Hammer-Rama: The Phantom of the Opera, by Alexander Miller
When you treat a studio as if it were a genre, it might seem like favoritism, nostalgia or cult appeal as a result of predominantly working in the horror genre. Even if you’re not a fan of horror films or Hammer’s unique interpretation of them you have to admire their proficiency. Applying their formula to revamp classic monster movies proved to be a winning recipe. However, Hammer’s 1962 rendition of The Phantom of the Opera merely caused a ripple after the tidal waves of success that had come before it. Thanks to maneuverable craftsmanship (and other circumstances) Hammer steered what could have been a disaster into the safe waters of comparative mediocrity.
The production of this divisive Hammer outing would be a rocky one; the momentum generated from Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula caught the attention of Cary Grant, who thought he would try his hand at a horror film, a genre that eluded him for the duration of his career. Son of the studios founder and leading screenwriter Anthony Hinds tailored a script he felt would fit the star, by delegating the Phantom’s sinister tendencies to a homicidal dwarf (actually credited as “the dwarf”) hoping they could sculpt the Phantom into a more sympathetic figure. Having the script groomed to Grant’s screen persona was in vain as he dropped out of the project, it seems like the roles Grant has turned down is something of a sub-genre in itself.
While it’s curious and impossible not to imagine what the movie would be like with Grant in the lead, had that come to fruition, The Phantom of the Opera would be remembered as less of a Hammer film and more of a Cary Grant picture. With a reputation for making stars instead of indulging them, I think that Hammer learned that their formula was self-sustained after this casting debacle. Having written a script that was inescapably expensive to produce, more concessions were made for the film to get an “A” certificate to reach a maximum amount of theaters possible. The compromises to meet with the British Board of Film Censors consisted of curbing the violence and expunging a line of dialogue alluding to an erection. This wouldn’t be the first time (nor would it be the last) Hammer would wrangle with Board of Censors, and in the spirit of their instinctual ingenuity, the team of creative minds were motivated in the shadow of restriction.
The resulting film might not deliver the expected quota of chills from the studio that brought The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula to the screen but it does convey a sense of dread and atmosphere.
Given the circumstances, The Phantom of the Opera should have been a disaster but the final product is a respectively well-made thriller, not effectively scary but exciting and well-acted. Herbert Lom proves to be a formidable Phantom; he communicates a tragic sadness of a man betrayed by circumstance with a limited range of expression (only one of his eyes is visible through his mask) and wears it well. Lom is good, but Michael Gough steals the show as the slithery opera producer Lord Ambrose, who turns out to be the real villain of the story. Ambrose is truly an unbelievable bastard who plagiarizes a body of work from Professor Petrie down on his luck composer. Once he sees his music credited with Ambrose’s name he breaks into the printers shop to destroy the pirated work, in his frenzy he starts a fire and spills acid on his face in an attempt to quell the inferno.
Leaving the printer’s in a blaze, a now mangled Petrie dives into a nearby body of water, getting swept into a storm drain where he apparently befriends a homicidal dwarf (?) and sets up a cozy underground lair. The proceedings give us plenty of reason to root for the sympathetic Phantom and detest the lecherous Lord Ambrose. Given the mounting tension, the final resolution feels a bit flaccid.
With the two energetic leads, some players from the studio’s stock company (Michael Ripper, Miles Alleson) and future Doctor Who star Patrick Troughton, the cast is fine. Heather Sears is admirable the Phantom’s love interest; her voice was dubbed for her opera sequences, but her performance is solid. The collateral damage of the Cary Grant deficit might explain the films lack of star power – by 1962 a Hammer film without Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or even Oliver Reed just feels strange. Lom, Gough, and Sears do well with the material, but Terence Fisher and Anthony Hinds are primarily responsible for saving this film. Our modernist tendencies might push us to condemn censorship and studio convention, but these interventions enable creativity via subtext and allegory thus strengthening what could have been an otherwise humdrum affair. Fisher championed suggestive terror and Freudian subtext over the ribald indulgences we’d see in Hammer’s later years. That said, Fisher’s direction feels very comfortable in this macabre romantic tragedy.
Despite being more a Gothic romance than a horror film, The Phantom of The Opera is sprawling with colorful vistas thanks to director Fisher and cinematographer Arthur Grant, whose sickly use of atmospheric greens and blues enhance an air of dread–thankfully so since there’s not much literal action in the film. Bernard Robinson’s production design is immaculate, again transforming the Bray Studio into the lushly detailed Phantom’s lair and more. Roy Ashton’s makeup of the Phantom’s disfigured face has been criticized over the years, but the wimpy finale is more to blame for its underwhelming effect. Three weeks into production and the look of the Phantom’s mask was undetermined. Ashton told the crew “look, give me five minutes and I will make you one”, from an old rag Ashton cut out an eye hole, tied it to Herbert Lom’s face, covered it with mesh and voila, there’s your monster! Like many critics did upon its release, Time magazine misinterpreted the tone of the movie, denouncing the Phantom’s design and saying he “was about as dangerous as dear old grandad dressed up for Halloween.” Like beauty, horror is very much in the eye of the beholder. Disputes aside Ashton’s makeup is one of the films strong points and a compelling change to the original on Hammer’s part, looking more like a skin graft fused onto his face, the mask works as a blank canvas whose stark simplicity is reminiscent of Michael Myers pale veneer in Halloween sixteen years later.
The Phantom of the Opera tanked at the box office. After the studio terrified audiences with full-blooded horror films, The Phantom of the Opera proved to be a misfire and one of the few Hammer productions from this era to go off halfcocked. Terence Fisher utilizes his trademark saturated color palette to great effect, and Sangster’s script (penned under the name John Elder) moves at a brisk pace, and yet it failed to connect with an audience. Despite the poor theatrical returns and critical lambasting this movie endures as a strange, but aesthetically satisfying entry from Hammer. A noteworthy non-horror scene include a crew of scullery maids who take pleasure in plundering the treasures left behind by the bourgeois opera house clientele; my enthusiastic praise of Hammer’s rendering of Victorian atmosphere isn’t solely restricted to lightening and cinematography.
The Phantom of the Opera is a stylish and witty retelling of Gaston Leroux’s novel that got shortchanged from the starting line thanks in part to an indecisive movie star and an audience expecting more straightforward scares than they got. It was simultaneously significant to the studio and the career of their premier director, Terence Fisher, who wouldn’t direct a film for Hammer for two years as a result. Thanks to home video and a league of ardent Hammer fans, The Phantom of the Opera has been reappraised by many over the years.