Phantom of the Opera

A brief tour of Universal’s monster horror legacy

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Almost five years ago I wrote enthusiastically about the release of Universal Studio’s Monsters – The Essential Collection, a boxset of eight of its most famous golden age horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the first time these iconic movies had been officially released in the UK on Blu-ray in newly remastered high definition versions, and they were a glorious sight to behold

At the time I penned gushing reviews of Dracula and Phantom of the Opera. As it happens I recently rewatched the original 1931 Frankenstein film and was astounded all over again – both by the flawless and beautiful monochrome restoration of a film that’s now nearly 90 years old, and also by how terrific the film itself still is, and how brilliant Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster remains to this day. My only criticism is that it’s so short and over all too quickly, the Monster no sooner brought to life than he is running amok and being hunted by a pitchfork-wielding mob of angry villagers. The clarity is so vivid, you can clearly see the folds and creases in the cloth backdrops used for the sky and clouds.

The Monsters – The Essential Collection boxset was one of my favourite purchases of 2012, and the only drawback to it was that several of the later movies from the Universal horror franchise were not included, among them some of my favourite if lesser-known genre films of the period. I confidently predicted that it surely wouldn’t be long before a second volume took care of that omission; alas, I waited in vain for years for such a boxset to materialise here in the UK, and it never happened. Until now. Well, sort of. Read the rest of this entry »

The Phantom of the Opera: BFI Dual Format Edition (1925/9) [Blu-ray]

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Given the economics of funding niche releases for cineastes, it’s rare to find a ‘classic’ film from the silent era receive more than one proper release. Movies in the public domain may well get multiple basic releases under different labels – usually all of them pretty awful – but once a film is properly restored or digitally remastered then that’s usually it as far as it goes for any given medium. The only exceptions I can think of to the rule offhand are FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

That’s why when I saw the 2011 Park Circus release of the 1929 Lon Chaney silent classic The Phantom of the Opera, I was so relieved to find it to be of such a high standard – “a treasure trove and a truly ‘ultimate edition’, a genuine early Christmas present for lovers of classic old films” as I put it in my original review of the Park Circus title here – which was just as well because I knew that this was as surely good as we were ever going to get on Blu-ray, as it wasn’t as if we could hope for anything better to come by in a couple of years. Except, strangely enough, that’s exactly what has happened with this week’s release of the same title by the British Film Institute as part of the BFI’s Gothic Season.

So what’s going on here? Is this just the same thing released under a different label, or something different? And if different, then which version is the better one to go for? Read the rest of this entry »

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray]

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Longtime readers of this blog will not be shocked to hear that I’m besotted with the silver screen monster movies of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and I freely admit that the release this week of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray boxset was one of the most anticipated of 2012 as far as I was concerned.

I’ve only had a chance to watch two of the eight iconic films from the boxset, but here’s the story so far … Read the rest of this entry »

A quick top ten of 2011

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Everyone else is doing one of these Top Ten “best of” things, so why shouldn’t I? In fact the blog feels positively underdressed without one.

So here goes, the best of 2011 as seen in the pages of Taking The Short View:

10. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

A real treat for lovers of classic old silent movies, this new Blu-ray release contains four different versions of the quite brilliant Lon Chaney masterpiece that inspired the current musical production in several ways. (Fans of this period of cinema might also like to take a read of my Hallowe’en review of the original Nosferatu German expressionist film from 1922.)

9. The Shadow Line

In the end, this thriller mini-series couldn’t quite sustain the quality all the way through to the end, but it had some magic moments including a bravura seven-minute opening sequence beginning with an abstract overhead vantage point as two policemen with flash lights investigate a corpse shot dead in a car in the middle of nowhere. Stephen Rea’s character of Gatehouse was compelling and Rafe Spall stole a whole bunch of scenes with his giggling, Joker-eseque menace.

