2 January 2009 | profh-1
WHY Screw With a CLASSIC?
It is incomprehensible to me why some "writers" feel the compulsion to totally mess up a classic story by changing everything about the original that made it worthwhile in the first place. I long ago noticed an interesting parallel between 2 classic tragic romances, both set in Paris-- THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Each has been redone multiple times. In the case of HUNCHBACK, each time it seems to have been done with minor revisions, and generally, the results have been excellent. In the case of PHANTOM, each time it gets mutated further and further from the original, and while the results may be intriguing to behold, each version is like an entirely different story! So it was that the 1943 remake used the original merely as a springboard for what was really a Nelson Eddy-Jeannete McDonald musical-comedy, pushing the "real" star almost out of his own picture, and completely changing the back-story (while ironically restoring the original ending from the book-- but almost nothing else). And so it was that the 1963 Hammer version totally ignored the original, and used the famous and popular '43 version (my Dad saw it while in the army and LOVED it) as its springboard, to do the typical "Hammer" thing of "different for the sake of different", crafting a film where every single frame screams "Hammer" (was there ever a studio where the finished product was SO uniquely recognizable?). AND, so it was that this 1983 TV version appears to haphazardly take elements from ALL 3 previous films, and mix them together in a jumble that, while some bits seem nicely-done, others are just HORRIBLE, and the overall product is just a jumbled, at times nearly-incoherent MESS.
Let's take the origin: from '43 we had a composer who was a sad, pathetic man to begin with, who mistakenly believed his compositions were being stolen from him. This led to the accident of his disfigurement. The '63 version changed this to an actual theft and called-for revenge that went terribly wrong. The '83 version changes the hero from composer to conductor-- and its his wife who's "stolen" from him rather than his music, and a critic's office rather than a print shop destroyed by fire.
While there was some mysterious figure lurking in the underworld in the '25 version (and we never found out if he had ANY connection with the Phantom or not-- a wonderfully minor detail), the '63 version had both a rat-catcher and a sewer-living derelict. The derelict wound up causing The Phantom's death in the '63 film-- but, absurdly, in this one, he not only rescues the composer from the fire, he takes him down to the underworld in the first place, gives him the mask, shows him the maps of the catacombs-- in effect, this guy who never utters a single word of dialog CREATES the Phantom! I found this so annoying, and it reminded me of the similar absurdity of Sean Connery "teaching" Kevin Costner the ways of Chicago in Brian DePalma's deliriously misguided UNTOUCHABLES remake.
I'm not sure what to make of Michael York's character in here-- he starts out likable, then turns into a heel, then winds up being the one who investigates and learns the truth about The Phantom, while the police inspector is merely a DOLT. The scene with the inspector's family merely makes all of them annoying, in a lame attempt at a comic interlude. (The inspector in the '25 film was that story's "hero"-- if you discount Erik himself, who despite his murderous antics was admirable right to the end, when justice and a murderous mob caught up with him.) The whole thing completely falls apart in the last half-hour, after The Phantom kidnaps Maria. After going to such lengths to make her the success his wife wasn't able to be, he suddenly changes his mind for no apparent reason and wants to keep her "safe" while the vicious Prima Donna he earlier drove away COMES BACK. Then, after Maria is rescued (with relatively little fanfare), and the conductor and inspector plot to trap The Phantom (HOW?), he decides to cut the chandelier loose (a bit predicted much, much earlier in the film in one of the worst and most awkward bits of foreshadowing I have ever seen). Cutting the chandelier at this point makes no sense-- and he does it so badly (in a horrible exercise of "slow-motion" to boot), that nobody gets killed except himself. This Phantom is not only insane, he's incompetent as well.
My recommendation to anyone interested in these films is, START here-- then work your way backward to 1963, then 1943, then 1925. If you do, EACH version you watch GETS BETTER. My admiration for the '25 version-- the ONLY one that even attempts to do the book-- has steadily increased over the years with every viewing. Even more so since I got my hands on the video with the Rick Wakeman score. (Some might find that bordering on blasphemy-- but I've come to love the music so much, and it managed to make what was already my #1 favorite silent film even more enjoyable.)