The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

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Its oddly fitting that this is one of the very few Hammer films I didn’t buy when it first came out on Blu-ray several years back. One of the Hammer films I’d not seen, you’d think I would have been curious enough to add it to the collection (I bought Captain Clegg blind, after all, but then again, that does star Peter Cushing). It transpires that my indifference was not unique, and it seems to have suffered a similar response from critics and cinemagoers back when it first came out: possibly the most widely unloved Hammer film of its era.

And yet, finally getting around to it now that its included in Indicator’s sixth Hammer boxset, it transpires that its a pretty good film. Blessed with what is claimed to have been Hammer’s biggest budget for a movie, it looks pretty spectacular with some lovely sets and even better location shooting (the Wimbledon Theatre posing as the ‘London Opera House’, the film cleverly moving the setting from Paris to London). The staging of the opera is really quite impressive and the period costumes and décor is to the usual high standard of Hammer. There is clearly some considerable ambition here. The film is also blessed with a really fine cast which includes the great Herbert Lom as the Phantom, Heather Sears as the Phantoms muse, Christine, and Edward de Souza cuts an impressively engaging hero (there’s also a delicious cameo by Patrick Troughton as a rat-catcher). Its even directed by Terence Fisher, one of the best directors that ever worked at Hammer (The Curse of Frankenstein, the 1958 Dracula, Hammer’s fine The Hound of the Baskervilles and many others). 

Perhaps the problem was that it was a Hammer film, and by 1962 when this came out, that already inferred a certain kind of picture, typically lurid, sensational and gothic, and this version of The Phantom of the Opera is a bit more sophisticated than usual for Hammer, and certainly much more restrained. Herbert Lom gives us a more sympathetic Phantom than the crazed killer one might have expected from Hammer (his stooge dwarf does the dirty work for him) and the real bad guy is the deliciously corrupt Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough, who steals the show with this lecherous and horrible scumbag, complete with casting couch shenanigans no less- its a marvellous performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, the best I’ve ever seen him). Lom is of course as excellent as one would expect- spending most of the film with his face hidden behind a mask, his commanding, lyrical voice is unmistakeable, and a flashback sequence where we see him pre-disfigurement allows him to show added facets of the character and a warmer performance that encourages our empathy. This film’s Phantom is very much painted as a victim, previously the impoverished Professor L. Petrie who was cheated when his opera was stolen by D’Arcy and subsequently horribly disfigured -and believed dead- after a fire, slowly rotting away in the sewers beneath the Opera House to plot some way of undermining D’Arcy’s success from claiming authorship of Petrie’s masterpiece.

I rather suspect that this was not the Phantom that Hammer fans wanted to see back in 1962, that they would have much preferred to have had another kill-crazy Hammer monster, with plenty of thrilling action scenes and gore, and as far as critics were concerned, who wanted to take Hammer seriously at that point when it had settled into its easily-derided (albeit successful) exploitation/gothic horror format?

All these years later gains this film a fresher perspective and it is indeed a better film than I had expected. In hindsight its clear that the film-makers should have trusted to Hammer’s reputation a little, and leaned more towards the usual ‘X’ certificate than the ‘A’, keeping both camps happy and ensuring the film has more of an edge than it does- but its clearly a conscious artistic choice they made, albeit ill-judged and dooming the film to box-office failure, critical indifference and relegation to lower-rank Hammer status, which it doesn’t really deserve at all. Its not perfect but its definitely a film past due a reappraisal, certainly by those such as me who too easily dismissed it in the past. I guess all films have their time, no matter how overdue.

Some connections:

Terence Fisher also directed  The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Stranglers of BombayDracula: Prince of Darkness  and many other Hammer greats.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll

2facesbPart of Indicators fourth Hammer box-set, Faces of Fear, The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is the last of the set that I have watched, mostly because I thought it was the lesser film of the four (the others being The Revenge of Frankenstein, Taste of Fear and The Damned), and I’ll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It actually turned out to be a quite sophisticated retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale: less of the monster movie I expected, and more a tale of decadent excess and sexual politics. Like their 1958 Dracula (also directed by Terence Fisher) the old familiar tale is updated by Hammer for contemporary audiences – Hammer certainly seems to have been more ambitious with these movies than I thought. These Gothic horrors tend to be talked about with some disdain nowadays, considered to be horribly dated by some, and indeed much of my own affection stems from childhood viewings on the old Friday night horror slots on television in the 1970s, but there does seem to be more to them than might initially meet the eye. These Indicator box-sets (a fifth, likely final set, is due next month I think) have really taught me a lesson or two about just how good Hammer films were, proving to be an institution we Brits really should be more proud of (or at least be afforded more respect today).