8. Watercolours

In terms of shows that I’ve seen at the Tate this year, this was probably the most successful. A very well put together exhibition which really demonstrated the history of watercolours down the ages, and the wide variety of techniques that have led to a huge diversity of results with the medium.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An excellent re-imagining of the classic espionage story that was soaked in 70s atmosphere and even managed to escape the long shadow cast by the superb BBC adaptation starring Alec Guinness. Gary Oldman was flawless as Smiley, and among an all-star cast it also proved how stand-out Benedict Cumberbatch is these days, as he had one of the most gripping sequences in the entire film.

6. Super 8

If you’re the right age and happened to be growing up in the 70s just as the best Steven Spielberg movies were being released, then this wonderful movie will transport you right back to your childhood. Intelligent writing that puts the emotions and experiences of the young lead characters ahead of flashy monster FX (but equally doesn’t stint on those when the time comes either) this was a throwback to the very highest quality film making.

5. Doctor Who – The Doctor’s Wife

I’ve had my doubts and reservations about this latest series of Doctor Who even as I’ve faithfully reviewed every one of the year’s episodes. But when it came to this Neil Gaiman-scripted episode and also “The Girl Who Waited” I have nothing but praise: wonderful stuff, some of the best work in the series’ long and illustrious history.

4. The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

I’d dismissed this as a bit of an shallow money-making stunt when I heard about it, but one viewing of the Blu-ray left me in awe of the quality of the production and what they were able to achieve staging this in a less-than-ideal venue for such an ambitious theatrical production. The performances are exceptional, and for any Phantom fan wanting a recording of the stage production this is the best there is.

3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth

A gripping and highly atmospheric audio adaptation of the HP Lovecraft story that was at times genuinely unnerving despite being “just” a one-man reading of the text and not a full-cast adaptation. It even managed to surpass the same production team’s excellent version of “At The Mountains of Madness” from 2010. Don’t overlook the same team’s “Tales of Max Carrados” about the turn of the century blind detective, either.

2. Senna

This brilliantly put-together documentary about the life and career and tragic death of the F1 racing legend had me struggling to maintain my composure when I left the cinema and not burst into tears. An extraordinary achievement in film making.

1. Forbrydelsen/The Killing

Without doubt the highlight of the year, and one that I very nearly talked myself of watching at the very start. Absolutely stellar quality, and a lead character and performance of the very highest quality together with engrossing storylines that grab you by the throat and won’t let go until after the final credits roll. Reviewed in this blog several times, especially episodes 17-18 of series 1 and episodes 9-10 of season 2.

That’s it – just time to thank everyone who has been to visit Taking the Short View in 2011 and wish you all a very Happy New Year indeed for 2012

The Phantom of the Opera (1925/29) [Blu-ray]

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Well, you know how it is: you wait years for a Phantom of the Opera Blu-ray to come along, and then suddenly there’s two in just under a month. Anyone thinking that I’ve forgotten that I had already written about the musical version of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall and am at risk of repeating myself here should have no fear – this is an altogether different affair, although at the same time a strangely intimately connected release.

This is the original Lon Chaney feature film version of the story: originally produced and released in 1925 and then substantially overhauled for a rerelease in 1929, it’s the latter version that takes pride of place on this two-disc set as the original exists only in a very poor quality dupe-of-a-dupe-of-a-print state which is blurry and fairly blown-out. However, that too is provided in this offering from Park Circus – as a standard definition version on the second disc, a DVD – and is watchable and worthwhile seeing for extra scenes and alternate takes.

The importance of this film is that it is one of the legendary Lon Chaney’s best roles, and the “man of a thousand faces” – who was an expert at creating innovative ‘horror’ makeup – stuns with both his performance and in the quality of his self-devised monster visage. The film is also important to the story of Universal Studios, as its success led boss Carl Laemmle and his son to risk further monster movies in the 30s – beginning with Dracula and Frankenstein and eventually to franchises that would last more than a decade and would save the studio from financial ruin. The importance of the film is perhaps best underlined by how sections of the iconic Paris Opera House set still exist on Soundstage 28 at Universal Studios – and even reportedly make an appearance in the upcoming new Muppets movie.

