Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Phantom Of The Opera (1989)

Reviewed By: Billy

We horror fans live for those moments when we’re witness to the magic of the perfect actor playing the perfect role in a slasher film. Who can’t remember watching Friday the 13th Part II for the first time and wondering, “Where has Amy Steel been all my life?” Or cheering on little Danielle Harris in Halloween 4 and 5 and forgetting there ever even was a Jamie Lee Curtis. Sometimes people think that we gore fiends just don’t appreciate fine acting – but they’re wrong. There’s a reason we wait in long line at horror conventions to meet Heather Langenkamp and Betsy Palmer, people. We love our horror actors; they become like family (even when at said convention they are bitter and cynical and clearly wish they’d never played Pinhead in the first place…).

In the late 80s/early 90s, there was no better actress for horror than Jill Schoelen. You remember Jill; the one who always looked like she’d just stepped off the set of Beverly Hills 90210. The Shannen Doherty-doppelganger hit it big as the cute, precocious, raspy-voiced teenager in The Stepfather. She played the cute, precocious, raspy-voiced high schooler in Cutting Class (opposite a young Brad Pitt). She played the cute, precocious, raspy-voiced film student in Popcorn. And she played the beautiful, talented, opera-singing ingenue at the London Opera House circa 1800 in The Phantom of the Opera.

Yes…in the complete opposite of that perfect casting we discussed…some clown decided that Jill should play the classic role of Christine in Phantom. Never mind that Jill’s hoarse, throaty voice – the vocal personification of unfiltered Marlboros – probably can’t carry “Row, row, row your boat,” let alone an entire opera. Filmmakers have never let a tone-deaf starlet stop them, and here, we get Jill lip-syncing Italian masterworks to a voice that sounds like it’s being piped in from a different planet. And never mind that everyone else in the movie is speaking with British accents; we’ll just insert a line that acknowledges she’s an American studying overseas (…except that later in the movie, Christine visits her father’s grave in England…oops!). And never mind that Jill – as contemporary as Vanilla Ice and slap bracelets – could never, ever be mistaken for someone from the 1800s. We’ll just tack on a beginning and ending where Jill is contemporary…and then travels back in time…after being hit on the head with a sandbag.

Got it?

There is, of course, another major performance here that I’m ignoring, which is unfair. This is The Phantom of the Opera, after all, and Christine needs someone to play off of. And so, in this version, we get another wonderful performance from out of left field: ladies and gentlemen, Molly Shannon as the piano-playing sidekick. That she’s only in the very beginning and ending is really unfair; Molly doing her little SNL “Superstar” routine could have really helped the movie along in the middle, when we’re getting flashbacks of Robert Englund selling his soul to a three-foot devil.

Oh, yeah – Robert Englund’s in it, too, playing Freddy Krueger circa The Dream Master.

Hopefully I’m not giving off the impression that I don’t like this film. In fact, I love it. You should know the boys of Tower Farm well enough now to know that something as absurd as Jill Schoelen as a world-class opera singer is like crack to us; we can’t get enough. Really, that’s a good analogy; JM and myself are nothing but junk junkies, and this movie is a perfect high. It takes what is essentially a boring gothic romance and turns it into a 93-minute smorgasbord of hammy acting and over-the-top gore. There are several scenes, in graphic close-up, of the Phantom sewing a mask of human skin onto his horribly scarred face. It’s awesome! And, I mean, come on…it’s billed as “Robert Englund in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera.” I don’t know about you, but I read the book…and I don’t remember anything about time-travel, selling souls, or masks made out of human skin. Hell, the book wasn’t even set in London. That we get the author’s high-fallutin’ name above the title is clearly an attempt to bring an aura of class to this production.

Speaking of class, did I mention that at one point, Robert Englund crushes a man’s skull by squeezing it really hard in a towel?

Unfortunately, these days, most people remember The Phantom of the Opera as the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical with the pipe organ. And that’s too bad. Because it’s so much more than that. To me, Phantom is about passion. It’s about love. It’s about music. It’s about murder. Dammit, it’s about Jill Schoelen, with her Brenda Walsh-bangs and wide smile, prancing around stage and hitting high-C’s like an elementary-school kid lip-synching to Mariah Carey at the annual talent show.


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