It’s opening night for the stage musical, Joan of Arc. But when the lead diva steps onstage, she and the audience scream, as the body of a murdered stagehand dangles from the rafters. The mysterious, masked Phantom (Herbert Lom) is on the loose, pursuing a vendetta against arrogant composer Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough). After their star quits, producer Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) offers the role to talented ingénue Christine (Heather Sears). Backstage, she hears a strange voice belonging to the hidden Phantom. He promises to transform Christine into a virtuoso, whispering ominously: “You will sing for me alone.” However, when Christine spurns Lord Ambrose’s lecherous advances, he hires another actress instead. The Phantom and his minion the dwarf (Ian Wilson) kidnap Christine, bringing her to their underground lair, where she endures torturous musical training. Harry, in love with Christine, sets out to save her and uncovers a link between Lord Ambrose and the late, maverick musicologist, Professor Petrie.
After tackling Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man, Hammer Films set their sites on Gaston Leroux’s oft-filmed pulp horror classic. Being a co-production with Universal, Phantom of the Opera was Hammer’s most expensive film to date and veteran Terence Fisher made a conscious decision to tone down the blood and guts in favour of gothic grandiloquence and morbid romance. Sadly, there is too little of either amidst listless, meandering gloom. Producer Anthony Hinds scripted, under his usual pseudonym John Elder. It’s a loose adaptation, as with many Hammer classics, which would be entirely forgivable had it offered anything interesting or new. Though the film is often considered slow, Hinds and Fisher actually race through the story with minimum fuss, leaving little chance for its pulp poetry to make an impact.
As played by Herbert Lom, the decaying, zombie-like Phantom is visually intriguing but inconsistent. Tragic and pitiable at times, he nonetheless wastes his time murdering innocents when he should go after Lord Ambrose. His training consists of brutally slapping Christine between high notes and certainly doesn’t endear him to us as a misunderstood monster. Lom is at his best playing the tragic, pre-scarred Petrie, but since Harry recounts the Phantom’s origin mid-way through the film, many of these flashbacks are redundant. The offhand murders, committed by the dwarf (who is more like a hunchback, but whatever…) add nothing to narrative coherence and reek of studio interference. Let’s throw some blood before viewers get bored. Patrick Troughton cameos as an amiable rat-catcher (“Caught a coupla lovelies, tonight, guv’nor!”) and gets stabbed in the eye. Why? And who is the dwarf? Why did he save the Phantom’s life? Why does he behave like a halfwit, precipitating the abrupt closing scene?
At an early stage, none other than Cary Grant was interested in headlining this film. Not playing the Phantom, as has been popularly supposed, but heroic Harry. It would certainly have been grand to watch Cary tussle with the Phantom in his creepy lair, but he was probably wise to pull out. Edward de Souza is a more personable romantic lead than most, while Michael Gough exudes sneering menace. This offers a rare instance in showbiz where the artiste is a self-centred slimeball while the producer is noble and self-effacing. Heather Sears struggles as Christine. Initially sympathetic, she grows colourless and completely passive before the Phantom.
The film indulges several misjudged leaps that kill off any sense of mystery. Christine’s abduction, for example, is done with little flair. No build-up to the Phantom’s lair, just - boom - we’re there. A pre-credits sequence with Fisher’s camera prowling into the Phantom’s domain, followed by slow dissolves towards Lom’s one visible eye, evokes a suitably eerie atmosphere and should have been used here instead. Such mishandling extends to an abrupt final encounter between Lord Ambrose (shouldn’t the script call him Lord D’Arcy?), a total anti-climax which provides no comeuppance for the villain, focusing instead upon Christine’s stage debut. The Joan of Arc musical sequences offered Fisher a chance to stray outside usual territory, but are indifferently staged. The songs are quite awful - hardly the work of a musical genius. At least Lom gets to go crazy on the organ (as he’d later do in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)!). He went on to play a variation on the Phantom for AIP’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971).
The Phantom of the Opera proved a costly flop for Hammer, with Terence Fisher - perhaps unfairly - taking most of the blame. Thankfully, after a two-year exile working at other studios, Hammer brought him back to helm the flawed, but intriguing The Gorgon (1964) and the excellent Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) - whose huge financial success put him back in their good graces.