For fans of the modern day musical, obviously the biggest difference between that and this film is that it’s from the silent era. Actually, the 1929 version was retrofitted for the newly emerging sound technology and as a result features longer opera and dance scenes newly shot for the film to take advantage of synchronised music, and duly inserted into the original silent footage. However, the sound recordings have long since been discarded and aren’t included here, and there were always problems syncing the recordings with on-screen action. Otherwise, in terms of story, this film is strikingly similar in structure to the musical – almost to the point where at times it seems that Lord Lloyd Webber was actually adapting this film rather than the book.

It’s a sense that’s heightened by how whole lines of dialogue from the title cards are directly transposed to the lyrics of the musical, and by the similarity of the production design here to that used by the musical on the stage. The cover of the Blu-ray box features a still from the film (the Phantom as Red Death on the main staircase of the Paris Opera House) that you would swear was actually from the modern musical staging, it’s that close. Another example would be the design of the Opera House rooftop, where the Phantom eavesdrops on Christine and her lover Raoul plotting to escape him.

There are differences of course: the chandelier meets its sad demise earlier in the story and the musical excises the character of the 1929 version’s secret policeman Ledoux who in turn is a reworking of the “The Persian” red herring character from Gaston Leroux’s original novel (in the musical his key exposition purpose is reassigned to Madame Giry and his scenes set in the underground torture chambers excised entirely.) The 1929 film also removes all of Christine Daaé’s back story: the story of her deceased father promising to send her the Angel of Music from Heaven is a key element of the novel and the musical’s more sophisticated psychological basis, but a couple of hints of this are still present in the original, longer 1925 version. And ultimately the film goes for an all-action chase finish rather than the ambiguous poetry of the book’s or the stage version’s ending (early focus groups found the film’s original low-key ending a disappointment.) But overall the film makes for a fascinating comparison with the musical and is closer to it than any other cinematic version we’ve seen.

Of course, the standard warning to anyone contemplating seeing this: rather like the 1922 Nosferatu reviewed last month, it’s very much a work of its time, the silent era. It can be slow by modern standards; the acting is very much of a medium in its infancy (although to his credit, Lon Chaney is light years ahead of his co-stars Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry in achieving a more subtle, natural and effective style for the day, and consequently dominates the film.) If you’re not used to the silent movie era then it’s a steep learning curve and no easy adjustment for modern audiences. However, once you get into the spirit of it, this a fine example of its era of filmmaking, with a genuine sense of Gothic horror, real threat and the grotesque.

Now on to the Blu-ray itself: apparently there were major problems with the equivalent US release of this title regarding all sorts of mastering problems with the sound as well as some picture issues, but it seems that these have all been sorted out for this UK release. The US version was also criticised for an incomprehensible and unhelpful menu system, but again that’s resolved here and we have a totally logical, simple-to-use and even elegant menu for the UK. Perhaps moving the 1925 SD version to a second disc along with some of the extras helped. Interestingly, two of the extras (copies of the script and souvenir program) aren’t viewable on a Blu-ray/DVD player and are instead offered as just PDFs for computer viewing. Generally speaking I’d have to say that’s an improvement.

What you get on the discs are three versions of the film, the centrepiece being a painstakingly restored 78-minute/24fps tinted version with a new score by the specialist Alloy Orchestra ensemble which is just wonderful, although there’s also an option to select instead a well-known 1974 organ score by Gaylord Carter. The restored high def visuals really shows off the sumptuous production design of the film and the incredible sets and costumes, heightened by a brief section (the masquerade) shot in an early version of Technicolor. It is as good as the film will ever look, although there are still inevitably a couple of moments with heavy print damage.

There’s also a 91-minute/20fps tinted version of the film (which plays with a full orchestral movie score by Gabriel Thibaudeau that therefore comes closest to the spirit of the musical and even includes a soprano singing; or an option for an information-packed audio commentary by film historian Dr John Mirsalis instead.) While somewhat restored, the usual high-def digital restoration algorithms only work on standard frame speeds so this is appreciably poorer quality with lots of speckles and scratches evident. Even so, it’s still surprisingly good given the age of the material and you quickly get used to it and hardly notice the damage; and it’s in a far better condition than the SD 1925 version, which is the third and final form of the film and the longest at 110 minutes (provided on the second disc – a DVD – with a traditional silent film piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges that’s perfectly pleasant enough, if unspectacular.)

