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'Phantom of the Opera' (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1989

"The Phantom of the Opera" is a cheap knockoff of Gaston Leroux's novel, which has been regularly knocked off, cheaply and otherwise, since the Lon Chaney version in 1925. This time around it's a vehicle for Robert Englund, the '80s Man of a Thousand Faces (minus 999). The good news: This Phantom isn't Freddy Krueger, though he does share the same pizza makeup in some scenes. And since it's set in Victorian London, there's no rock soundtrack; instead, it's mostly opera ("Faust," of course). Of course, that could scare some people right out of a theater.

The bad news: Well, there's more of that. First, this is old-fashioned melodrama with a twist of gore, a match not likely to work in either Heaven or Hell. Then there's the mix of the highbrow and low. After all, the Phantom is a classical composer who has sold his soul to the Devil for success, the object of his fixation is an ingenue soprano, and most of the action takes place in a London opera house in 1885. All this may be a bit too much culture for the average Englund fan.

And opera fans are not likely to be amused by the slicing, dicing, beheading and other genre special effects (much less the plastic surgery the Phantom practices on himself). True, opera usually operates in the red, but this may be going overboard.

While "Phantom" cliches (cape, candles, underground organ etc.) are mostly intact, the story itself has been reduced to its bare-bones plot and then peppered with Kruegeresque commentary. Turning to dull explication when devising a plot won't do, the filmmakers also include lines that seem to exist solely for the previews (Victim: "You're a thing from Hell." Phantom: "And you, sir, are Hellbound").

What's most amusing is that Englund plays the Phantom as -- and looks very much like -- a young Jack Palance. Now that's scary. Jill Schoelen, so good as the teenager in "The Stepfather," is in over her head as the singer whose career is guided by the Phantom. The rest of the mostly British cast looks as though it were weaned on Hammer Studios films of the '60s.

Naturally, there are plot twists: This film starts out in the present, shifts to Olde London after Schoelen gets a nasty knock on the head at an audition, and comes back to modern times for the obligatory encore. At this point it threatens to become "The Phantom of the Rock Opera." The Phantom may be dead, but nobody would be shocked by a sequel. While he tells the ingenue that "only love and music are forever," it also seems there will always be an Englund.

The Phantom of the Opera is rated R

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