Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Devil Wears Petite Prada

Today’s entry into The Shortening is a bit of a surprise. Emily! You cry. There are no short things in The Phantom of the Opera. Some productions are keen to include Parisian rats or the occasional little person chorus member, but that’s not really enough to justify a room at the Doll’s House in this busy February season.
But break open the party room with a low ceiling! A birthday gift from my fella, this adaptation is probably best known as a Robert Englund vehicle but its very being and body count are actually inspired by Satan who--didntcha know, is a dwarf?

Quick Plot: In modern day--okay, 1989--New York City, a young opera student named Christine (Popcorn and more importantly, Babes In Toyland’s Jill Schoelen) finds a mysterious charred libretto to use at an audition for the Met (which apparently did open calls in the 80s?). As she begins the disharmonic chords of Don Juan Triumphant, Christine passes out and awakens as Christine Day, an American ingenue working for the Paris Opera House in 19th century France as the understudy to the diva soprano Carlotta.

Yup, you know the story by now. Christine is engaged to a boring but wealthy slab of handsome, but her heart and voice belong to an unseen vocal coach, that same unseen force who ‘haunts’ Box 5 and causes minor mayhem when his demands aren’t met by the theatre owner (BILL EFFIN' NIGHY!). Nothing new so far, except that the Phantom is played by Robert Englund somewhere between Dreammastering and Dreamchilding. 

As Eric Destler, Englund’s face is a pointy quilt of human skin carefully sewn together. It’s a groovy look, one that works because it makes the Phantom actively unsettling. Even before Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Phantom always seemed to me far too romanticized a figure. Yes, he’s a cruel murderer, but he does it in the name of music and love (or to a more sidestepped degree, obsession). The audience generally forgives his crimes because a) he was a wronged man to begin with (either through nature or seedy bosses, depending on the details) and b) he makes really good work. 

Easily the most interesting aspect of director Dwight H. (as in Halloween 4) Little’s adaptation is its portrayal of the Phantom, aka Eric. Unlike other tales that have Eric the victim of birth defects or burns and plagiarism, Englund’s Eric is not a nice man and really has only himself to blame. 

Okay, himself and Dwarf Satan.
As a young composer in the making, Eric made a deal with Dwarf Satan to craft the perfect opera. The price? Sacrificing his face and body in such a way that no fan will ever throw her pantaloons at him. The upshot? Eric apparently develops superpowers that let him fight a gaggle of backalley bandits through knife throwing, whipping, head tearing, and teleportation.

That’s the main issue with The Phantom of the Opera: it doesn’t quite know what sort of mood it wants to maintain. The score and setting take us deep into classy old Par-ree, but Eric’s pretty ridiculous killing techniques and, sigh, Freddy Krueger-ish puns (“Consider yourself SUSPENDED!” which is, as you expect, snidely shouted at an ill-fated stagehand about to get SUSPENDED from the rafters) square us uncomfortably in a film that wants to stand firmly in the 1980s horror comfort zone. 
Ultimately, The Phantom of the Opera saves itself by its final twenty or so minutes. The big showdown in Eric’s lair is genuinely dangerous, something a lot of other film versions have a hard time doing. I won’t spoil the coda, but as we get brought back to present day (oh yeah, cause remember that?) there’s an added sequence that while kind of silly if you actually think about any of it, isn’t to be found elsewhere.

High Points
Bill Nighy is in this movie. Granted, his role as the new owner of the opera house isn’t huge, but it does mean that we get to see Bill Nighy dressed to kill at a masquerade and more importantly, that BILL NIGHY IS IN THIS MOVIE

Considering the setting and subject matter, it’s important for any Phantom adaptation to put some effort into its music. Thankfully, Misha Segal’s score is grandiose enough to help boost the atmosphere that the visuals...

Low Points
...don’t quite nail. Perhaps I’m just comparing this version to Dario Argento’s dreadful but beautiful retread that came a decade later, but Little’s world just doesn’t look nearly as grand as I generally like to think of Paris opera houses
Lessons Learned
Ghosts do not skin their victims

How to film a flashback within a flashback? Make it foggier
Even in 19th century France, thugs attacked one at a time

In order to nab the lead soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, one need only sing a few bars and almost get killed by faulty stage decorations. (In other words, put yourself in a situation where you could sue for millions if you REALLY want that role)

Look! It’s...
A young and nerdy Molly Shannon as Christine’s modern day accompanist  (see her all fogged out in the Blossom hat?)

I'm a sucker for Phantom adaptations, be they gaudy musicals or haunting monster tales. This Phantom, though far from perfect or even--let's face it--very good, has a lot of fun interpreting Gaston Lerox's novel for a late '80s audience. Englund is clearly enjoying himself by stretching outside of Elm Street, while Gerry O'Hara's screenplay hits all the expected beats while adding plenty of fresh Faustian touches. You know, like Dwarf Satan. They're just not making 'em like this these days...


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  2. Thanks for the review. I remember this vividly because I looked at the box on video store shelves every time I browsed the horror section, but could never bring myself to rent it since I was just too burned out on Englund as Freddy by that time. I'd peacefully forgotten about it all these years, and now, curses, you have me curious again...

    BTW, did you ever tackle Knick Knack?

  3. I think it's totally worth a watch. There's some Freddy in there, but you can almost sense that Englund was just so relieved to NOT be doing Freddy (on purpose anyway).

    I did not!