The lights fall, and the curtain rises. A young soprano stands in the center of the stage as the audience looks on, waiting to be disappointed by the ingenue standing in for the great diva of the Paris Opera House. The conductor leads the introduction to her first aria and the young singer frees her voice stunning the audience with her skill. You see, the audience doesn’t know that each night the young soprano, Christine Daae, receives instruction from a mysterious teacher whose face she’s never seen. And while he has taken her voice to new heights, she has only just begun to fear there may be a dangerous obsession behind the teacher’s motives. As those who stand in the path to her success begin to tragically die, those fears are realized. This is the story of The Phantom of the Opera.
First published as a serial from 1909 to 1910 by French novelist Gaston Leroux, the story immediately caught the attention of readers with its sweeping story of romance and murder that could only be classified as operatic. It quickly became fodder for adaptation and satire with almost thirty versions gracing the big screen since 1916. Each new filmmaker, screenwriter, and composer takes their own path to the final tragic outcome as, most often, the Phantom is either killed or disappears from the Opera house as it burns. Certainly some versions are better than others, and it might be hard to narrow down which you might enjoy; so, I’m bringing you my list of five favorite Phantoms.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
One of the original and best, Lon Chaney, the man with a thousand faces, transformed himself into the hideous Phantom obsessed with the beautiful Mary Philbin as Christine. Staying much closer to the original story than most other adaptations, the Phantom was born with the mind of a genius but tragically deformed. The silent film is a masterpiece of the macabre. Check out the trailer below.
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Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Claude Rains stepped into the role of the Phantom in this version of the famous story. The big difference here is that the Phantom’s meddling in the career of young Christine, played by Susanna Foster, began before his disfigurement. He carries a father’s devotion to her, and is determined that her career should advance. Privately, he pays for her voice lessons and watches from the orchestra, where he plays the violin at the opera. When he loses his job as a performer and can no longer pay for the lessons, his madness begins to build. He confronts a music publisher whom he suspects of stealing his music and kills him, only to have etching acid thrown into his face, disfiguring him and sending him into the catacombs below the opera house. Featuring beautiful sets and elaborate operatic performances by Foster and baritone Nelson Eddy, this is a must see for any devotee of the Phantom.
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The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
Flash forward over 40 years, bypassing a so-so Hammer production, a rock/disco adaption involving a head in a record press, and a made for television adaptation that never seemed to find its footing, and we find ourselves in 1989 with a new version of the Phantom starring Robert Englund as the mad composer. Taking the story to a much darker place, here the Phantom trades his soul so that his music may become known and loved by all the world. In trade, however, his face is horribly disfigured. He brutally murders anyone who stands in the way of Christine’s career, even skinning some of them alive, reserving the skin to sew onto his own face to help disguise his deformity. Rising scream queen, Jill Schoelen, filled the role of Christine and if you watch closely, you’ll also catch site of a young Molly Shannon as Christine’s friend and accompanist. This is a true horror film in every sense of the word, I highly recommend it.
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The Phantom of the Opera (1998)
It was only a matter of time before Dario Argento got around to adapting the Phantom. His films, especially those like Suspiria, have always had a grand scale that befits the needs of this classic story. In 1998, he brought us a new kind of Phantom. Here, the title role is not physically deformed in the least. On the contrary, Julian Sands is as handsome and sexy as they come as a man who was raised by rats in the catacombs beneath the opera house. Argento, rather, presents a man whose deformity is in his psyche and soul. The sociopath knows only the love for his rats and his obsession with Christine, played by Argento’s daughter, Asia.
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The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Joel Schumacher brought to the screen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical of The Phantom of the Opera in winter of 2004. The version had wowed live audiences for almost two full decades by this time and it was anxiously anticipated by those audiences as new of the production spread. Lloyd Webber’s adaptation was faithful to the original material, expanding only where needed to flesh out the needs of a full musical. It is a lush, decadent spectacle of a film with brilliant performances by Gerard Butler in the title role and Emmy Rossum as Christine. If you love musical theater with a touch of horror, this is the version for you.
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