Saturday, 15 November 2008

Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Having enjoyed enormous financial success with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, in 1962 Hammer turned their attentions to another remake of a classic horror film, The Phantom of the Opera. The result was a rare commercial flop for the British horror studio.

It’s not hard to see why the movie failed to attract audiences. Hammer’s early horror films succeeded in part by upping the levels of violence and blood-letting. They may seem tame by later standards, but in the 50s they were considered quite bloodthirsty. With The Phantom of the Opera they took the opposite approach. The violence is considerably toned down compared to earlier film versions, and the emphasis is very much on the romance. It’s not really a horror movie at all; it’s a gothic love story. If you accept it on that level it’s actually a very good movie indeed, but it’s not the sort of thing drive-in audiences were going to flock to see in 1962.

With Arthur Grant as director of photography, Bernard Robinson as production designer and Terence Fisher as director you’d expect this to be a very good-looking movie. And it is. In purely visual terms it’s possibly the best thing Fisher ever did. And Fisher’s direction (never less than extremely competent) becomes quite inspired at times. There’s a considerable emphasis on the opera itself, which ties in very well with the overall feel of the movie. It has more of the tone of the 1932 version of The Mummy than of a typical Hammer horror film.

The lack of a major box office attraction like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing is more of an advantage than a drawback since it gives more space for the other actors. Herbert Lom as the phantom, Michael Gough as the deliciously villainous (and exceptionally lecherous) Lord Ambrose d’Arcy and Thorley Walters as the director of the opera house, all give strong and highly entertaining performances.

Terence Fisher was known for presenting good and evil as clear-cut opposing choices which could have caused problems with the somewhat ambiguous character of the phantom. The problem is solved by making the phantom a completely sympathetic character, a tragic hero in fact, and by making Lord d’Arcy the villain of the piece.

This is one of the most underrated of Hammer’s major productions, a lush and outrageously romantic offering and a misunderstood and neglected gem. The transfer on the DVD in the Universal Hammer boxed set looks fabulous. It’s a movie that needs and deserves the best possible presentation, and it gets it.

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