represents. Richard gets nearly burst eardrums for his trouble, when Erik turns around and blasts him with high-pitched, demonic violin-playing until he collapses.

 

Erik mentions himself and his lair as the "soul" of the opera, which of course brings to mind Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another classic of French literature which deals with many of the same themes as the Phantom story; Quasimodo is referred to more than once as the "soul" of Notre Dame, making me wonder if the connection is a deliberate reference or just my overly-active literature-sense acting up again.

 

Despite the extreme supernaturalism of the graveyard scene, Erik is abruptly very human again once they descend into his underground haven. He pours wine for the two of them, and is promptly disarmed and on the defensive when Christine demands to hear his opera and cajoles him into playing it for her. His easy capitulation suggests both that he wants her to hear the music, which is after all the purest expression of himself (at odds with Leroux's Phantom, who thought the purest expression of himself was something no one should be subjected to), and that he is nearly incapable of refusing her. He is joyous, almost childish as he does it for her, and it's the only time in the entire film that we will see him truly happy (as opposed to ghoulishly excited, which we see far too often for my personal comfort); he even weeps when she begins to sing it, an obvious moment of emotion as his fantasy becomes an unsuspected reality.

 

This is where, sadly, the time travel theory comes into play; the aria she sings is, of course, the aria that twentieth-century Christine sang at the beginning of the film; Erik turns to her in astonishment and asks how she knew the words to his score, since he hasn't finished the libretto and there aren't any written there in the music, and she becomes flustered and says that she doesn't know. Erik sort of shrugs his shoulders and moves on in a happy fog of "Oh it's meant to be!", but I was sad, since that implies that this really is the twentieth-century Christine and that she knows the words from having sung them before in her own time period. If it weren't for this little exchange, I would have blissfully carried on with my reincarnation theory. So close.

 

Like Richard, Erik is also planning to propose to Christine, except that as a sort of completely fucked up sociopath he does less proposing and more suddenly declaring, pushing his ring onto her finger and telling her that they are now man and wife (like the original Erik, he doesn't believe himself bound by the laws of mortal man, but even better, as a damned character he isn't bound by God's laws, either, so I guess he can just declare a marriage without needing a priest, can't he?). Christine instantly panics, instinctively rebelling and seeking that independence that she is so fixated on, but in the end she acquiesces; the music and its performance are her goals, and Erik is pledging to aid her in that. He makes one brilliant statement that absolutely epitomizes Christine's feelings toward the Phantom as he is trying to convince her: "You love the music... I am the music." Nothing else in the film so completely crystallizes Christine's dilemma, as she is simultaneously drawn to the artistic promise of him and yet driven away by the terrifyingly inhuman properties she senses lurking beneath it.

 

And then, in keeping with Englund's Phantom, who is apparently the sexbomb version of Erik (he might not be pretty, but he wears kickass sexy riding boots - I am such a sucker for a man in heels - and gets to have sex, which is more than pretty much every other version of the character ever gets), he totally gets to sleep with Christine. This is implied, not shown; he informs her that, "Tonight, you will be my bride," after his little shotgun wedding, and then leads her offstage into the non-candlelit blackness, and then everything cuts to the next day when Christine returns to the surface. The audience is free to draw their own conclusions. This has the effect of both consummating the "marriage", and of solidifying Erik's unshakable conviction that Christine is his property. He's been hiring sex workers to pretend they were her; now that he actually has her, it seems pretty evident that there's no way in hell anyone else is going to get to so much as shake hands with her.

 

Richard, who has recovered and is understandably worried about his missing almost-fiancee, discusses the problem with the police inspector inside a church. It's an obvious choice of locale, but a good one nevertheless; Erik, as a wilfully damned character, has no influence there, making it the one place that they can discuss things without the possibility of being overheard. Unfortunately, my credulity was stretched a little thin here; it's the police inspector, not Richard, that relates the tale of the Phantom and insists that this must be him, up to and including the soul-pact and the demonic powers. Please, man. A guy in extremity over his girlfriend's disappearance I could stomach believing something so out there, but not a supposedly rational member of the police force. This is 1881, not 1581. But, alas, that's the way it's written. Richard heads off to try to get Christine to talk to him, but gets kicked out by the chaperone, much to my amusement.

