Like many of the other classic monsters, especially Dracula and Frankenstein, the Phantom has seen quite a few screen adaptations. They may not all be great, but some of them have gone on to rank among the best horror movies ever made. Here are the top five adaptations, official or unofficial, of Gaston Leroux’s classic gothic mystery.
5. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989)-
A personal favorite Phantom film is this 1989 supernatural take on the story, featuring Robert Englund (of Freddy Krueger fame) as the title character. This one actually starts out in present day 1989, with a young woman discovering a long-lost composition and then we flash back to Victorian England (changed from the original’s French setting) to watch the familiar story unfold… with a few new twists. One of the endearing things about film adaptations of Phantom of the Opera is that every single film has a different explanation for the Phantom’s deformity/rage. This one takes a wide turn from the book, but it works. In this version, Erik Dessler was a struggling composer who sold his soul to the Devil so that the world would love him for his music. But the twist is that his music is all people would love him for, and thus he is burned and left a hideous wreck, who now sews the skin of his victims onto his own face to try and cover his deformity. The Faustian pact in this version of the tale adds an extra layer of dark romanticism to the film and the relationship between Erik and Christine.
4. OPERA (1987)-
The most puzzling thing about Dario Argento’s dreadful 1997 remake of Phantom of the Opera is that he’d already done a version of the story, and it had been fantastic. Opera was one of Argento’s last great films. This is Phantom of the Opera retold as a modern giallo movie and the results are expectedly great. Betty is a struggling young opera singer who takes over the lead role in an opera version of Macbeth after the star is injured in a car accident. But there is a mysterious figure within the opera house who is more than willing to kill to prove his devotion. When he kills people around her, or people he fears are getting too close to her, he will bind her and tape needles underneath her eyes so that she is unable to blink as he does his psychotic deeds. He makes her watch everything he does in her honor. This is not an official adaptation or a very straightforward one, but all of the elements are there and it does a very good job of playing up the obsessive nature of the original story.
3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)-
Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera feels, in many ways, surprisingly modern. Michael Gough, known to most people now as kindly old Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman and its sequels, plays an utterly despicable theatre director. He offers Christine the part on the grounds that she sleep with him and when she does not he cuts her from the opera completely, even going so far as to fire the one producer who comes out on her side. Herbert Lom plays the Phantom to perfection. His appearance is different from prior versions, with a blank full-face mask that shows only one eye. It’s a spooky image. The Phantom (renamed Professor Pietree, unfortunately) is definitely a sympathetic antihero here. He was a composer who had never been published and brought his work to Gough’s awful theatre director, who then published the work under his own name. In attempt to steal the material back, Pietree accidentally started a fire and was burned and presumed dead. Still, his obsession with Christine stops him from being simply the hero of the movie. He was a good man, screwed over and driven insane by what happened to him.
2. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)-
Again, this version reimagined much of the original novel. Erik (now Eriq) is this time a violinist who loses the use of his left hand and is let go. He is let go, assuming that he has enough money to carry on living without working. But he has spent it all funding the music of Christine, who he’s secretly fallen in love with. This is the only adaptation in which Erik is familiar with Christine before becoming the Phantom. Claude Rains plays one of the most tragic, and in some instances almost pathetic, versions of the Phantom in this film. It’s a semi-musical and it is also one of the first color Universal horror films. While it is overshadowed by the original silent film, some cultural staples regarding The Phantom of the Opera actually originated with this film. This is the movie in which Erik is deformed by having acid thrown in his face, which is the most widely recognized origin. It is also the movie that introduces the famous white half-mask that has become synonymous with Phantom of the Opera.
1. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
The original Universal film starring Lon Chaney is simply iconic. Virtually everything about it is remembered all these years later and people were just fighting to save the soundstage on which it was shot because it still holds that much cultural importance. In many respects this stays very true to the source material. The management is already nervous about the “Opera Ghost” right from the start. The Phantom is a haunting figure, lurking in the shadows for most of the picture. Two major scenes in the movie, the masquerade ball and the unmasking of the Phantom, are among the most prominent scenes in horror history. Christine grows close to the Phantom from afar, believing him to be an “Angel of Music” sent down from Heaven by her father to guide her musical career. Lon Chaney has so much presence that even if this were a talking picture, he would not need a single line of dialogue. Even now not all the details are known about how exactly he accomplished the ghastly makeup behind his unmasked, disfigured face in the film. Almost a century later and it still holds a sense of mystery.