“Our Lives Are One Masked Ball”: Monsters, Masks, and the Art of Imitation in The Phantom of the Opera Franchise

“If I am the phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me” (Gaston Leroux)

Compiling the Greatest Phantom Adaptations

Who is The Phantom?

The most compelling monsters are those we recognize in ourselves. Monsters are not simply a reflection of our society; it is far more intrinsic than that. They are an extension of ourselves, an extreme version of our desires and anxieties (it’s funny how often these two overlap). Cinema is a type of therapy because it allows us to safely examine the borders around humanity and monstrosity through a sympathetic lens. Killing the monster at the end of the film is a way to reinstitute these borders and tidy up the events of the film. We can sympathize and recognize ourselves at the movies, but outside of that space, we have to mask the person we are when no one is watching. In that regard, we are not just watching the movies, the movies are watching us.

I have always felt an innate kinship and sympathy with these classic monsters, a secret hope that they could succeed. I am always left wondering what would happen if the ‘bad guy’ won. What would that mean for the narrative and for the Monster?

The Phantom from Phantom of the Opera isn’t like the other monsters in the Universal collection. He is just a human, a human in a mask. However, I argue that putting on a mask is what makes him as troubling as his counterparts. It marks the Phantom and signals to the audience that the Phantom was banished and attacked by society. This means that society is in part responsible for the Phantom’s terrible actions.

We sympathize with the Phantom for two reasons. First, we feel guilty on behalf of society for what the Phantom has done and what we have done to the Phantom. Second, because we also perform a version of masking in our daily lives, we empathize with the Phantom. When I say perform, I refer to a few things, all depending on the person and how they identify. Suffice to say, each of us performs and accentuates certain aspects about ourselves in order to either communicate a specific message about who we are (a persona) or to maintain a normative and ordinary countenance. Performing this way can be difficult as you often feel as though you have two versions of yourself: the person in your head and the person everyone else sees. The conflict between these persons is at the heart of Phantom of the Opera.

There was a time when I was absolutely obsessed with adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. I began, like so many others, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, but later moved on to more obscure adaptations. Seeing as I am talking about horror musicals this month, I thought it would be interesting to compile some of my favourite Phantom projects. He is the definition of a horror musician, and so it seemed appropriate. I am still adding to my collection, so these are just a few examples. I may even return to some of these films in a later post, so be sure to keep an eye out! **

**If you are interested in reading more about these Phantom of the Opera adaptations, I recently finished a month long study on Phantom films. Check it out here.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Unlike the other adaptations on this list, Phantom of the Paradise makes a radical departure from the original text, but in doing so, enhances and modernizes its themes. It similarly intensifies the source text’s criticism on suppressive institutions by refocusing this subject on the music industry. In Leroux’s text, the Phantom is a dangerous outsider who outwits and blackmails an opera house, the prevailing music industry, and finds true talent within its corrupt environment. He nurtures this talent, and ultimately becomes obsessed with it because it is so out of place in our horrible world. The pageantry of this character certainly continues in Phantom of the Paradise, but with more critical thought. The film extends Leroux’s discussion on beauty and horror by detailing why authentic talent is too independent and cannot be commodified nor sold.

 If you are interested in learning more about this incredible, catchy, and stylized film, check out my earlier blog post about the film, and its representation of fandom.

Phantom of the Opera (1990)

When I think of the Phantom, I can’t help but think of Charles Dance. His performance is the most sympathetic and compelling version of the Phantom. The program also gives Christine a personality and flaws, which is shockingly rare in most Phantom projects. Although it was made for TV, this two-part epic takes aspects from the original book while also stepping away from the book’s more problematic undertones. It additionally spends some time unpacking Raoul and Christine’s relationship, so the tension between them and the Phantom is feasible.

We learn how the Phantom met Christine, why he becomes so infatuated with her, and the struggles of their relationship. He helps Christine achieve greatness but remains conflicted about who she shares it with.

This culminates in what I believe is the most beautiful scene in any Phantom adaptation. The trap is set, and Christine performs Faust on stage to lure the Phantom out of hiding. During the final number, the Phantom stumbles to his balcony and begins to sing Faust’s solo. In the context of the opera, it’s when Faust confesses his love to Marguerite before she dies in prison. However, the show reverses this order. The Phantom is dying, and Christine is confessing her love to him. It is a powerful scene and enough to bring anyone to tears.  

It is not a monster film in a traditional sense, but it does find humanity within monstrosity, while also suggesting that these terms are fluid.

Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Unlike the previous entry, this adaptation goes to an extreme level of violence. This Phantom doesn’t wear a mask. He sews pieces of skin onto his face while looking at a picture of Christine. Also, the Phantom is played by Robert Englund, the same actor who played Freddy Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s an amazing horror film, but not for those with a weak constitution.

This Phantom isn’t sympathetic, but he is fascinating. He was left scarred after a deal with the Devil, which means that his scar has nothing to do with society. As a result, we feel less responsible for the Phantom, which is probably a good thing seeing as he brutally murders people throughout the film. But that level of unnecessary death is one of the reasons the film is so entertaining. It combines the cheesy humor and excessive murder of the Nightmare series with the theatrical violence of Leroux’s novel. Rather than moving away from the bizarre moments in the original work, as the 1990 version does, this adaptation embraces them. It might exclude the iron jungle and oven from Leroux’s text, but it substitutes these insane moments with things like time travel. That’s right, this movie takes place in 1989 but also in the 1800’s. Christine hits her head during an audition and travels back in time to her past life with the Phantom. And that is just in the first 10min of the film.

