“You’ll Just Die!”: The Return of Grotesque Horror in the 1989 Phantom of the Opera

What if Freddy Krueger loved classical music? Suppose his films were just as violent, but came with violins and opera? What if that same film included a time travel subplot? This film exists, and it is glorious. It has gore, humor, and a sincere (still terrifying) performance by Robert Englund. I honestly believe it’s one of his greatest films, and it’s such a shame that it has never been entirely recognized by the horror community. It’s also a shame because the film is a unique departure from other Phantom of the Opera adaptations, and it’s perhaps the most accurate version of the Phantom character. While its story is radically different than Gaston Leroux’s text, and earlier adaptations, Englund’s Phantom is somehow perfect. I want to emphasize that although these characters are similar, Englund performs them in different ways. His role as the Phantom often swings between sympathetic and terrifying, while Freddy is more straightforward horror. This 1989 film returns Leroux’s source material to the horror domain while additionally complicating and modernizing the novel’s horrific subject, specifically the ability to mask.

“Only love and music are forever.”

We need to examine some context to this 1989 work before moving forward, as the film is a direct result of larger issues in the horror/Phantom community. Phantom was supremely popular in the 1980s, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical. People fell in love with Webber’s reading of Leroux, especially the fraught relationship between Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom. Most recognized that the production was an adaptation of the 1925 Phantom, but less knew that it was based on a novel. Webber’s musical essentially usurped Leroux’s original work, and consequently, he became the primary authority on the material. People forgot about Leroux, and suddenly Phantom belonged solely to Webber. Even when people read Leroux’s fantastic text, or watched the original 1925 film, they did so through Webber’s lens. They still do. The issue is that Webber’s musical is utterly different than both works, as Webber is not particularly interested in horror or even Faust. Phantom became a drama, and it painted Christine’s relationship with the Phantom as some tortured romance. This approach erases the book’s ongoing criticism of the Phantom and his toxic obsession with Christine. The musical’s most egregious sin, however, is that it makes the Phantom unfunny. If you read the novel, you’ll find that Erik, or the Phantom, is hilarious in a very dark sense. He is outlandishly dramatic in every scene, during which he makes several jokes and puns about killing people. This quality is notably absent in the musical, which takes itself very seriously. For example, in the musical, the Phantom drags Christine to his underground lair, and tries to kill Raoul, so she will marry him. That seems quite dramatic until you read Leroux’s version. In the novel, the Phantom rigs the entire opera house with gun powder and tells Christine that he will kill absolutely everyone in the building, and outside, if she refuses to marry him. That includes Christine and himself. Rather than just saying this, however, the Phantom builds this strange metaphor where Christine can either turn a grasshopper or scorpion sculpture, and if she turns the grasshopper, it will “hop jolly high” and kill them all. In case that isn’t enough insanity, the Phantom also has a giant metallic torture chamber that looks like an African jungle next to his house. And his favourite hobby is pretending to be a siren and drowning people. This level of theatrically is not found in most Phantom adaptations, and I imagine that is because of budget and the general tone of those films. The 1989 version stands apart as it goes straight for this characterization.

“You’re a thing from hell.”
“And you, sir, are hellbound!”

The novel’s dark humor perfectly suits the Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) formula, and by extension, Englund’s fantastic ability to blend horror with comedy. I would argue that the Phantom is a proto-Freddy Krueger, Christine is even unsure if she is dreaming or awake for most of their early encounters. While the book suggests that the Phantom is just a man, without any supernatural powers, it also leaves many unanswered questions that make him seem somewhat mystical. The 1989 adaptation latches to this supernatural territory, arguing that the Phantom was an ordinary composer, until he made a deal with the Devil so people would love his music, and it would live forever. The Devil’s price was that people would love his music, but never him. The composer was forced to live forever alongside his music, reviled and banished from society. He was also deformed by the Devil, who put a hand to the composer’s face, and severely burned it, leaving only torn bloody skin and bone fragments.

