By the time Hammer got round to their version of Gaston Leroux’s familiar tale of backstage blackguardery their initial cycle of classic horror remakes was running out of steam. There’s a lot to enjoy in this film and it looks really sumptuous in ‘Hammerscope’ but, bar the odd moment, there's a distinct lack of oomph.
Anthony Hinds’ script deviates a lot from the book. For instance at the start of the film, instead of the opera’s leading lady being traumatised by a falling chandelier (that’s saved for later), here it’s a swinging body crashing through the scenery in a moment that would have looked great in 3D:
The most obvious change is in the setting: Paris has been exchanged for a full-blooded 19th century London, shrouded in fog and populated by classic Victorian grotesques, all played by splendid character actors.
There’s Michael Ripper and Miles Malleson as jolly cabmen:
Scavenging theatre charladies, led by Miriam Karlin
Renee Houston as a busybody landlady:
And best of all, the great Patrick Troughton as an over-enthusiastic ratcatcher: “They make a lovely pie, y’know!”
Sadly Patrick never gets to have his pie as he’s soon dispatched when a feral dwarf (Ian Wilson) stabs him in the eye – nothing else in the film quite matches this scene, a wonderfully gratuitous slice of grand guignol that’s among Hammer’s most startling moments:
You might well be thinking ‘A dwarf with a knife? I thought this was Phantom of the Opera, not Don’t Look Now’. Well, the dwarf’s another new addition – he’s the phantom’s sidekick and carries out all the brutal slayings of the film of his own volition, meaning that Herbert Lom as the phantom himself can get on with being all tragic and romantic. Lom’s really good at this – his resonant voice is especially effective – but one of the reasons the film doesn’t quite work is that his phantom’s just not crazed or vengeful enough. For the most part he’s a perfectly reasonable chap who’s just had a bit of bad luck in the face department. There’s a great moment of pure melodrama when the dwarf drags unconscious heroine Christine to the Phantom’s lair while the masked ghoul plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – that favourite of organ-playing baddies everywhere - he doesn’t even have the standard obsessive romantic interest in Christine. This Phantom’s quite happy for her to carry on seeing handsome leading man Edward De Souza, he just wants to be her voice coach. Mind you, that’s not all that surprising seeing as Christine’s played by Heather Sears, whose most notable quality is her startling resemblance to 1980s Doctor Who companion Adric.
Uncanny, no? Anyway, neither dwarf nor phantom is the film’s real villain. That role’s taken by Michael Gough as the wicked Lord Darcy, playing him with the kind of campy relish generally reserved for the role of Abanazer in panto. Here he is. Boo! Hiss!
Darcy bought some music composed by mild-mannered, poverty-stricken Professor Petrie for a scandalously small amount and has made a huge amount of money by publishing it in his own name. Understandably aggrieved, the professor started a fire at the printer’s, but it just resulted in him being hideously scarred and retreating to the sewers to mope about in a mask as the Phantom. This is all revealed to us in a flashback in the film’s last half hour which badly dents the pacing of the film. The film’s conclusion is maddeningly unsatisfying: The Phantom turns up at Darcy’s home but rather than getting any real revenge on him is just satisfied with the scare the rotter gets when he pulls off the unfortunate professor’s mask (at this point Michael Gough’s performance goes so far over the top we almost lose sight of it):
Any of the tension you’d expect in the last 15 minutes of a horror film’s completely absent. Instead we get to see highlights from the Phantom’s opera about Joan of Arc, starring Christine in a wig that makes her look even more like Adric.
The Phantom watches from his balcony with a tear in his remaining eye. But don’t worry, he doesn’t get a happy ending. That troublesome dwarf’s up in the rafters and (quite by accident, disappointingly) brings down the chandelier - Adric’s standing right underneath it! Quick as a flash the heroic phantom leaps from his box to get crushed under it instead, considerately tearing his mask off before he does so to let us get a look at his gooey, raspberry-ripple coloured visage.
It’s all quite sad, really.