 

While all this is going on, the Phantom is taking off his face, and let me tell you, it is both an event and an experience. A lot of my notes here are scribbly gibberish because I was not a happy person during this part. It is hardcore, and so is this deformity - a lot more so than it seemed to be in the flashback wherein he acquired it. Combined with the unmasking that will happen at the very end of the film, it seems like his deformity actually worsens over time, perhaps as a mirror to the decay of his soul. At this point he has no hair (wears a wig), no teeth (dentures), no ears (eeeeeeeugh, he's wearing someone else's ears sewn onto his head), only about half a nose (he has a clay one covered with skin) and a wicked case of eczema. He really does look monstrous, especially since the audience is treated to his removal of all the human facade in excruciating detail until we beg for mercy. Forcing us to watch him tear everything away makes him much more of a monster than having seen it from the beginning would have; it makes us fearful because of the fact that we are so taken in by his normal, human-seeming face. On another level, the entire scene points out the fact that being damned is not all fun and games and that Erik is not a particularly happy person; not only is he hideous and forced to go through a great deal of pain just to pass as human, but he must habitually skin himself, even as he skins others.

 

The masquerade is, of course, the same fiasco that it is in the novel; Christine, despite the fact that she's still wearing Erik's ring (it won't come off no matter how much she struggles with it, symbolic of the pact they have made and the damnation that now extends to her as well), gets all lovey-dovey with Richard and Erik observes surreptitiously. The pendulum swings back the other way as Little again forces us to see the Phantom as extremely human (after the terrifying, monstrous scene just preceding this) when he is obviously deeply hurt by her betrayal; he staggers around in a haze and drinks copiously to calm his nerves, very human reactions to emotional stress. Then, of course, he goes and kills Carlotta, I suppose mostly because he's had a rough night. It's interesting that Carlotta unmasks the Phantom here, rather than Christine; the change absolves Christine of blame and of any part of the burden of horror, and completely ruins the unfortunate Carlotta's hopes for survival. Erik kidnaps Christine right out of the masquerade ball; he does not trust her as Leroux's Erik trusted her to finish her performances and carries her off, running through those same hellish red curtains that signify the damned (and doomed) nature of their relationship.

 

The rat-catcher of Leroux's novel makes an appearance in this film, taking the place of the daroga as the man with knowledge of the Phantom's domain and the ability to lead the investigators down in order to rescue Christine. He's presented as being sort of vaguely in cahoots with Erik, at least inasmuch as Erik pays him to get rid of the rats and keep his mouth shut about the underground domicile (this may refer to the novel as well, since I believe the daroga was unsure as to whether the rat-catcher might work for Erik).

 

Erik, in his rage at having been betrayed (which is, by the way, another clear indicator that he has been very hurt by her behavior; he doesn't know how to react any other way), actually hurts Christine, something that has been anathema to the Phantom in pretty much all earlier versions (the 1962 Phantom slaps her once, but that's about as heavy as it's gotten). Not only does this help confirm Erik's evil nature, but it also underscores the most important fact of their relationship: he does not love her. Like many stalkers with fixations, he views her as his property and as an extension of himself, but he is not capable of truly loving her. He thinks he does, but his behavior speaks otherwise; the "love" he thinks he has for her is part of his fantasy of being with her, and as unattainable as her loving him back. This is, of course, a significant change from all previous versions of the Phantom (with the possible exception of the 1962 Phantom, who was really more concerned with her voice than with her personally), who have been pretty uniformly awful people but also very devoted in their love for her, however odd or twisted it might have been. The horror as he looms over her shouting extremely Faustian platitudes like, "Desire is only a demon," and, "Hell is getting what you desire," is intensified by our knowledge that they have been carnally intimate; the scene is disturbingly rapine, and it's not difficult to extrapolate that Christine must find it similarly unsettling.

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The rat-catcher leads Richard, the police inspector, and some hapless officers down to attempt to rescue the girl and apprehend the murdering crazy, but Erik is, of course, too badass for their paltry efforts. The scene wherein he picks off the police officers one by one is spell-bindingly suspenseful, further showcasing Erik's enjoyment of his evil acts as he has a grand old time leading the officers around and scaring the hell out of them with one anothers' corpses. My notes say, "Oh, my god, did he just pull that guy's kidney out?", so you can draw your own conclusions from that while I go over here and don't dwell on it.

 

Only Richard, predictably, actually makes it into the Phantom's sanctum to make his bid for Christine; what isn't predictable, however, is that Erik fucking stabs him to death. Raoul dies--that's a new one in film, isn't it? Even films that tend more toward horror have still always had an implied happy ending for Christine and Raoul. The decision is certainly effective--we are shocked and distressed by this blatant flouting of our expectations. Richard feels the same way: the final look that he gives Christine as he slides down the wall is a boyish, lost look of incomprehension. Love has failed to conquer all, and we are all of us confused and horrified.

 

Then Christine sets everything on fire. And who can blame her, really?

