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Freddy’s Phantom of the Opera a Mixed Bag
By Kristin Battestella
The 1989 version of The Phantom of the Opera adds a whole lot of gory to update the oft-adapted novel. Unfortunately, the convoluted changes to the source sully what could be a fine macabre rendition, leaving more crossed signals than scares.
New York singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) finds herself upon the stage of a past London opera house after discovering a lost Don Juan Triumphant manuscript by alleged murderer and composer Erik Destler (Robert Englund). Erik has paid a disfiguring Faustian price to have his music heard – the devil has scarred his face and now the Opera Ghost must use the flesh of his victims to mask his horrendous wounds. When he hears Christine sing, however, The Phantom seeks to dispose of diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) and replace her with his muse. Will Christine come to love her musical benefactor or discover his murderous hobbies?
Director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) starts this Leroux adaptation from writers Gerry O’Hara (Ten Little Indians) and Duke Sandefur (Dark Justice) with a satanic warning, ominous music, a creepy bookshop, bloody manuscripts, and then contemporary New York opera auditions before a Victorian London transition. Unfortunately, the framing added to The Phantom of the Opera is more than confusing. Is it reincarnation, time travel, or immortality? Are we watching a flashback induced by some demonic spell when Erik’s music is played? Memories from The Phantom’s point of view recalling his devilish pact further muddle this twist. Though Faust elements from the novel and scenes or characters not often included in onscreen adaptations are represented, purists will wonder why these frustrating bookends and superfluous changes were shoehorned in here. Thankfully, the murderous opera mishaps and quick pace move for the 93-minute duration – the tale remains familiar enough and there’s no time to fully question the additions or the unnecessary endings that just keep on going forever. Evil elements, plenty of brutality, and some supernatural hocus-pocus make for a decidedly horror mood. We’ve know doubt that this angle will be sinister, not romantic, and many Phantom fans will enjoy the outright villainous tone even if the execution of the inserted spooky is laden with plot holes and flaws. Ironically, despite its gory strides and fiendish aspects, The Phantom of the Opera is clearly trying to ride the coattails of the musical productions and includes a disclaimer declaring that this version is unaffiliated with Webber and company. Go figure.
Fortunately, the gruesome Phantom skin and make up designs for star Robert Englund work devilishly good. He stitches up his icky face, harvests fresh flesh from his victims, and remains strong and skilled with weapons as he slices and dices. For all its misguided vision, this Phantom of the Opera is not afraid to bloody it up and out rightly mention sexual context – be it accusing peeping tom stagehands, some nighttime prostitution, or would-be rapacious action. Erik has his needs! Through his Faust pact and filleting folks, The Phantom maneuvers diva Carlotta’s exit early before going out to the local pub or spa for some more kills. His interest in Christine, however, feels secondary, lame, and tacked on to the demonic upkeep as if elevating the full on, killer creeper is meant to make us forget the obsessive love plot. Compared to what usually is the source of Erik’s motivation, this Opera Ghost doesn’t have much reason to hang around the house when he could be getting his lust and hellish tendencies elsewhere. Broadway shade, crammed in horror – the lengthy skin peel reveals help The Phantom of the Opera doubly cash in on Englund’s Nightmare on Elm Street heights as well as the musicals. This Erik is obviously not a sympathetic soul, but he’s not a multi dimensional villain either. He’s The Phantom and he’s bad this time around, oooo. The would-be menacing spectacle doesn’t do Englund justice or give him the layers and depths he is more than capable of delivering.
Poor Billy Nighy (Underworld) is also totally wasted in The Phantom of the Opera as an angry, would-be manipulative but largely ineffective opera owner. He doesn’t have much to do except bitch, and late stage star Stephanie Lawrence as Carlotta likewise feels blink and you miss her rather than any sort of antagonist. So-called inspectors and other nondescript secondary players are forgettable, as-needed plot devices or set dressings. Without much beyond the Raoul name change for Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards in the infamous 1994 Fantastic Four film) as Christine’s barely there paramour Richard, it’s tough to follow his supposed heroics in the hectic underground finale much less root for his success. Sadly, all of these players could be excised – no name police could have been called to the opera house for the shoot ‘em up showdown and The Phantom of the Opera would have been no different. Critical in the role as Christine Day, Jill Schoelen (There Goes My Baby) also misses the mark if you are looking for a strong period piece blossom. While she makes a capable eighties scream queen, Schoelen is a fish out of water at the opera. Christine should do more than go round and round with Erik in one slow motion battle after another, right? But say hey, its SNL alum Molly Shannon!
