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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/18/00

Phantom of the Opera
Classic Monster Collection - 1943 (2000) - Universal

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Phantom of the Opera Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A/B

Specs and Features

93 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (movie on one layer, extras on the other), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary track with film historian Scott MacQueen, documentary The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked (written and produced by David J. Skal and Scott MacQueen, directed by David J. Skal), poster and stills gallery, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailers, web-links, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (18 chapters), language: English (DD mono), subtitles: English and French

Slithering through the drains underneath the Paris Opera House lives a creature so vile, he dare not show his face. In most incarnations, Eric (aka the Phantom of the Opera) is an evil, evil man. But in this 1943 version, staring Claude Rains as the tortured artist turned terrorist and teacher, he's more of a misunderstood misfit with a paranoia complex.

Enrique Claudin is a shy violinist who aspires to one day write the great Parisian opera. Suffering from a bad case of arthritis, Erique is forced to withdraw from the company. But there's a shining hope for him - he has written a wonderful piece of music and a friend is trying to get it commissioned by the local maestro. But due to a horrible misunderstanding, Erique goes into a paranoid rage and kills the man he believes stole his piece. In defense, the wife of the man he kills throws photographic developing solution at him, melting his face away and forcing him to retreat into the bowels of the opera house with nothing but vengeance on his mind.

Meanwhile, back at the opera house, the beautiful and talented Christine (played by the beautiful and talented Susanna Foster) is making her mark on the opera scene. Still not totally taken seriously, she's being shaped as the next big thing. There is a bit of comic relief here as Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and Raoul (Edgar Barrier) both vie for Christine's attention. Eddy is the star of the show and the film really seems to focus on his talents both as a comedian and a singer. Slowly the Phantom makes his wishes known and mass murder will ensue.

This version of the Phantom is only slightly based on the original Gaston Leroux novel and, in it's own way, it works. I prefer the original Chaney version, but in terms of entertainment value, there's nothing wrong with this film. Rains makes a very good Phantom and his turn from meek and mild to dastardly and vile showcases a great talent.

The most important thing this DVD special edition gives us, is the fact that the original intention of the film was to show that Christine was in fact Erique's daughter. This was down-played because of the studio's thinking that it would appear to be incestuous, due to both the history of the Phantom and the vagueness of his intentions. I mean, why would a scarred shadow of a man want to be buried in the ground with his beautiful daughter? Still, if it would have worked, I think it would have meant for a much meatier film. By itself, Phantom is a bit overburdened by the operatic sequences (there are a great many) and the underplaying of the horror (which there is just too little of). The film's been around for more than 50 years, so there's not much use in complaining. But it is a beautiful film, no matter its flaws.

On DVD, it's that much more beautiful. Here, we get the original full frame presentation in bold and vibrant color. This is a beautiful transfer. The print isn't stellar, but it's much better looking than some of the other films in this series. There is little to no artifacting and the blacks are even and deep. Good job Universal. The sound is a playful 2-channel mono that has some resonance and sometimes has the ability to fool you into thinking it's stereo. All together, the video and audio presentation is quite nice.

This is the last film in the second wave of Universal's Classic Monster Collection, which means we're going out with a whimper instead of a bang. In terms of special edition material, this is the lesser of the discs in wave two. That's sad to say, considering I'm a big fan of both Universal Monster films and Phantom of the Opera in general. Toss one on the ol' "be careful what you wish for" pile, because in my The Bride of Frankenstein review, I made the comment that I wished Scott MacQueen would have more involvement in future installments - and he sure was involved on this disc. The documentary starts off with MacQueen as our host, complete with badly acted delivery, an awkward pose and some "what the hell is he doing?" hand movements. I'm still trying to figure those out. Once we get through that, we find out why MacQueen is involved and why I though he should be - he has a very friendly and easy to listen to voice, that never sounds forced or read. How could he do such a bad job in the opening? It's maddening. But he really does a great job with the voice over on the documentary and he's an utter joy on the commentary track. But, man! If you thought Skal was a ham, you just have to check this guy out. I hate to say it considering I liked the idea of film historians getting their due, but this film would have been better served by a celebrity of some sort (like they had in the first wave with directors Joe Dante on Bride and John Landis on The Wolf Man).

When it comes to the actual documentary, it would seem there wasn't much to say about the actual film, because there's not a whole lot of time dedicated to it. To be fair, this is well remedied in the commentary. I know Skal (and in this instance MacQueen - he served as co-producer and co-writer) likes to have the commentary and documentary cross-over as little as possible, but the other docs seem to balance the information quite well when all they focus on is the actual film. The luxury most of those Monster films have, is that they are either stand-alones or they were first in the series. But, because this Phantom is a remake, we have no choice but to look back at the earlier version of this film and the result is somewhat boring. Considering the great job done on wave one and, to an extent, the other two films in wave two, this one sticks out like a sore thumb. But like I said, the commentary is pretty good. MacQueen knows his stuff and talks a good bit about this version of the film. I really enjoyed listening to what he had to say.

Along with those things, we get a photo gallery, a trailer, cast and crew info and a production notes section. One note - the production notes present information that conflicts with facts from the documentary. It's a minor grumble but perfectly illustrates the confusing nature of Chaney scholars with stories that don't match each other. It's kind of ironic, and if you're a fan of Chaney you know exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe the disc could really have avoided these problems by focusing on the 1943 film rather than the Phantom mythos. But I guess it's hard - the 1925 Phantom is really a classic (more so than this version) and even the Hammer version (which is also heavy focused on here) is a bit more compelling. Maybe Skal and MacQueen couldn't resist, but it makes for a slightly "off" special edition. But considering the track record of this series, and the beautiful looking transfer, I will happily forgive them.

Phantom fans have a new DVD to purchase, and even if it's not my dream collector's edition, it does a service to horror fans. I still have my Blackhawk/Image edition of the 1925 Chaney version and I have my book, so all is not lost at Casa Doogan. There IS some good stuff on this disc (like the beautiful looking film itself and a great commentary track) and Skal and Co. have clearly put forth a lot of effort on these wonderful films. Let's hope Universal lets Skal have some more. Maybe we'll get The Black Cat, Dracula's Daughter, It Came from Outer Space, Son of Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue and Frankenstein versus the Wolf Man. Fans can only hope.

Todd Doogan
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