My college roommate was obsessed with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of The Phantom of the Opera. He owned the cast recording, had a promotional beach towel he hung on his closet door, and even went so far as to fashion himself a replica of mask worn by the title character. I grew to hate this musical over the course of those four years, and Joel Schumacher's film version did absolutely nothing to change my opinion.
The plot, of course, takes place at Paris's Opera Populaire in the latter half of the 19th century. Although she has been primarily relegated to supporting roles in the house's various productions, singer Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) is slowly beginning to make a name for herself. The orphaned daughter of a famous musician, Christine has been receiving voice lessons from a mysterious man she has never seen. She believes it is the spirit of her late father, but it is actually the Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler), a horribly disfigured recluse who lives in the passages beneath the opera house. The Phantom orders the Populaire's owners to give Christine the lead in an opera he has written, which greatly angers Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the house's resident diva. He also commands Christine to end her relationship with Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a young nobleman whose father is the Populaire's primary patron. When Christine and Raoul ignore his demands, the Phantom turns to murder in an attempt to gain possession of the woman he loves.
I don't particularly care for musicals. I simply lose interest when the characters suddenly burst into song. I also hate sappy love stories. They just don't work for me. And I cannot stand cheesy '80s synth pop. Didn't like it then, don't like it now. Unfortunately, The Phantom of the Opera is a sappy love story told through music that sounds an awful lot like cheesy '80s synth pop. Let me put it this way: If you have always dreamed that the guys in Autograph would create a rock opera, your dreams have pretty much come true.
The songs here were only two or three years old when I first heard them, but even then they were on the verge of becoming dated. Having recently celebrated its twentieth birthday, the music now comes across as incredibly campy. And while Schumacher and Webber have augmented the original arrangements with a large orchestra and choir, you'll still find enough swirling organs and screeching synthesizers to make your ears bleed. Every song is cranked to eleven, as if they're all being sold to the people in the cheap seats. Then again, the entire movie suffers from a fatal case of overkill. Schumacher has never been known for subtlety (nor has Webber), but this movie officially trumps Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise as the most over-the-top take on the material (but at least De Palma's movie was meant to generate laughs).
This is supposed to be the most unabashedly romantic version of the story so far, or at least that's what people tell me. Personally, I couldn't care less whether Christine ended up with the pretty boy or the lonely, disfigured genius. One's a vapid doofus, while the other comes across as a petulant adolescent who turns to murder when he can't get his way. Really, what's so romantic about that? And the treatment of the Phantom himself is a bit wrongheaded. Lon Chaney made his interpretation truly frightening, and Claude Rains made his genuinely touching (we won't even bother to consider Robert Englund's take on the character, and I've tried to completely erase any memory of Julian Sands in that ridiculous Dario Argento version). Butler (who cannot sing) tries to have it both ways here and ends up being neither. And call me crazy, but it appears to me that the Phantom's appearance drastically changes to suit the needs of the story. His deformity becomes less grotesque when we're supposed to sympathize with him, more grotesque when we're supposed to be repulsed by his actions. Like I alluded to earlier, the movie ain't exactly subtle.
Phantom does has two thing goings for it, with the first being the visuals. Alexandra Byrne costumes, Anthony Pratt's production design, and John Mathieson's cinematography are all stunning. Honestly, if you're going to watch this thing, it's best done with the sound off. That way you can soak up the sights and still retain your sanity. The second somewhat redeeming feature is Minnie Driver, who was born to wear a bodice, if you know what I mean. If you ask me, she really needs to do more period films.
The 2.35:1 transfer is gorgeous, doing complete justice to the sumptuous visuals. Colors, whether they be cold and subdued or bright and eye-popping, are beautifully represented. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is excellent. Too bad the movie is so awful, as I'm almost sad at the thought of never again laying eyes on this transfer...almost.
The audio, presented in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, is equally impressive. Dialogue is always intelligible, and the music (while unquestionably overbearing) sounds excellent. Bass is very deep and tight, and surround integration is exceptional. Given how much I dislike the music, I almost hate to admit that I did enjoy hearing all of those synthesizers bouncing around the rear soundstage...almost. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The documentary Behind the Mask: The Story of The Phantom of the Opera (65 minutes) is a very thorough chronicle of the history of the stage production. As much as I dislike the musical itself, I actually found this rather interesting. The highlight is footage from the Ken Russell-directed music video for the show's title song. I wish the entire thing had been included, as I found the sight of the Phantom sporting what appeared to be a cheap knockoff of the Mordred mask from Excalibur to be very amusing.
The Making of The Phantom of the Opera (40 minutes) details the creation of the film. Divided into three sections covering the preproduction and casting, design, and recording of the music, it's far more interesting than the movie itself (especially the design portion).
One deleted scene, a snippet from a song titled "No One Would Listen," is also included.
Various members of the cast and crew perform a singalong version of the title song. Keep an eye out for editor Terry Rawlings, who looks understandably embarrassed.
Rounding out the extras is the theatrical trailer.
I had to listen to Quadrophenia four times in order to recover from what will be my sole viewing of The Phantom of the Opera. Fans should be very pleased with the stellar technical presentation of this release. Everyone else should stay far away.