There is a new blu-ray edition of The Phantom of the Opera, which is nice since the bare bones DVD has subtitles but tough to see alleyways and dark fight scenes. Again, the head rolling gore is well done, but some of the violence also feels unnecessary compared to the atmospheric blue lighting, red reflections, and flaming effects. Askew angles, the tilted hat, and shadowed, one eye close ups of The Phantom also up the brooding. There is little of the actual stage spectacle here, but the Victorian interiors and layers of Old World feel intimate. As horror, this production design is more than serviceable even if it’s not all it could have been. The subdued palette, generic costumes, and low budget mistakes, however, won’t be as grandiose as some Phantom of the Opera fans may expect – Erik’s lair looks like a standard, commonplace cave set with some candles. Perhaps that’s realistic to what the underground living would be, but there isn’t enough to it for a film. Fortunately, the scoring provides the right gothic mood and melody. Sure, it’s not quite sweeping and will seem knock off inferior to the more famous Phantom musics, but it is the one part of this conflicted Phantom of the Opera that does what it is supposed to do. And oh my, shout out for the floppy discs and giant computer monitors!
The Phantom of the Opera suffers from its identity crisis as a horror film and a book adaptation just as it much as it proves a scary update of Leroux is possible. Had it abandoned the contemporary twists and devilish ties and simply played it straight while upping the sinister and gore, The Phantom of the Opera might have stood out from the crowd as more than a cliché Freddy or Webber cash in like those try hard, faux rip offs we get today. At times, this rendition feels like a bad edit, the audience test viewing that’s missing all its final bells and whistles. Are we still awaiting the real director’s cut with all the polish, clarification, and panache? The Phantom of the Opera is not the definitive adaptation of the novel, and ultimately, nor is it the best macabre rendition – I’m not sure anyone will ever surpass the Silent version in that regard. Mixed bag though it is, if spooky audiences, Phantom students, and Englund fans accept this late night tale for what it is, The Phantom of the Opera can be a fun, serviceable, gruesome good time – complete with the heads of divas in the punch bowl.
By Kristin Battestella
Be it old school cult thrillers or screaming college coeds and some slicing and dicing thespians or killer hobbits, we have your slashers and gore galore covered!
Alone in the Dark – A cult cast featuring veteran Jack Palance (City Slickers), minister Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), unusual doctor Donald Pleasence (Halloween), and his new protege Dwight Schultz (The A-Team) adds class to this 1982 slasher full of topsy turvy patients. The solemn mental hospital locale is pretty but cluttered with knickknacks, loons, and converted with buzzed entries, faulty electrical systems, and bizarre treatments. Medical textbooks don’t apply in this ward! This perilous crowding contrasts the new, open, family farmhouse potential, which soon finds itself in a fearful switcharoo. Who’s a patient or employee? Who’s harmless or dangerous? Some crazy rambling is confusing to start, but shadowed dorm rooms with spooky, whispered plotting create a paranoid atmosphere – especially when such heavyweight gents are doing the evil planning. A touch of hot pink sideways pony tails and punk bands remind us of the early eighties hip, but any datedness is quickly forgotten as violence, escapes, and riots escalate during the titular blackout. The crazy inside spreads outside quickly with one flick of the switch, and flashlights, lanterns, candles, and fire sell the precarious mood. Daylight doesn’t alleviate the killer tendencies or child peril, and except for a fittingly sardonic little girl, the frightful is played seriously. While some jump scares and teen sex may seem commonplace now, these early genre staples are well paced and plenty of surprises, siege horror, creative weapons, and simmering kills make up any difference. Not only is there no cheap nudity or excess like today, but progressive talk about the pitfalls of wind power and nuclear energy add to the social commentaries at work. The fragile balance of polite society cracks pretty quickly once the kill or be killed terror flourishes here.