Why the option of/what do we mean by 24fps or 20fps? We’re talking here about “frames per second”, the rate at which the film was originally meant to be put through the projector. Because of the confused nature of the film’s production and retrofitting, and of the times in which both were made, the film used both speeds in its filming so there is no empirical ‘right’ speed to show this any more. Use the now-omnipotent 24fps and sections run the risk of looking unnaturally speeded up – fine for the Keystone Kops, but too unintentionally comedic for serious drama. 20fps might appear to be the safer bet then, but because 20fps isn’t supported by modern equipment it has to be ‘tricked’ by digital techniques into simulating it, and that can mean the end result appears just a little jerky and lacks that natural flow. The slower “frames per second” is also the reason why that version runs for the longer time of 91 minutes, compared to 78-minutes for the exact same film but at the higher frame rate of 24fps.

It becomes a matter of preference, and mine would be for 24fps – the speeding up is rarely noticeable and the restoration overall so much better. I listened with the Alloy score and found this really quite fine, whereas the Gaylord Carter score was simply too organ-heavy by comparison and lacked the same modern subtlety as a result.

But really, with so many options available to play with, this is all a treasure trove and a truly ‘ultimate edition’ – a genuine early Christmas present for lovers of classic old films. If this is remotely your sort of thing, then this is simply a disc you have to have.

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall [Blu-ray]

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I’ve been an unabashed fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera ever since it opened – which is 25 years ago, as this silver anniversary celebration of the show staged at the Royal Albert Hall reminds us. I’ve seen it twice, got the book and the CD and even the DVD of the so-so 2004 feature film version, so you won’t get any critical re-appraisal of the show from me here. It is for me the best stage musical I’ve ever seen (tied perhaps with Jesus Christ Superstar and only a whisker ahead of West Side Story.)

Given the story’s history (right back to Gaston Leroux’s 1909 original novel, through multiple adaptations including Lon Chaney’s seminal 1925 silent classic, Claude Rain’s flawed but enjoyable 1943 version through to Hammer’s very 1960s version with Herbert Lom) it seems unnecessary to give a long rundown of the plot (disfigured composer in the bowels of the Paris Opera House seduces a young chorus girl.) And if you haven’t seen or heard the musical … Well, stop reading now, this is no place for such philistines! (I jest. A bit.)

For the 25th anniversary, composer Lord Lloyd Webber and producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh decided to take the notoriously hard-to-stage show and put it on at the Royal Albert Hall – which of course is a symphony hall not a full theatre. It was a basically insane idea, and like all insane ideas in showbusiness it can – and in this case does – result in the most triumphant success. Some changes are forced, of course: there’s no way that the chandelier can be ‘dropped’ at the end of Act 1, so there’s some spectacular ‘nice try’ but still underwhelming pyrotechnics instead. Some of the ‘magical’ disappearances-into-thin-air have to be fudged over as well, as the Royal Albert Hall stage has none of the custom-built trap doors that the show’s regular London home at Her Majesty’s Theatre has.

But by and large (with the sole exception of the chandelier, perhaps) none of these matter and are more than made up for by the inventiveness shown by the production team working around it while remaining true to the majestic original designs of the late Maria Björnson. The key scene everyone remembers with the boat on a mist-filled lake lit with candles is beautifully realised. One scene that could have been a let down – the masquerade which opens Act 2 that features a stunning non-replicable sweeping staircase in the stage show – is instead re-imagined for the constrained Royal Albert Hall backstage and too-narrow access points combined with a cast three times the regular stage show’s, and makes a genuine triumph that almost surpasses the original.

The principle way it’s all achieved is by using huge electronic LCD display screens in place of flown-in physical scenery and then using the stage show’s regular costumes and props (although alas Hannibal’s hollowed-out life-size elephant was apparently too big to make the trip over from the West End for its big moment.) The screens are a masterstroke, allowing the show to retain its look and feel even in this temporary home and even adding one true coup de théâtre of its own, when we switch to a backstage point-of-view for Christine’s curtain call, and the backdrop shows … the Royal Albert Hall audience itself, applauding live, actually improving upon the original staging.

