Phantoms of the Opera

IL MOSTRO DELLA OPERA (1964)

In the days before the cities became tombs and the cinemas morgues I went to a showing of this obscure Italian film at the Barbican on a Saturday morning, only to discover that I was encroaching upon a Phantom Of The Opera symposium. Who would have imagined such a thing?

But there it was.

It seemed that I was the only viewer not involved in the symposium; I was in fact the only person in the cinema for quite a while after the advertised start time of the film.

Eventually, those involved in the event trooped in, clutching their laptops and looking – in some cases – a little surprised to see me. But they didn’t say anything. It seemed that I had become the Phantom of the Symposium. Perhaps I should have been wearing a mask, but it was not so fashionable back then.

The guy leading the session did an opening preamble, describing Renato Polselli’s film as ‘niche’ and also referring in passing to people in the group ‘who have read Gaston Leroux’s book’. It seemed surprising that anyone attending a Phantom Of The Opera symposium would not have got around to reading The Phantom Of The Opera but perhaps there were people there who only knew it as a musical. That’s why you go to such things I suppose – to learn.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read it either.

And so their education, our education, continued. In terms of The Phantom Of The Opera the film certainly is niche, since it doesn’t feature any opera or a phantom; or not a phantom in the way Gaston Leroux – or Andrew Lloyd-Webber for that matter – envisaged it. Our phantom here is a vampire (Giuseppe Addobatti), lurking in the basement of an old theatre where he holds sway over a collection of women, kidnapped over the years, who he has converted into vampires and chained to the wall.

He is, however, just killing time while he awaits the reincarnation of his lost love. When a troupe of enervatingly flamboyant performers turn up it comes as no surprise that the leading lady (Barbara Hawards) is that very thing. As the vampire starts to make his presence felt so the members of the troupe – between dance numbers – grow increasingly hysterical, which as they were highly overwrought to begin with proves trying.

The eeriest bit, involving dancing skeletons and mysterious black-cloaked figures pouring into the auditorium, turns out to be a bit of theatrical business – in fact, a prank – rather than anything supernatural: the real Gothic paraphernalia, including the pitchfork-wielding but otherwise generic vampire, is much less convincing.

Towards the end there’s a peculiar scene wherein the performers, in order to evade the vampire’s attentions, erupt into a frenzy of movement onstage, dancing and contorting themselves into agonized postures, blurring the line between performance and panic. Had we been able to share their hysteria this might have worked, but it’s too late for that.

Eventually the actors penetrate the vampire’s lair and reduce him to the inevitable skeleton. This is all we have by way of an unmasking – that final unmasking that comes to us all, and just reveals the basic structure. No romance.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)

Hammer’s version of Leroux’s novel, made the year after Mostro (whose release was delayed from 1961, according to Jonathan Rigby in Euro Gothic) was directed by the redoubtable Terence Fisher, who helmed all the early Hammer classics, and written by Anthony Hinds. It’s more traditional, and more ‘romantic’ than Mostro - on the surface at least.

The first – silent – version of Phantom from 1925 was very much about the unmasking, the revelation of Lon Chaney’s painstakingly distorted features, and in terms of dramatic effect it has never been outdone. The Hammer version is, wisely, more about the mask itself.

It’s a simple one (courtesy of Roy Ashton) but uncannily effective, with just the one eyehole and no mouth, but it fits closely – it looks less like a mask than a plaster cast, as if its purpose were not so much concealment as structural reinforcement.

That absent mouth suggests a man whose voice has been stolen, and indeed it has, by caddish aristocrat Lord Ambrose (Michael Gough), who has claimed music composed by Herbert Lom’s Phantom (formerly Professor Petrie) as his own.

When the Phantom takes Christina (Heather Sears) under his wing it is a way of recovering his own voice through hers – meanwhile his face provides an ideal blank onto which she can project her own fantasies. Thus a confusion of identities is reinforced by self-interest. Which is one definition of love.

But what of romance? The sumptuous surroundings here – classy enough that the odd bit of Hammer grotesquerie (randomly perpetrated by Patrick Troughton’s ratcatcher) risks coming across as a little bit gauche – offer a suitable backdrop for it. But Lom’s performance makes the Phantom more an object of pity than romance – muttering away to himself, he’s a plausibly traumatised man. A well-played one, but the mystery is all in the mask.