The Flesh and Blood Show – An old time, put on your glasses 3D warning opens this 1972 British saucy before naked chicks– err “flat mates” get out of bed, answering the door in the middle of the night whilst still unclothed. Fun film within film plays on the title follow along with a cool abandoned theatre, waterfront pier dangers, creepy props, and off camera screams. Yes, many scare gags obviously hinge on these people not knowing they are in a horror movie – sardonic and hip to the times as they may be. The cave girl outfits and black leotards may seem exploitative, too, but hey, the ladies help each other out of their costumes while the lads watch! Who needs subtitles, right? Great congested camerawork ups the scares as the slowly realizing and pairing off players argue with disbelieving authorities and fishy locals. The lines between stage and screen blur further, and despite an assault scene that may be tough to watch for some, most of the violence escalates without much blood or gore. Red herrings, twists, suspects, a whiff of Shakespeare, and a mysterious stage producer send home the low budget but pleasurable shadows and deaths with a smooth black and white finish. After all, as they so bluntly put it here, “If it wasn’t so bloody tragic and horrible it could almost make a movie script…”
Maniac – Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me) joins writer and star Joe Spinell (The Godfather) for beachy kills, prostitution, hot pants, and plenty of dirty nostalgia in this 1980 low budget slasher. The New York shady setting, hints of Christmas, disturbing dolls, misused mannequins, and sexualized violence add to the sweaty, gross mood – not to mention the vomit, scalping, blood, and brains. Big old newspapers and dark room development make for more period piece fun, but the late seventies fashions and edgy eighties photo shoot contribute to the drive by cheap production values. Though the very brief nudity and little harsh language belie the explotation tone or may feel tame today, the conflicted perversions, talking to oneself over the killings, and a childlike stunted warp accent the gruesome shot gun blasts and not for the squeamish murders. The editing and pace, however, do feel uneven – going back and forth between stylized murder scenes and quiet, demented psychosis. Thankfully, this focus on the killer’s perspective and the icky source of his depravity is unique for this genre built on the hero being the victor. The variety of deaths is also quality, with a mix of premeditated preparation, somewhat random victims, and a choice of weaponry. Hiding in a subway bathroom to avoid being killed? No, that’s not the best course of action! The thin script doesn’t do much with its vapid victims and the finale is a tad confusing, but fortunately, the inner killer point of view makes for an interesting character study.
Maniac – Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood anchors this 2012 remake with intriguing, murderous perspectives and heavy breathing to sell the stalking, predatory mood. We only see our protagonist via the rear view mirror or other reflections, and it’s almost as if he himself is filming what we see. Camera pans up and down and up close zooms on the ladies show his attraction and blurry, frenetic frames harken panic attacks or resisting the urge to kill. White knuckles on the steering wheel and a dirty windshield add to the depressed intimacy, and the unique camera design remains a personal analysis on the psychosis rather than something akin to the found footage gimmick. The underlying social commentary of this unreliable, warped viewpoint is also interesting – what’s art? What’s a little too weird? Does the photo lens show the truth or how we perceive life as colored with our own issues? Maybe it really is the seemingly sweet quiet ones that are the unnoticed but disturbed among us. How many seemingly strong, independent, modern women walk the streets unaware they are being stalked? Ava Maria music hints at the twisted root along with some uncomfortable flashbacks, and though it might not be meant as humorous, I had to laugh at the bug spray. It’s tough to keep scalps fresh these days! Some of the otherwise fine but graphic blood, knives, and poor man’s scalpings are borderline CGI obvious or excessive at times, and onscreen dating sites – though fitting for today’s creepy pick ups – will be dated soon. Thankfully, refreshingly un-cookie cutter women, nudity, and a frank showing of sex and penetrating violence add to the unique film making and stay just this side of unnecessary gross.
Silent Scream – A slow motion police raid starts this 1980 slasher along with atmospheric music, askew angles, and quality blood splatterings. Late seventies college cool and an isolated old house – also seen in Spider Baby – further set the scene with deceiving nostalgia, a creepy walk up attic, dusty antiques, World War II motifs, and Victorian maze like sinister. Imagine turning the knob on that big boob tube! For sure, some of the plot is cliché – there are unaccounted for occupants, a chunky best friend, seaside perils, the spooky laundry room in the basement, and free love possibilities. Fake jump scares, bad date fears, and unseen killer stabbings, however, make for then-new genre staples. Great intercutting and editing accent the murders, yet there isn’t an excess of gore overtaking the smart slices or violence. An excellent Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) introduction, the spooky old lady perfection from Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters), and the likeable Rebecca Balding (Soap) add to the heavy as the 90 minutes mount and family secrets come to light. The police investigation is touch and go, and today this isn’t that scary, but a commentary and over an hour of retrospective interviews discussing a unique behind the scenes situation adds some slasher conversation. Maybe this isn’t perfect by contemporary standards, but this little number does everything it is supposed to with entertaining twists and a crazy finish.