Rather than wearing a traditional mask, Englund’s Phantom sews pieces of skin, possibly his victims, onto his face and then applies makeup to cover the seams. We get these prolonged sequences where the Phantom uses a needle and black thread to weave through his face, all while looking at a picture of Christine. The practical effects in these scenes are fantastic, and Englund apparently helped design the shape and form of his character. Englund has a reputation for being quite involved with all his characters’ design, and his level of attention with special effects masters is one of the reasons his performances are so spectacular. Each feature has a reason, sometimes practical for special effects, other times, Englund and the artists use that element to say something about the character. It’s often suggested that once you see the monster in a horror film, it’s less frightening, because you’ve solved the unknown, and the monster now has a specific shape. Englund’s creatures take a different approach, as they often change during the narrative, and thus stay consistently unpredictable. The Phantom changes several different times, and each of these makeups feel quite realistic. There is a reason for this detail, and I suspect it had something to do with Webber’s Phantom, who is only shown at a distance on stage. We get these intense close ups on the Phantom’s eyes and his tools in the 1989 version, so it feels like he is invading our screens while also indirectly critiquing the makeup in Webber’s Phantom, which is purposefully made to be large and visible rather than detailed. Compare Webber’s Phantom with the legacy of Lon Chaney’s iconic makeup, which was so tightly controlled before the premiere, that no one knew what the Phantom looked like until they saw the film. People have obviously seen other Phantoms since 1925, and so the 1989 film marks a return to the detailed and even artistic horrific reveal, where you want to pause to just see what the production crew has done.

Leroux’s Phantom was born with scars, but the 1989 version changes this origin to shift the horrifying element. It argues that the Phantom’s physical appearance isn’t the only terrible thing about him, so is the process underlying this appearance. The way he applies skin onto his face. His deal with the Devil. These levels of horror are all visible on his face, and the way he tries to shield it. His ability to somewhat blend in, versus other traditionally masked Phantoms, is equally frightening. This Phantom looks somewhat ordinary with the applied skin, but the audience knows the horrors it took to look that way. Things which Christine doesn’t see, but instinctively senses. His mask is far more devious that the gentle eyebrows we see on Lon Chaney’s original take. There is no visible mask, it must be more intense to hide the extent of the Phantom’s sin. Sort of like The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the portrait grows ugly so Dorian can stay young and beautiful.

“We made a bargain you and I. FOREVER!”

In the film’s conclusion, which takes place in the 1980s, the Phantom has modern facial prosthetics rather than flaps of skin. When Christine rips his face open, tearing this mask, we see how much the Phantom has aged. Without his prosthetics, he instantly grows old and withered. His skin has deteriorated, turning rotten and black, slimy even. It’s revolting, but more so because the mask hid this level of deterioration so well. He has continued to sin, and so his face has continued to display that sin and grow more putrid. Leroux’s Phantom is either masked or unmasked, and there is no overlap between those states. Englund’s Phantom is constantly shifting between these states, overlapping, and he never stops deteriorating. While Leroux’s Phantom was born a certain way, and stayed that way, there is nothing to stop Englund’s version from becoming more horrifying. Nothing to stop him from taking on different appearances throughout the film, rather than one steady vision.

There are multiple accounts of people fainting and screaming in theatres the first time Lon Chaney’s face is shown in Phantom. A single shot, where Christine reaches behind the Phantom as he plays the organ, and his silent scream when she removes his mask, made a monumental impact in cinema and horror. Every adaptation since has been a part of that history, and each Phantom has tried to make a similar impact or a respectful homage. I imagine Englund wanted to be a part of that history, that chain of horrifying faces. Chaney is one of the earliest movie monster icons we have, and Englund is a modern horror icon. The 1989 film links the two in a very purposeful way, positioning Englund in a similar light as Chaney. But Englund’s version of the character is not just a repeat of Chaney, or anyone else. The politics around his mask make this character far more complex.

