Friday, June 1, 2018

A Night At The (Phantom) Of The Opera

Lon Chaney (star of the original silent classic) recoils in horror to what composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Joel Schumacher have done to "The Phantom of the Opera".

Watching the big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's monster Broadway musical "Phantom of the Opera" (2004) is like being trapped inside a demonically possessed Crafters Warehouse.

There is so much lace, ribbon, satin, velvet, gilt, gold, muslin, crinolines, mist, dry ice, rose pedals and gently falling snow that viewers could be forgiven if they thought "Phantom of the Opera" was a Harlequin Romance and not a horror story about obsession, stalking and physical disfigurement.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I don't care for the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber at all; in fact, one of my favorite "Invention Exchanges" from "MST3K" is the "Andrew Lloyd Webber Grill" where you burn the scores of Webber's many musicals instead of charcoal briquettes.  

I also intensely hate "Cats". This play is merely a feline musical remake of "Logan's Run", except that the cat chosen to "renew" actually does "renew". It also features the Muzak hairball "Memory", which plays continually in grocery stores, elevators and doctor's's probably even playing in one of those places right now.

Then there is the fact that Andy was made a Life Peer by QE2 for "contributions to music". How is this possible? Did HM see "Starlight Express"? Perhaps if she had, the dear lady would have had A L W imprisoned and fined for crimes against music, instead of rewarding for him for his unique brand of tuneful tripe.

"I accuse you, Andrew Lloyd Webber, of ruining one of the world's greatest films to make one of the world's worst musicals!"

So, I may not be the best person to review "Phantom of the Opera".

But review it I shall because 1) it's bad,  2) it's my blog and 3) I have always yearned to stick it to Lord Webber, so away we go!

The year is 1919. The once majestic Opera Populaire is holding a fire sale of its remaining relics. Long ago this theater was a cultural mecca in France, but a mysterious fire involving its huge chandelier closed it for good. Among those assembled to bid on the artifacts include an aged, wheel-chair bound Count (attended by a nursemaid who resembles the Flying Nun) and an unknown lady in black lace. It appears these two know each other, but they don't speak or mingle.

The Count purchases a music box with a monkey playing the cymbals. He then drives off. Suddenly the black and white film bursts forth into color and it's 1870. That was year junk-er, scrap metal moguls Firmin (Ciaran Hinds) and Andre (Simon Callow) became the new owners of the Opera Populaire. It's reigning diva is the temperamental (and hard to understand) Carlotta (Minnie Driver). However, when Carlotta flounces off and refuses to perform in a fit of pique, it's ballet dancer/chorus girl Christine (Emmy Rossum) who is given the chance to sing an important solo in the show. Turns out, Christine has been getting singing lessons from "the Angel of Music", a mysterious presence who has been watching over her for years. Of course, Christine wows 'em at the opera and a star is born.

Watching in the audience is Vicomte Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the opera's new money bags patron and a childhood sweetie of Christine's. The kids were separated after Christine's violinist father died and she came to train at the opera's ballet school. Seeing his childhood cuddlemate trilling on stage in a fluffy white dress causes Raoul to jump out of his seat, rush backstage and insist Christine have dinner with him. When Christine protests that "the Angel of Music" won't like it ("He's very strict"), Raoul says "the Angel of Music" can take a chill pill. He then goes off to fetch his coach.

"Can you hear me NOW?!: Diva La Carlotta (Minnie Driver) throws one her famous temper tantrums. Check out her pet pooch on the left.

No sooner has Raoul departed than "the Angel of Music" shows up, madder than a hen with wet feathers. Calling the Vicomte with cool sideburns "an insolent boy" and a "knave of fashion", the "Angel of Music" turns out to be the "Opera Ghost" or the "Phantom of the Opera" who has haunted the theater for years--when he wasn't coaching Christine. Or writing musical scores. Or designing costumes. Or building sets. Anyway, determined not to lose his prize pupil to some aristocratic pretty boy, the Phantom hypnotizes Christine and takes her to his lair/studio below the opera. This is where the song "Music of the Night" is played. Christine seems OK during this little road trip until she sees a mannequin of herself dressed as the Phantom's bride and passes out cold.

