Why does Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera inspire countless film, stage and television adaptations? The situation promises spine-tingling horror and suspense, but the one or two earlier versions that I have seen didn’t deliver. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s use of the story’s operatic milieu as the excuse for his own opera is clever—but just as subject to potential disappointment.
The musical was, of course, hugely successful in its own right, and as such it was practically guaranteed to be made into a film. Just how appropriate it is as cinematic material is another matter. The film versions of Webber musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita do not inspire much confidence that his lyrics-heavy efforts are made for the movies, but maybe this time they got it right?
Not with Joel Schumacher in charge. Schumacher has a remarkable talent for demonstrating that more is less, while assuring that the camera is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can practically hear the editors howl in pain as they try to piece this misshapen mess together. He mistakes glut for style, obviousness for power, coarseness for wit and frenzy for action, but the higher he piles his rubbish dump, the punier the results. The most he can accomplish is to make us recognize when we’re supposed to be wowed.
Most of the acting is embarrassing, but clearly the performers were not helped by the director’s penchant for arbitrary, arty effects alternating with low comedy. (Schumacher actually stoops at one point to having an extra moon the camera. This in a multi-gazillion dollar operatic horror tragedy!) The script is a disaster, seeming to end about twelve times and never making much sense. It isn’t helped by the fact that the best songs occur early, and the score, like it or otherwise, is rendered with a cheerless perfection that reeks of too much money and too little consideration of the emotional qualities of what is being recorded. At least it is technically skillful. Otherwise, for all the money spent, there isn’t much to praise beyond the cinematography. Even the production and costume design are too overstuffed and showy for their own good.
Certainly no adaptation of a hit like Phantom could be filmed on a low budget. But is this garish, inchoate traffic jam a reasonable treatment for a show that moved millions? Just what qualification does a ninny like Schumacher have to make a movie like this besides having previously perpetrated equally disastrous junk? If the show’s theatrical bravura can’t be translated to the screen, wouldn’t it have been better to leave it on the stage? Phantom of the Opera may have provided a compelling theatrical experience, but in Schumacher’s clumsy hands, it is a wasteful, loud, over-produced, confusing, inept disgrace. That someone like Schumacher is entrusted with millions gives hope to all the world’s incompetents. If he can make it, anyone can.