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The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera(1962)

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teaser The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Hammer Films' 1962 version of The Phantom of the Opera began in the unlikeliest of ways: with a request from Cary Grant. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds later recounted that Grant approached him to say he would like to make a horror film. "The only thing we could think of was Phantom of the Opera," said Hinds. "I knew he'd never make it, but he was insistent, so I wrote the thing for him." Hammer had reached an agreement with Universal International in 1958 to make a new version of Phantom, and, as Hinds predicted, Grant eventually dropped out of the project.

Hinds replaced him not with his usual Hammer stars like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, but with the surprising choice of Herbert Lom, who had played mostly supporting roles for about twenty years. Lately, however, Lom had gotten more significant parts in Spartacus (1960), El Cid (1961) and Mysterious Island (1961). Soon, with A Shot in the Dark (1964), he'd take his first crack at the recurring role for which he is best remembered: Chief Inspector Dreyfus, in the Pink Panther series.

Camera operator Len Harris later said that Lom "was a late choice for the role but made the most of it... [He] was excellent and gave something to the role that Cushing might not have. Like most Hammer stars, he was a real gentleman--and also quite a practical joker!"

With Lom as the Phantom, the character took on different shades than audiences had seen in 1925 from Lon Chaney or in 1943 from Claude Rains. As film writer Harry Ringel later observed, "Lom comes across as gifted, intelligent, desperately lonely, and grossly ignorant of the ways of the world which would not think twice about stealing his musical compositions: consistent with the most human [Terence] Fisher monsters before and since, but hardly compatible with the public's conception of the Phantom. Significantly, the most memorable image in this quietly moving film occurs not during the unmasking scene, which is abruptly thrown away in long shot at the climax; instead, as the Phantom listens to the singing of the young woman he has trained, he weeps silently in close-up, behind the impassivity of his one-eyed mask."

Indeed, director Terence Fisher, who was already a veteran of Hammer horror films like Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), was in this case more interested in the lush love story than in the sensational horror elements of the tale. According to Marcus Hearn, he was also somewhat constricted by a requirement from distributor Rank that the film be rated with an "A" certificate.

Filming took place from late November 1961 through January 1962. Heather Sears, who had drawn critical acclaim for The Story of Esther Costello (1957) and Sons and Lovers (1960), was cast as Christine, and composer Edwin Astley concocted an original opera for the score. Makeup man Roy Ashton later said that much effort was spent on having elaborate masks made by a professional mask maker, none of which pleased the producer and director. Ashton then suggested that "this chap would have picked up a discarded prop to hide his disfigurement," and everyone agreed that a simple mask would be most appropriate.

The picture opened in the UK in June 1962, with an American release two months later. Reviews were mixed, with Americans somewhat preferring the film to the British, but in all, the movie was a critical and commercial dud.

Fisher himself noted in 1964 that "the weakness of [the film] is that its realism isn't really justified. There is no complexity to the Phantom's actions; the character is never very close to us, and remains superficial." But by 1975, he had changed his tune, writing: "I cannot understand it being a box-office loss even to this day. I thought it was very good... I may have underemphasized some things I wanted to do...and overemphasized others. I emphasized the tragedy of the film, which was the important thing to me."

In 1964, Fisher also wrote of his approach to movie monsters in general: "I've always involved the monster in the frame, planted him in the dcor. I've never used the conventional style, where you keep harping on reaction shots and cutting away from him. I believe in building things up, naturally, but I've never isolated the monster from the world around, or tried to avoid showing him. The exception is Phantom of the Opera. There was no reason to show his face there; you'd seen the acid go into his face, you knew how pitifully he was in agony all the time.... But most of my films aren't horror films, you know. They're macabre, which is a little different."

After this film, Fisher took some time off from Hammer to make two movies for outside companies, though he would eventually return to Hammer with The Gorgon (1964) and become the most prolific director in Hammer's history, with 29 titles in all.

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
Terence Fisher, "Horror is my Business," Films and Filming, July 1964
Marcus Hearn, The Hammer Vault
Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography
Paul Leggett, Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion
Harry Ringel, "The Horrible Hammer Films of Terence Fisher," Take One, Jan.-Feb. 1972

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