When she wakes up, the Phantom is working on his next big chart-buster. Because Gerard Butler is the Phantom, 2004's Phantom is a totally ripped guy with great hair. Yes, he wears a half-mask on his face, but the effect is kinda sexy, not scary or creepy. Thus, when Christine removes the Phantom's mask--one of the greatest moments in movie history--her response isn't repulsion or horror, but the mild irritation of discovering your prom date has a cold sore.

That's because this Phantom isn't scary. His disfigurement looks like a bad skin condition. Mr. Sardonicus in the William Castle movie "Mr. Sardonicus"(1961) was a lot creepier. Somewhere the decision was made that the Phantom shouldn't be disfigured or misshapen because...that wouldn't be romantic? That wouldn't be scary?

Heartbreaking as it is, the Phantom's disfigurement is a key element of this story. He hides away in the bowels of the opera because there is no other place for him. The Phantom knows even a goody-goody like Christine would be repulsed by his appearance. Therefore, when Christine pulls off the Phantom's mask, it's not only a moment of shock, but a moment of betrayal, too.

Christine eventually returns to the opera, but everybody is in a lather over a series of notes the Phantom has sent: Firmin and Andre are ordered to keep box 5 open and to pay the Phantom's salary;  Raoul is ordered to keep away from Christine; and Carlotta must give the starring role in the opera's next production to Christine or else. "Far too many notes!" sniffs Andre and everybody decides to ignore them.

"Hmmm, what rhymes with orange?": The new and improved Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler) plots his next move.

This is a big mistake, of course. On opening night, Carlotta has her voice spray tampered by Guess Who; when she attempts to sing, she croaks like a bull frog. While the corps de ballet tries to perform their number, a stage hand tussles with the Phantom in the rafters. The Phantom chokes him to death and sends his body crashing to the stage. Everybody freaks out and heads for the exits. Raoul and Christine meet backstage and rush up to the opera's roof top. It's there Christine convinces her cuddlemate that the Phantom is not only real, but touched in the head. Amidst all the confusion and mayhem, Christine and Raoul find the time to warble "All I Ask of You", declaring their undying love. Little do they know the Phantom is nearby, listening to every word and getting madder by the second. He then vows revenge on the smitten kittens...and frankly, I don't blame him one bit.  I mean, this song goes on forever!

The Phantom lays low for a while and the folks at the Opera Populaire believe the worst may be over. Raoul and Christine have gotten engaged, but they've chosen to keep it a secret. Then the management announces that the opera's annual costume gala will go on as scheduled. On the big night, everybody's partying like it's 1870 in lavish costumes, singing and dancing away. The fun stops when the Phantom appears (dressed as the Red Masque of Death) and demands that they put on his new opera "Don Juan Triumphant". The opera managers and police believe if they put on the production--and give Christine an important role--the Phantom will come to the show and they can catch him.

Craven fools! The Phantom does away with the scheduled leading man and plays the role of Don Juan himself. While he and Christine sing, the Phantom hypnotizes her again. The two disappear through a trap door as the theater's massive chandelier crashes to the floor, causing both a fire and a riot for the exits. Back in his lair, the Phantom insists Christine marry him, right after he kills Raoul. Christine begs him to spare her fiance's life, telling the Phantom that his ugliness doesn't repulse her as much as his anger and bloodlust. The Phantom has a change of heart and allows Christine and Raoul escape. As a token of her gratefulness, Christine gives the Phantom her engagement ring to remember her by. As the smitten kittens go off to plan their wedding, the Phantom breaks every mirror in his underground studio and stomps off.

Then we are back in 1919. The aged Count turns out to be Raoul. He travels to a cemetery, where he lays the monkey music box on a grave. Surprise, surprise, the grave belongs to Christine, who is described as "a beloved wife and mother." Raoul then notices that a rose tied with a black ribbon rests on Christine's grave--a rose tied with a black ribbon was the Phantom's signature. Her engagement ring is nestled in the rose, which can mean only one thing: the movie is finally over. Bravo!