There are several reveals in the 1989 film, but none of them involve just taking off a literal mask, like the 1925 version. The first time we see the Phantom without his skin, we assume that is his true face. But then later in the film, it goes further. He removes his nose, and then takes off his teeth and hair. And finally, he rips off the final section of skin and glares at himself in the mirror. It is horrifying. But then we get more later in the film, specifically the finale makeup, where he is all decayed and withered. Each state represents a different version of the Phantom, and the level of ‘mask’ wearing illustrates something about him. I think it reflects his current morality, or lack thereof. It’s a visual way to inform the audience what he is capable of at that moment, as like Leroux’s Phantom, his mood is quite changeable. When he is with Christine, wearing his full mask, he is somewhat innocent. But when he is hunting people who criticize Christine, he is only wearing some of his skin. For example, during the bathhouse scene, the Phantom hides in the sauna, with a towel over his face. There are large patches of uncovered flesh on his face. He uses the towel to crush a critics head, which implies that his mask is a weapon. When he takes off his skin, people faint or become confused. There are so many terrible implications about his appearance that it literally disarms his victims, and in cases like this, the mask itself becomes a destructive tool. It is unpredictable, hides a great deal, and is more horrendous than a mere face covering.

Although this Phantom’s mask is untraditional, and often improvised, there are plenty of other masks in the 1989 film. There is an entire sequence dedicated to a masquerade ball, although notably, every character removes their masks multiple times in this scene. Christine’s mask, for instance, is tied to a short stick that she can hold up or easily remove. She also wears a short band across her eyes, but it doesn’t really cover her face. The removable one looks like a doll’s face, with rosy cheeks, to suggest that Christine is switching between a passive mannequin and conscious observer in her own story. By contrast, The Phantom is the only figure who wears his mask for the entire sequence, and its only time he wears a traditional mask in the film. We later discover that he is not wearing his skin under this Red Death costume, and the reveal is the first time Christine really sees the Phantom. It’s noteworthy that Christine doesn’t pull his mask off until the very end of the film, versus every other Christine. I suppose that makes sense, seeing as his skin is the mask, and pulling someone’s skin off is insane. When she does this later in the film, it’s only after she realizes what he is. Her unmasking is thus far more brutal and, forgive me, hands on than any adaptation prior or since.

“Are you going to kill me now too?”
“Everyone dies, I only chose the time and place for a few.”
“When do you choose for me?”

I get the sense that the 1989 film wanted to depict some of the features which have never been adapted from the original novel. It is a return to horror, a rejection of Webber’s romanticized view, but it also contends with the more ambiguous elements of Leroux’s text. Christine and Raoul disappear at the end of the novel, and we never learn what happens to them. The 1989 version suggests that Raoul dies, and that something involving time travel happens to Christine. I should probably address the time travel. It’s not done in a particularly clear way, and I have friends who were quite confused by this aspect. I have read that the modern scenes were added because the creators wanted to prepare audiences for a sequel, which never arrived. I am not sure if that is true though, and it is not confirmed within the film. To outline, the film begins in the 1980’s, travels back to the 1880’s in England (not France), and then returns. There is a specific tonal reason why the film situates its narrative in this way, and it is related to the era in which it was released. The film begins when Christine uncovers an old aria called “Don Juan Triumphant” in a stack of forgotten music. In a terrifying moment, the notes begin to swell with blood in her hands as she sight-read. She ignores this bad omen and uses the aria for her audition at the opera house. During the aria’s climatic note, a bag of sand swings onto stage, smashing into Christine and the mirror behind her, which substitutes for the chandelier falling in the original text. Christine falls back, screaming and hearing strange voices, and then wakes up in the past. You could read this situation two ways, and both could be true. Either, the modern Christine is having a vision of her past self and wakes up later with this knowledge. Or, and perhaps more interesting, modern Christine is actually transported to the past and lives out this life and is only transported back to the 80s after defeating the Phantom. Or maybe she dies and then returns. Regardless of which insane approach you go for, Christine is a hugely different character than what we have seen in other adaptations. She is the only one who loses to the Phantom, at first.

Christine is a complicated character in Leroux’s text, as she is not passive, but we hear about her from other people’s perspectives, making her somewhat detached. She is still a unique heroine, who tries to outwit the Phantom while still being terrified. Christine mentions that she tried to kill herself by smashing her head into a wall so the Phantom wouldn’t win. Some of that strength and blind determination carries into the 1989 adaptation, as Christine shoots the Phantom and tries to save Raoul. When that fails, Christine confronts the Phantom and possibly kills herself, burning his entire lair and hoping that he will die too. This is another ambiguous moment in the film, as Christine smashes through a mirror in his lair and everything falls apart, like the mirror. This matches with the mirror on stage, which broke at the beginning of the film, so we could read the mirror smash as a symbol for her death, or for her escape back into the future. Regardless, whether dead or a time traveler, the Phantom loses her, but believes that he can find her again one day. And he does, like a traditional 80’s horror villain, where time and death are ultimately meaningless.