In most versions of Phantom it is Christine who performs the inevitable unmasking. She has the notion that a handsome face may lurk behind the mask, a romantic notion indeed since why would anybody wear a mask to cover up their good looks? Here the unmasking is left to Lord Ambrose, as if he has to enact in reality what he has already done symbolically by appropriating Petrie’s music and celebrity – the destruction of his identity.

Perhaps it is in part a guilty recognition of this that causes his horrified reaction – he screams, and then flees both the room and the film, becoming a non-person himself all of a sudden. The Phantom’s uncovered face, when we finally see it at the end of the film, is nothing like Chaney’s agonized deaths-head, more the kind of scarring you might expect to result from a faceful of nitric acid – nasty, but not quite monstrous.

The revelation is in any case all but thrown away as part of another drama, as it happens when the Phantom, attempting to rescue his beloved from a falling chandelier, is crushed by it himself. Maskless, he is more pathetic than terrifying.

It is the mask that haunts the mind, combining the ghostly quality of one whose identity has been taken away with the understanding that this very ghostliness forms a new identity, one that is forever unfinished and therefore endlessly intriguing.

The celebrity Professor Petrie might have secured through his music has thus come to him in a different form, determined by his personal circumstances, making of him a sort of early ‘reality star’.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971)

Of course reality is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Director Gordon Hessler’s take on Edgar Allan Poe’s story, written by Christopher Wicking in collaboration with Henry Slesar, is a perfectly literal take on the title, being about a theatrical production of Poe’s tale taking place in the Rue Morgue Theatre (in the Rue Morgue, Paris) that is beset by murders. Yet it owes more to Phantom of the Opera than to Poe.

The murderer is not a razor-wielding orang-utan, it’s Herbert Lom again, though when we first encounter him his character (Marot) is inside a gorilla suit, within which he is also wearing a mask. It’s a film with layers.

The plot is basic in essence but also madly complicated. Marot, disfigured when vitriol is thrown into his face on stage (someone has been messing about with the props) has survived his own suicide and burial through clever breathing techniques, and is now taking revenge on his old theatrical colleagues by throwing acid in their faces, which seems to kill them outright even though it didn’t have that effect on him.

Though admittedly, Marot does seem particularly resistant to death – he ‘dies’ three times in the course of the film.

It isn’t made entirely clear, but I think Marot pretended to kill himself to avoid imprisonment for the axe-murder of the heroine Madeleine’s mother (Lilli Palmer), to whom he was romantically attached. In fact he didn’t do it, it was the leader of the troupe, Charron (Jason Robards), who was in love with Palmer and bitter at being rejected. Charron then perversely settled for marrying her daughter Madeleine (Christine Kaufman), who witnessed the murder as a child, but forgot about it, until Marot returns from the grave to remind her.

Yes it’s confusing but the resulting disorientation works in the film’s favour. There’s a sense of these events being governed by Madeleine’s dreams, the action slipping into them every now and again at unpredictable moments.

Her dreams of a slow-motion masked axeman in her mother’s old house lead Madeleine to return there and discover Marot and dwarf accomplice (Michael Dunn) lying in wait – also waiting there, however, is Charron, who, on the stage of a private theatre and assisted by Madeleine, murders Marot by suffocating him with a pillow.

Mysteriously, Charron seems to have forgotten about Marot’s history of faking death by controlling his breathing, and it is no surprise when later he returns. This time, replicating the climax of the Murders In The Rue Morgue, the Guignol version, he decapitates Charron for real on the same private stage, before vanishing again.

Madeleine then, in spite of her emotional frailty and the debt her husband’s death owes to the events of the play, immediately gets back on stage to appear in Murders In The Rue Morgue. If this seems particularly improbable, we should remember that her reality has been provisional throughout – and the show must go on, after all, as Marot, returning to don the monkey suit again, knows very well.

(Similarly those oddly fatal acid attacks – ‘acid murders’ as they are described in a newspaper headline – have a certain logic to them in that as the victims are performers, this ‘loss of face’ is effectively fatal to them – the show can’t go on.)*

The show can’t go on, it goes on. The film presents a world of appearances, often shrill and lurid – can-can dancers, masked revellers, the Guignol itself – and the film’s self-reflexivity only enhances this notion of a brittle surface, beneath which nothing is reliable: there, we are backstage, in the company of the officially-deceased Marot, and whatever ‘backstage pass’ he possesses also seems to give him access to Madeleine’s dreams, wherein we get the distinct feeling that it is he, rather than the dreamer, who is pulling the strings.