While I’d possibly have preferred the chance to have a copy of the regular stage performance rather than this one-off ‘special’, in fact the Royal Albert Hall is used brilliantly throughout, looks wonderful and becomes a real player in the performance – not to mention that there is a full orchestra and a genuine full size pipe organ to use. The score has never sounded better as a result: to my knowledge, it’s the first time that a complete performance of the show has ever been released on either DVD or CD, as even the iconic original cast recording CD from 1986 cuts out some of the dialogue and abridges some of the faux classical pieces along the way. For that reason alone this Blu-ray/DVD is a must-buy for true Phantom fans.

Despite being a completely live performance, I couldn’t see a single flaw in how it ran. What you get from a filmed stage performance over a movie version is to relive how incredibly clever some of the staging of the show truly is and always has been, allowing for on-stage costume changes and audacious scene transitions – and all of that is here to savour. But this filmed production also gets right in close to the action, and it’s shocking to see how good the acting performances are close-up even as they have to play simultaneously to the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall.

Ramin Karimloo’s performance as the Phantom (both acting and vocal) is just staggering, while Sierra Boggess’s Christine makes the difficult singing of her role look effortless while achieving perfection – their final scenes are breathtaking and heartbreaking, and the close-ups reveal genuine tears of emotion from both leads. Even Hadley Fraser’s Raoul is a far greater, feistier presence here than the basically useless third wheel the character often appeared in some early performances at the start of the show’s run in the 1980s; and there’s lovely work from Wendy Ferguson as La Carlotta, comedic of course but with unexpectedly interesting and deep nuances as well.

Basically everyone is terrific: with the cream of 25 years of Phantom casts from around the world to choose from the performances were always going to be top-notch, and they truly are. For long-time fans it’s interesting to see how much has changed in some of the roles, with the original portrayals sounding rather shallow and underdeveloped compared with the latest stars, who have 25 years of successive superb casts to study and learn from, enabling added depth to the performances surely unparalleled in modern musical theatre. Although it’s true, I might be a little biased here.

As for the Blu-Ray: It’s a gorgeous transfer, the costumes in particular looking absolutely stunning in high definition. The production manages to balance the need for genuine stage make-up with not looking too over-baked for screen, the colours jump off the screen and the blacks are rich while retaining detail and solidity. Only in the close-ups with the LCD backdrops does the presentation even vaguely let us down, as the high-res sharpening on the oversize electronic ‘pixels’ becomes a distraction – but that’s not the disc’s fault, or indeed the production’s. It is what it was on the night – and what it is, is wonderful.

In terms of extras there’s just one 20 minute behind the scenes feature cheaply shot on non-professional equipement, but it’s nice enough and somehow more real and enjoyable than the usual professional puff-pieces you get. It certainly shows just how insane the idea to stage this at the Royal Albert Hall really was, and the frenzied work that went into making it happen. The real ‘extra’ – and the only one that fans probably really want from this – is that the post-show final half hour at the Royal Albert Hall is retained in full, wherein Andrew Lloyd Webber steps out onto the stage to introduce some of the original stars and creative team (as well as the team behind the Royal Albert Hall staging). He then unveils to a delighted audience the original Christine Daaé, his former wife Sarah Brightman, to reprise the title song to the show accompanied by five of the men who have played the title role over the years: Peter Jöback, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow and Colm Wilkinson, along with the night’s lead Karimloo.

It’s the brief moments when the original and latest leads line up and briefly interact – Michael Crawford with Ramin Karimloo, Sarah Brightman with Sierra Boggess – that really bring home the extraordinary history and success of this show and will truly delight fans and mean not a dry eye in the house for devotees. Appropriately, though, the final curtain call is left to the two stars of the evening, as Karimloo quite literally sweeps Boggess off her feet and the two exit stage centre to a thunderous standing ovation.

Available on Blu-ray and on DVD. The production was also shown on Channel 5 on Easter Monday 2012.