For this review we have to get in the time machine and go back to 1980 and take a look at Moondeath by Rick Hatula. Moondeath was Rick Hatula’s first novel and was originally released by Zebra books. From 1977 to 1994 Zebra books was a major publisher of horror novels, but as the horror boom of the 80’s died down, Zebra books died with it. So for several years you probably couldn’t find a copy of Moondeath until late 2011 when Evil Jester Press re-released Rick Hatula’s Moondeath.
Moondeath takes place in the picturesque little tourist town of Coon Falls New Hampshire and follows the story of divorced teacher Bob Wentworth. Bob is looking to make a fresh start and has just moved to town to take a job as a teacher. Bob meets an unhappily married woman named Lisa and starts a relationship and things look good for Bob.
Things change though when a car with a young man and a woman he was having an affair with, goes off of a bridge and into the river. To the people in town it looks like an accident but the young man was married to a woman named Julie and Julie has some dark secrets. After the accident people start dying on nights when the moon is full. The local sheriff and townspeople think there is a large dog or a wolf doing the killing, but Bob believes the deaths are the work of a werewolf.
Like Julie, Bob also has a dark secret and the townspeople are not willing to believe his story. The townspeople try to hide the fact that they have a werewolf problem but the bodies keep stacking up and secrets don’t stay buried forever. There is something evil in Coon Falls and there may not be a way to stop it.
If you read Moondeath remember that it is a product of the early 80’s because the story seems a little dated. For one thing there is a scene where a werewolf is terrorizing a man in a phone booth. Also the story reminded me a lot of the slasher movies that were so popular in the early 80’s. You have people dying off in a beautiful small town one by one and no one in town seems to worry about it, until the bodies really start to pile up.
Another thing that makes Moondeath a little dated is the lack of strong women characters. One of the villains in the story is a woman named Julie. She comes across as slutty and very one dimensional, I think if the story focused on her more and how she feels, it would have made the story better. The other main female character, Lisa comes across as hateable because she is married to an abusive alcoholic and does nothing about it even though she knows who her husband is cheating with. I also didn’t like how she wouldn’t believe what is going on in Coon Falls despite the evidence that is in front of her.
I can forgive Moondeath for having weak characters because in a lot of books and movies in the early 80’s, women were not presented as strong unlike today. My other complaints was that the book was a little slow moving and there was a couple unanswered questions that annoyed me.
That being said there was a quite a few things that I did like about Moondeath. Rick Hatula does a great job of using forshadowing. For instance when Bob and Lisa meet for the first time, you see Lisa playing with her wedding ring which tells you right away that this couple is going to be more then friends. Also there is a point after a fight between two boys in a high school takes place and after being beaten up, one of the boys stomps down the hallway, you know we haven’t seen the last of him. Another scene that I liked was one day when Bob is showing up at the high school he sees an ominous looking cloud passing over the school and he thinks that something evil is coming.
I loved how Rick Hatula describes the death scenes in the book and the parts where black magic is being performed. I also thought it was a nice touch how there we’re scenes in the church where what the preacher was saying was a metaphor for what was going on in the book. Lastly, I did like all of the male characters in the book but would have liked to have seen more from the villains point of view. All in all I did enjoy Moondeath and would recommend it to anyone who liked horror in the early 80’s.
Also recently I read a short story from Biting Dog Press called Search and Destroy by Nancy Collins. Search and Destroy follows vampire hunter Sonja Blue as she goes to investigate why homeless people are dying at an alarming rate outside a small town in Washington.
If your not familiar with Sonja Blue, she was created by Nancy Collins in 1989. Sonja has had 5 novels written about her and several short stories. Search and Destroy is the first new Sonja Blue adventure in 10 years.
Sonja was only 18 years old when she was raped and fed on by a vampire. She was left on the street to die but miraculously survived and became a living vampire. She now spends time hunting vampires, ogres and demons. Think Buffy but more powerful, funnier and a lot scarier.
My only problem with Search and Destroy is that I wish it was longer. Despite how short the story is, Nancy Collins does a great job of creating some characters that you quickly grow to like and she gives a good commentary on what its like to be an outcast from society. This is a fast paced story with a lot of action and is very well written, but I wanted more. Hopefully we will see more of Sonja Blue in the future.