2facecSo The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is certainly a very surprising film. Paul Massie stars in the dual role of the ill-fated, foolish Doctor Jekyll and the charming Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll is an introverted, obsessed scientist rather withdrawn from society- indeed, neglecting his wife Kitty (a fabulous Dawn Addams) so much that she is off having an affair with his best friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee in, for me, one of the best roles I’ve seen him in), who keeps coming to Jekyll for money as he is always getting into debt from his extravagant excesses.

The main Hammer ‘twist’ on the familiar old tale is that Jekyll is portrayed as a backward, almost monstrous figure in appearance, and middle-aged (something the make-up isn’t really up to, failing to convince and looking odder than intended), and his alter-ego Hyde is a young, dashing, and charismatic socialite. Jekyll is emasculated and unable to satisfy his wife (or moreover apparently unwilling), his eventual overtures towards her awkward and ham-fisted, rendered impotent. Hyde is all confidence and charm, wit and virility, totally shameless and without the self-loathing that Jekyll inflicts upon himself. “I’m free!” Hyde repeatedly announces, the film clearly showing how he feels unchained by the limitations of Jekyll’s own psyche. As Hyde exerts more control, Jekyll begins to visibly age, as if Hyde’s domination is draining him of life.

2facesThe world that Hyde revels in is one of all-night debauchery, pleasures of the flesh (after an argument with Kitty, Paul casually turns to two prostitutes for his diversions) and gambling and drink. Everyone seems bored, eager to find some new thrill and fascination. An exotic dancer Maria (Norma Maria) becomes a particular draw, a raven-haired beauty whose erotic dance with a snake ends with a few shots overloaded with such innuendo that it makes me wonder how it got past the censor. Thwarted by Kitty’s fascination with Paul, Hyde turns to Maria who is bewitched by his unwavering confidence and charm- a woman, of course, who wouldn’t consider Jekyll for an instant.

Of course, the tale does not end well for anyone at all- indeed, there is an almost noir-ish feel to the film as each character seems to hurtle towards oblivion, trapped by their own urges and obsessions. Kitty is doomed by her foolish love for Paul, Paul is doomed by his gambling and debts, Maria is doomed by her fascination in Hyde, and Jekyll doomed by his hubris in pursuing his scientific experiment. . Sure, the pacing betrays the films age somewhat, but on the whole its very well made with great art direction and cinematography. The very good cast actually raises the films quality above what it might otherwise have been, making the very most of the script- Christopher Lee, as I have already mentioned is an absolute joy to watch. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, richly rewarding film. Bravo, Indicator, yet again- I’m certainly looking forward to that fifth volume in this series of box-sets.

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

strang1Alas, this one didn’t really work for me, which was doubly disappointing as it was helmed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, who was responsible for some of the best films made at the studio, and it also featured Guy Rolfe in the lead, who was so brilliant in Yesterday’s Enemy, but who didn’t really seem to ‘click’ here for me. Rolfe is not entirely to blame- I’m sure the script does him few favours and leaves him with little to do with a terribly bland character; he is far too restrained for my liking (the less said of his terribly underwritten wife the better, a thankless role for Jan Holden).

Far more passionate and watchable are the members of the Thugee cult who are the titular stranglers, a thoroughly deranged bunch. The film is based on true events concerning  a secret murderous religious cult in nineteenth century India that had attacked travelers and stole their goods over the course of perhaps as long as five centuries. Only when it had affected the trade of the British East India Company in the 1820s were investigations made and the cult discovered and eventually wiped out.

Perhaps it would have been less factually correct (not that this had ever stopped Hammer before, I suspect) but I would have found the film much more engrossing had Rolfe’s character become more personally involved- it could have been so easily done, either by having his wife killed when a Thugee cuiltist breaks into his home mid-film or had they gotten his wife travelling with the caravan that comes under threat from Thugee attack towards the end. Such a more personal involvement might have raised the stakes and tension, and given something for Rolfe to chew on.

strang2As it is, there are some interesting observations of colonial rule that casts the Brits in some poor light (most of whom are fools and jackasses who have no idea what they are doing or what India truly is). I think the film may have been too ‘open’, too much of a medium-scale period adventure that lacked the atmospheric claustrophobia that it possibly needed to really work. It has quite a few ‘horrific’ moments that are inevitable for a Hammer film and a little titillation courtesy of the busty Marie Devereux, the sole female cultist who amusingly appears to become quite aroused whenever there is murder or torture afoot (shots banned by the British censors at the time but restored here). I suspect however that this is a film that perhaps ironically suffers from Hammer being too ambitious in making a serious historical drama- it would really have benefited from closing it in into some more personal claustrophobic horror tale. But maybe that’s just me.