Phantom Of The “______”: A Brief History

“In sleep he sang to me, in dreams he came…”

It’s not a secret that I’m a jazz-handing, jazz squaring, belt singing musical theatre fangirl.  Pair my love of horror movies with my obsession of musicals and it’s no surprise that one of my favorite horror movie characters is the famous “Phantom of the ______.”  First brought to us in the form of the french novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, the tortured story of a man forced to hide in the shadows and choosing to create chaos from his anger of being unloved has been retold, revamped, re-imagined, and remounted for over a century.  Often, the story is told of the scorned man obsessing over something (usually a woman) and despite being presented as the villain, audiences always end up loving the elusive Phantom. In honor of Scream Factory’s release of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE on Blu-Ray, here’s a look back at some of horror’s most beloved phantoms.

(Author’s Note: There are many, many, many, interpretations of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in Asian cinema, but I personally have not seen any of them.  For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on Western cinema.)

The grandfather of them all is Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent film THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  The film was based on the french novel and showcased Chaney Sr. in a ghastly self-designed makeup look.  While the film largely showcased Chaney Sr. in a mask, it has been said that audiences screamed and fainted the first time the mask was pulled away and revealed this skeletal appearance.  This is arguably the first (and last) time the Phantom was displayed as something genuinely villainous.

It was from the 1943 remake and on that the Phantom became a staple in the canon of horror’s anti-heroes. Featuring The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains plays as the Phantom and the beautiful singer Susanna Foster as Christine.  The biggest change from the silent film is that the horror aspects were downplayed, and it introduced the staple of the Phantom only having partial facial disfigurement.  This change proved to be an audience favorite and was later copied in almost every version following this film.  Casting Claude Rains, a staple in cinematic history, as the Phantom also changed the mythos of the character.  No longer would the Phantom be a pure villain; he is now sympathetic (arguably attractive) character that we pity more than we fear.

Phantom of the Opera 02

Not to be outdone by Universal, Hammer Horror put out their own rendition of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1962.  Much darker and sinister than the American counterpart, the British remake stole the successful aspects of the 1943 film (half of a face disfigurement) but added something that would become even more influential in the world of “Phantom of the _____” films; music.  All of the previous phantom films still took place in the Opera house, but the Hammer Horror version has the phantom playing Bach’s “The Toccata and Fugue in D minor.”  The piece has since become a staple in horror music and is the source material for many of the songs and pieces in the Broadway musical adaptation.

God Bless, Winslow Leach.  Brian De Palma’s cult classic PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is arguably the coolest Phantom movie, ever.  A combination of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and FAUST slathered in some Paul Williams brilliance, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a film truly unlike any other.  The Phantom is a character that we genuinely want to come out on top, no matter what he does.  All of his evil actions feel justified and we root for him, no matter the circumstances.  The Phantom sabotages performances and even kills some people, and yet we still look to him as our hero.  The film not only showcases excellent social commentary on the state of the music industry, but also provides an insight into the mind of a man scorned.

The longest running Broadway musical of all time, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is one of the biggest pop culture staples in Western civilization.  The half mask has become an iconic symbol, the music is memorable after only four bars of music, and it sparked a phenomenon of dark musicals.  Farewell jazz hands, we’re after deep and brooding characters with music that haunts us for days.  As creepy as he is, I’m so glad that Andrew Lloyd Webber fell in love with Sarah Brightman and decided to woo her in the form of writing the lead female role for her.  Sarah Brightman as Christine Daee is something that can never be matched, and it brought her voice to a generation that would have probably never known she existed.  She’s still my favorite part of REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA and “Chromaggia” is one of my favorite performances of her later career. Pairing her beautiful soprano tone to such dark and deep melodies created a recipe for success and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is the pinnacle of musical theatre achievement.  The musical celebrated its 10,000th performance in 2012 and was given the film treatment in 2004.

After the musical became a smash hit, “Phantom of the ____” films were quick to follow from all genres of film.  The horror/comedy flick PHANTOM OF THE RITZ was a huge flop but gained a rabid cult following and the VHS has become extremely difficult to find.  The Disney Channel took a crack at the mythos with the made-for-TV movie PHANTOM OF THE MEGAPLEX, and gave a stunning look at what a modern day Phantom would do when big Hollywood took over the charm of the old theatres.  However, one of my favorite recent re-imagining comes from Chris Seaver’s PHANTOM OF THE GRINDHOUSE (shown above), a low-budget ska/punk retelling of the classic tale starring a Phantom based less on Lon Chaney Sr. and more on the love child of Michael Jackson and Prince.

The “Phantom Of The _____” films are a genre staple and they don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.  The recent directorial debut of Jerome Sable, STAGE FRIGHT, plays not only with the Phantom storyline, but incorporates the world of musical theatre camps and slasher films into harmony.  If there was a film tailor made for what I love, STAGE FRIGHT is it.  The music is catchy and sometimes beautiful, and the film is self-aware in regards to the million different interpretations the “Phantom” subgenre has been played with.  STAGE FRIGHT is very much the SCREAM of “Phantom” movies.  Whether it’s a full mask or a half mask, or whether the Phantom is obsessed with a performer or a location, “Phantom Of The ____” films are some of the best and most memorable.

2 thoughts on “Phantom Of The “______”: A Brief History

  1. Good article. As favorites go, of course, WINSLOW wins! While I don’t condone EVERYTHING he did (strangling the lighting tech not long after turning Beef into a flame broiled whopper!) when you have been pushed too far by someone who takes what he wants and thinks he can keep doing it, rational thought goes out the window and you start to fight fire with fire. “You wanna play that way? FINE. BRING IT ON!”

    From the original (Lon Chaney Jr.) each following Phantom became more sympathetic and the story transitioned, from just the title character being a masked man in a theater basement to the character having more purpose to the haunting. Brian DePalma’s contribution had a lot to do with his own angst with the corporate end of the ‘star maker MACHINE’.

    Passed the Broadway version, I’m not familiar with the new characters. I have Winslow and was HONORED to have been able to meet William Finley and get both books of Faust autographed.

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