The film also picks up on the Phantom’s pessimistic humor from the book, which is perfect for Englund. I think people forget just how crazy Leroux’s book is, as we tend to take it very serious in contemporary culture. I would argue that is primarily because people assume the Phantom is a consistent character across each adaptation, and that he is always a version of Lloyd Webber’s work. This film proves otherwise in the most fantastic and gory way possible.

Likewise, the film returns to the original toxic relationship between Christine and the Phantom. Unlike the many of the romantic storylines we see today, the Phantom in Leroux’s book is insane, to the extent where its suggested he will blow up the opera house, killing everyone including Christine and himself, if Christine agrees to marry him. That way, she can never escape, and they can die together before she changes her mind.

It additionally refuses to romanticize the Phantom’s obsession with Christine. Christine saves herself at the end of the film by killing the Phantom and destroying his music. This signals that no part of him, however genius, can survive after everything he has done.

Christine becomes the final girl we associate with horror movies, and it is really refreshing to see. She’s not led away by Raoul; she walks away by herself. It is such a great movie, and a unique way to represent Christine. I highly highly recommend.

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The classic that began it all. As the first adaptation of Phantom, it created the famous unmasking scene, a sequence which all Phantom adaptations return and pay homage to. While the film is quite extraordinary, what is equally impressive is the way it influenced so many horror directors and creators.

So much has already been said about the film, so I’ll just note that Lon Chaney gives an amazing and tortured performance which impacted not just the way later actors interpreted the Phantom role, but also the way we interpret horror movie monsters today.

Each of the Universal monster films deal with the question of what makes you human, and what could change or challenge that humanity. Films like Phantom, The Invisible Man (1933), and Frankenstein (1931) are interested in multilayered monsters who are equal parts sympathetic and terrifying. These early films created the mold we see today and influenced the very way we conceptualize movie monsters.

It is also important to note that Phantom was one of the earliest Universal Monster films, predated only by the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The success of these silent films are the reason Universal went forward with creating more monster films. Chaney’s role as the Phantom is thus directly responsible for the characterization of figures like Frankenstein’s Creature, as both are victims of society, and despite their evil deeds, they are ultimately sympathetic and troubled. Phantom might not be as famous as James Whale’s Frankenstein, but it is just as influential.

Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Phantom of the Opera (1962)

I’ll be honest, I confuse these films a lot. That shouldn’t suggest that they are not good, just that they are remarkably similar. Technically, both films introduce something new to the material in an attempt to innovate its subject matter. For instance, the 1962 Phantom sacrifices himself to save Christine, while the 1943 Phantom pays for Christine’s lessons before he is scarred with acid. This means that the 1962 changes the ending while the 1943 changes the beginning.

Likewise, the 1962 Phantom has his music stolen and scars himself by accident, which also happens in Phantom of the Paradise. It additionally moves the storyline from France to England, which the horror heavy 1983 version followed.

I do recommend both of these films, but I find it difficult to keep them straight. It is not that their events are the same, its simply that their characters are strikingly similar. It is also hard to compare when the films listed above are so strikingly interesting. I recall that the 1962 Phantom is slightly more terrifying, but that is mainly because the 1943 version introduces the Phantom as an ordinary musician, so there isn’t much mystery.  

A Few Honourable Mentions

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall (2011)

This is the only Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Phantom which I would highly recommend. The 2004 film has some great moments, but it is nothing compared to this perfect cast. The singing is extraordinary, and Ramin Karimloo’s role as the Phantom is the best iteration of Webber’s work. Sierra Boggess similarly brings some much-needed complexity and strength to the role of Christine, and she arguably has the perfect voice for the role (seriously, take a listen to her “Think of Me” performance on YouTube).

I personally believe that more Broadway musicals should be professionally recorded and distributed once the production is over, and I think this is a perfect example of that. People haven’t stopped seeing Phantom just because there is a full recording of it. It resembles the Starkid approach to theater, which is a production company which records their different shows and uploads them for free on YouTube once they are finished. This allows the recording to focus on details which might get lost during a live performance, while also enabling a radically different and exciting model of viewership.

Phantom of the Megaplex (2000)

It’s a fun-made-for-TV Disney film, right? Well, its also inadvertently an amazing commentary on the ‘death’ of the movie theater and the rise of the soulless corporate megatheater. So, it’s surprisingly layered.

Although it has nothing to do with Leroux’s work, it does involve the legacy of Phantom films, and suggests that the Phantom character is obsessed with wreaking havoc in response to a corrupt and stressful working environment. As such, the film ‘masks’ its own discussion on corporate culture.  

Phantom of the Opera – Dramatized Audiobook (2015)

So, this isn’t technically a film or show, but it is still a performed version of Gaston Leroux’s text. Because it is a condensed adaptation, it feels more like a play than an audiobook. This means you get the general idea of what happens in the book as if it were a film, but one which was an accurate version of Leroux’s work. This iteration goes into the stranger events of the book, and the even stranger Phantom. It often does so through sound, bouncing between speakers and adding various sound effects. It’s additionally got a full cast of actors and is about the same run-time as a film. I would argue that these elements make it more of a radio play than an audiobook, but still, it’s a surprisingly fun and interesting experience.