When Christine wakes up on stage, back at the audition, there is a very normal looking artistic director who takes a firm interest in her. Of course, we recognize Englund without horror makeup, but Christine is still a little dazed about her experience. When she discovers that this director has multiple copies of the seemingly lost music she sang at the audition, she confronts him, and he reveals himself as the Phantom. Unlike the last time she confronted him, Christine is alone, and he seems to have the upper hand. But she uses that against him, getting close, and then ripping his face off. This modern Christine is different than her past counterpart, as she takes direct action by grabbing a pointy sculpture, stabbing him, and then destroying his music. While before, she waited for Raoul and the Police Captain to help her, she saves herself this second time, and can finally move beyond the Phantom’s violence. She is kind of a badass in this version, just tearing a man’s face right off and escaping. But the film ends with a strange detail, as Christine wanders down a street and hears a violist playing that mysterious song. She continues to walk away, rather than walking towards the music like she once did. She can finally walk past the events in Phantom, as although the Phantom’s music has somehow survived, it is now ignored rather than worshiped.

“You love the music. I am the music.”

I think the film structures itself using time travel as a reaction to Freddy Krueger’s popularity. I mentioned in my previous Phantom blog post that there have been several failed sequels for Phantom projects, and the 1989 film is a good example of this. They wanted to create a sequel with Englund, but it was never greenlit. Englund still moved forward with the project, and it became a different film called Dance Macabre (1992), which is not about the Phantom, but shares some similar characteristics. I am interested in the way the 1989 film was set up for a sequel, as that plays into its narrative. Sequel opportunity defined so many horror films from the 80s, and it became a crucial way to scare audiences. By leaving things somewhat ambiguous, films could suggest that the evil is not truly gone, it could still pose a threat even after the events of the narrative. Nightmare on Elm Street ends that way, so does Friday the 13th and Halloween. These villains must outlive their films, while still being somewhat defeated in the film’s grand finale. They exist in this strange undead position, where their death is only momentary, they are always ready for a sequel, and ready to follow the audience home in their nightmares, as the monster is never entirely defeated.

It’s a known rule in horror movies that the villain is never dead the first time you kill it. Christine, like other 80’s horror heroines, learns this the hard way. She survives the 1880s flashback only to realize that the Phantom is still around. He has left the past, and entered the modern world, the same reality the audience lives in. Even this moment with the violin as Christine walks away implies that her work isn’t done yet, the Phantom is still around, always a threat. One plot hole is that Christine hasn’t destroyed the music she used in her audition, just the stuff the Phantom had in his apartment, which means that his music still exists in some form. Christine also just killed a man, so this situation is not over. That could be a whole sequel opportunity right there, as the Phantom can only survive so long as his music does. Perhaps Christine is somewhat monstrous now that she is the only one who has faced the Phantom, sung his music, and defeated him. She holds onto the music in her memory, and that could pose another threat. But even here, I am filling in for a sequel that will never be made, but one which works so well with this narrative.

The film asks us to consider why it different than other, more popular, contemporary adaptations. What does it include that other’s do not? What does it translate from the novel and 1925 adaptations that have been ignored for too long? I think the film is a commentary on the legacy of monster cinema while also being an original work. It seems to take the romanticized version of Phantom as a personal insult, instead creating a compelling and violently funny Phantom. I would go so far as to suggest that the Phantom’s music in the film is a metaphor for the very chain of adaptation that the 1989 film works through. The Phantom survives so long as his music does, and there have been so many versions of his music in different films, meaning that this character and face stretches across every Leroux inspired project. And so there really is a Phantom, tracing himself through these adaptations. Perhaps stopping for a moment in 1989 for a jump scare, a grisly murder, and a most dramatic aria.

Want to read more on Freddy Krueger? Check out my earlier post on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

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