At the top of this post, I came down very hard on Andrew Lloyd Webber. However, the musical mess of "Phantom of the Opera" is not entirely his fault. He had plenty of help from director Joel Schumacher.

"I love what you've done to the place...": The Phantom gives Christine a tour of his digs.

Now, before you think this titan of the theater had the director of "Batman and Robin" forced on him by some soul-less Hollywood executive only interested in money, think again. ALW wanted Schumacher to direct this film. See, his lordship had watched Joel's film "The Lost Boys"(about punk vampires) and admired the way he had integrated music into the flick. In fact, part of the lengthy delay in getting "Phantom" from the stage to the screen was in coordinating the guys' various schedules.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

For all his success, Schumacher is a strangely colorless director; his films all have an assembly-line aura about them. Perhaps Webber felt Joel's lack of directorial distinction would allow the source material to shine through unencumbered. Wrong! Instead, what Webber got was a director so hands-off and casual about his assignment that "Phantom" lacks the passion and mad romanticism necessary to tell this type of tale. Despite the fancy costumes, opulent sets and soaring score, "Phantom" is surprisingly dull and flat.

Another consequence in choosing Schumacher to helm this project was his lack of interest in directing his cast. Emmy Rossum is a fine actress and an excellent singer; she was an ideal choice to play the innocent Christine. However, neither Webber or Schumacher thought of giving her anything to do other than wear fluffy gowns and stare like a deer caught in headlights. Patrick Wilson, as the Vicomte Raoul, suffers from the same problem; he looks great, but his character is given no purpose other than to be better looking than the Phantom.

Which brings us to Gerard Butler in the title role.

If Gerard Butler had been allowed more input on his Phantom characterization...

Lon Chaney is the Phantom of the Opera. However, even critics who were less than taken with the original stage production of Webber's musical had excellent things to say about Michael Crawford's performance as the Phantom (Sarah Brightman, the original Christine, won kudos for her singing, but not her acting). Butler can't quite pull off the tortured, heartbroken and vengeful outcast because he's not allowed to be one. His Phantom would be more at home in a Chippendale's Review than lurking below the floors of an opera house. The decision to de-fang the Phantom surely rests with Webber and Schumacher; however, by beautifying their beast, they drained their film of the Gothic elements that under-pin and propel the story.

So, kiddies, what have we learned from this mishandled musical mega-bomb?

* Pairing the man behind "Cats" and "Starlight Express" with the man who directed "Flatliners" and "Batman and Robin" was a stupid, stupid idea.

* If your main character is suppose to be a disfigured freak, make him look like a disfigured freak! Nobody has ever suggested that Frankenstein would benefit from a better hair cut, more stylish threads or a Mary Kay make-over. He's Frankenstein!

* Unless you are directing a game of freeze tag, your actors should be allowed to move, have facial expressions and show some personality. Watching lavishly dressed crash test dummies is nobody's idea of a good time.

The Sexiest Phantom of the Opera (2004).

* Were the characters of Firmin and Andre, rich junk tycoons who understood nothing about opera, meant to be Webber's comment on people who don't "understand" his type of "theater"? A guy who made a mint from a musical where Lycra-clad cats hope to be beamed up into a spaceship so they can be reincarnated has no business complaining his genius isn't appreciated.

*  How does Joel Schumacher keep his job? His films appear to be stamped out like a kid stamping out shapes with Play-Doh. My advice? Either retire on your undeserved millions or set up an Amway dealership--but stop making movies!You have no talent for the job! Has anyone ever told you that?

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, bad movies are not always made by earnest yet incompetent amateurs--but it helps. Highly praised and honored professionals can muck things spectacularly, especially if they are aided by the likes of Joel Schumacher.  Until next time, keep a bad movie in your VCR and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

Where can I buy this shirt? It's purr-fect!