For anyone who is a big film or music fan, there is always that chasing around for the things we can’t have. We want the old films that aren’t available for whatever reason, or the unreleased recordings by our favourite artists that are languishing in a vault. Sometimes we have good reason to salivate at the thought of these films and recordings being released, whereas other times there is good reason for a film or album being more obscure than the rest.
For many years, the Hammer production of Phantom of the Opera, starring Herbert Lom and Michael Gough, was unavailable on home video, particularly in Europe – slightly odd given the famous title. Eventually it appeared again in 2014 not just on DVD but also on blu-ray. The point of the blu-ray release is a little bit of a mystery as, to be honest, it looks no better than the average DVD of a 1960s movie. Anyone expecting a startlingly clear, crisp transfer is going to be disappointed. Sure, it’s perfectly watchable, but that’s not what blu-ray releases are meant to be about.
That aside, the Hammer Phantom proves to have been rather elusive for a very sensible reason – it’s not very good. Perhaps a hint towards the tameness of the film is on the packaging itself – it is, surprisingly, a PG certificate. Rather odd for a Hammer Horror. But there is a good reason for that – there’s virtually no horror in the film. Even the unmasking of the Phantom’s face is not actually shown to the viewer – in fact we don’t see that face until the very last shot of the film – and then, to be fair, we’ve seen some celebrity faces look worse than that thanks to botched plastic surgery and face lifts. Perhaps the only real moment of horror comes when someone is stabbed in the eye, but that is also seen from a distance.
Now, I’m not saying that a horror film needs to be filled with horrific moments, because it doesn’t, but it does need to be tense and sinister, and Phantom is neither. It is, instead a mystery-come-tragedy about a supposedly deceased composer – let’s face it, you all know the story already. The film is interminably slow, especially in the opening half an hour or so, and when we actually get the Phantom he turns out to be a slightly eccentric fellow who wants to teach a girl to sing so that his opera can be heard in all its glory. At one point, the film looks like its going to get a happily-ever-after ending, but presumably someone realised that wasn’t fitting for a horror film and so tagged a three-minute disaster movie on to the end just to give a final thrill.
Viewers that are really paying attention will know that the composer of the opera that is the centre of the film, about “Saint” Joan of Arc, must also have been a psychic. The film is set in Victorian London and yet Joan didn’t become a saint until 1920. The supposed opera in question is a turgid effort, which I suppose is at least true to form given British efforts at the form during the Victorian era – but this makes Sullivan’s Ivanhoe sound like Aida (although I will admit that Ivanhoe, to quote Rossini on Wagner, does have “some wonderful moments but dull quarter hours – but I digress).
The script is a lame effort and, surprisingly, Terence Fisher’s direction is decidedly lacklustre and workmanlike. Herbert Lom makes for a very unscary Phantom (even during the section of the film when he’s meant to be frightening), although he does well during the flashback sequence. Michael Gough chews up the scenery as always and, as always, wanders through the film looking like a bulldog chewing on a wasp. Heather Sears looks suitably bored for the most part, and even when kidnapped and brought to the Phantom has a kind of “oh, come on then, teach me to sing and get it over and done with” look on her face. Oddly, the usually bland Edward de Souza comes out best, making for a surprisingly charming leading man.
All in all, however, this is a very unexciting effort, both from the point of view of the film and of the blu-ray release. If you haven’t seen it and wonder why you’ve missed the film all these years, well the above information might give you a good idea why it seems to be one of Hammer’s lesser-known titles. Either that, or you were just lucky to miss out.