At the end he pursues her through the deserted theatre, and she causes him to fall from the rafters, at which point he dies – maybe. Her recurring dream of a falling man, repeated throughout, might seem to have been a premonition of this event, but by now it’s hard to be certain that anything here has the status of reality: everything seems staged.

At the end Madeleine wakes in the night to find the dwarf in her room bearing a flower, presumably a gift from Marot, implying that he is still there, pulling strings. We might have expected Madeleine’s dreams to represent the working out of a childhood trauma, freeing her, but it seems that we are still stuck in the world of appearances, the mask behind which anything – or nothing – might lurk.

THE SECT (1991)

Given the above it seems like a natural progression for Lom, in his last horror film, to be playing the leader of a sect called the Faceless Ones, who have their eye on heroine Miriam, played by Kelly Curtis (Jamie-Lee’s sister) who is destined, it seems, to give birth to the earthly incarnation of their god.

As part of their attempts to bring this about Lom stages a near-collision with her car, following which she takes him back home to recuperate. He rewards her kindness by putting a supposedly extinct insect in her nostril and then dying in her basement.

Before expiring he covers his face with a cloth which, like the Turin Shroud, takes on the impression of his features; subsequently it takes on a life of its own, wrapping itself around the heads of various minor characters and messing with their minds.

Meanwhile, Lom rises from the dead (yet again) in a grisly ritual during which a woman’s face is ripped off and transferred to his own, though it doesn’t obscure his features, just adds a bit of substance to them. Miriam, meanwhile, undergoes a series of bizarre experiences in which her water tank is contaminated by blue string, she is assaulted by a marabou stork, and her pet rabbit learns to operate the TV remote.

Quite possibly there is a deep symbolic significance to all this, however random it might seem, but if that is the case, I can’t penetrate it, though it doesn’t seem to matter very much. Michele Soavi’s direction is deft and stylish enough to make it work, though you can’t help thinking that it would probably still have worked if an entirely different chain of events had been substituted for this one – if, just as an example, Miriam’s toilet had started vomiting blue snakes and her pet hamster had taken up smoking.

Having given birth to the young messiah, Miriam survives being burned to death in or around a car wreck – we see her emerging from the blackened crust enclosing her body like an insect from a chrysalis – suggesting that the god of the Faceless Ones (embodied now in an eagle hovering above her) might just be benign after all. Or at least that He (or She) loves His (or Her) mother.

Lom’s character has finally, apparently, died.

The trajectory of his career in these last three (carefully-chosen) examples provides us with a sort of evolution of the mask, which first replaces his face, then comes to take on a life of its own. Meanwhile his ‘real’ face first cowers behind the mask, vulnerable and all too human, then becomes a mask itself – just another layer, behind which it’s increasingly hard to tell what’s going on.

In Murders, we are drawn into a slippery dream world that lurks behind surface appearances, but the cosmic forces at work in The Sect are unfathomable, closed to us. Backstage, at this point, is no longer accessible.

And what of us, now that we have all become Phantoms of the Cinema, sitting trussed up like mummies in our socially-isolated seats? Like Lom in Hammer’s Phantom we are both elevated in our significance by being set apart, and simultaneously effaced.

There is a sense that cinema-going has become a niche activity – that the mainstream has been marginalised. And as for those who were already on the margins… well I can only speak for myself. I have become another kind of Phantom. I am not there at all. (All these films apart from Mostro I saw on DVD, at home.)

It may be that my reluctance to attend is aggravated by the curious notion that nothing on the screen could possibly compete with the (stifled) drama now taking place in the auditorium. What is happening behind those masked faces? What are they thinking, feeling?

Still, we shouldn’t assume that these Phantoms (like ‘cancelled’ critics presiding over the death throes of a culture) represent ‘the new normal’. It is behind the masks that the ‘new normal’ is being hatched, and it will emerge, for better or for worse, when they come off. Always assuming that they can.

*It is Charron who performs the unmasking in this film. The mask is less substantial than the one in Phantom, and offers less coverage. Although I’d believed it to be made of fabric, it crumbles when removed – the face beneath is of course ‘horribly scarred’ but neither mask nor face seem definitive here, where reality always seems in the process of giving way to something else.

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