 

Erik's sociopathic nature is more evident than ever here under pressure; he shows no remorse, even as Christine is obviously torn up by Richard's death, and seems be liable to hurt her in his obsessive wrath. Christine, understandably upset, starts throwing shit at Erik, including the numerous candles (aha! They have a use beyond setting the mood!). Her outburst is more than just a hysterical tantrum; it is her refusal to be dominated by him, her reassertion of the fact that her choices have always been her own. She is strong, even going to the extreme of swiping a fallen gun and shooting at him (she's not a very good shot, but give a girl a break--she probably doesn't get a lot of time on the shooting range). She also finally manages to get his ring off, which is the ultimate rejection of his influence and which infuriates him beyond all measure.

 

Erik is finally slain, despite hurling Christine across the room and giving her a concussion and being seemingly impervious to the bullets fired by the police inspector. As in the 1976 de Palma/Finley film, Erik's pact with the devil is tied to the music that he traded his soul for; he cannot be killed unless the music is destroyed (the same way Swan could not be killed until his videotapes were all destroyed). After a lot of shooting and shouting, Christine finally manages to topple one of the gigantic candelabras--not onto the Phantom specifically, but onto his music, burning it and presumably killing him with a blood-curdling scream. The last shot we see of Christine is wild-eyed and furious, screaming her defiance as she brings down the house, still fighting his attempts to own her. Erik weeps at her betrayal when he finally recognizes it, but it's too late; there is no pity from her and no possibility of redemption for him.

 

And then, of course, we go back to the twentieth-century Christine, and I sighed because I am just not the biggest fan of this conceit that there has ever been. She wakes up, so she wasn't dead (damn it), and then, pow, out of nowhere, there's Englund again, being modern-day Erik helping her up and being all nice and solicitous (and his face looks fine, by the way). Apparently she has no memory of her past life/time travel experience, because she doesn't bat an eye when he asks her out and then takes her back to his pad (my, my, fast mover, aren't we?). Unfortunately for Erik's master plan, she pokes around on his computer while he's upstairs getting pretty (his face had torn, you see... in this modern day and age he has crazy facial prosthetics, so presumably he doesn't flay people and wear them on his face anymore) and discovers that he's working on the score for Don Juan Triumphant, the only copy of which she has stashed at home. She puts two and two together (somehow, she suddenly has some kind of memory jog or something) and confronts him when he returns, and will have none of his talk about fate and how their love is conquering the ages.

 

In a very powerful moment, she has some kind of flash of memory or insight and reaches up to rip his "mask" off; I'd been wondering how and when they were going to do that part, and had assumed it had been replaced by Carlotta's unmasking of him earlier, but this is definitely the famous moment that is included in pretty much every retelling. His face is terrifying; it has deteriorated even further, at this point being just a bloody, raw mass with eyes. The effect is not that she has ripped off his mask, but that she has ripped off his face to reveal a monster beneath, an extremely horrific and symbolic moment (since she has, metaphorically, stripped him bare and revealed him as less than human). She wounds him and runs for it while he crawls toward her; the shot of the faceless monster reaching out for her from the floor is both terrifying and curiously piteous, and brings the final shot of Winslow dragging himself across the floor in the 1976 de Palma/Finley film forcefully to mind.

 

She takes the sheet music of Don Juan Triumphant that she found in his apartment, presumably to destroy it, but all she ends up doing is shoving it down a storm drain (come on, now. You couldn't even... you know, tear it up first?). And even so, the music is still on his computer, and the original score's still at home in her apartment... it's like The Ring. Copies and copies and copies.

 

Of course, after she thinks all is over and done with, a lone street violin player watches her disappear into the night, standing there under a street lamp with his face hidden, and plays the same sad song from the graveyard. Just in case we were worried that she'd actually gotten away. The implication is that the cycle will continue, both Erik and Christine doomed to repeat the past over and over until they renounce the voluntary damnation they have brought upon themselves--or, more likely, until Judgment Day. The general idea is that love is equivalent to entrapment, typified by Christine's reaction to strictures placed upon her and the endless, destructive cycle that Erik's obsession traps them in; conversely, music is equivalent to freedom, both for Christine, who must be free to pursue her musical dreams, and Erik, who has no other form of expression that can be classified as truly pure. The conundrum is that Erik encompasses both, creating a paradox that we are left to ponder at the end of the film.

 

This is the first film version ever to not include the falling chandelier scene; it has a lot less purpose, since this Erik really couldn't care less about the opera house most of the time. It is replaced by Christine's toppling of the candelabra in Erik's lair, switching the roles of villain and victim.

 

Why did I like this so much when it was scary, gory, and completely failed to bring across the ideas of redemption or love as a positive force? Because the settings were evocative and gripping, the acting was amazing (Robert Englund! Who knew?), and pretty much everything in the film has some form of higher symbolism, keeping it interesting no matter what else is going on (eeeeugh). It may not be Leroux's original story, but it's an engaging and thought-provoking one, and thoroughly enjoyable.

 

I know. I'm as surprised as you are.

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