Today we’re talking about one of the classic monsters that I never quite understood. You’ll see what I’m talking about as we discuss The Phantom of the Opera.
The novel by Gaston Leroux was first published in 1909. It tells the story of the production of an opera that everyone thinks is haunted, but no one is actually scared enough to quit or stop the production. Not even when people start dying. There’s dedication to the craft, and then there’s blatant insanity.
We’re introduced to a young singer named Christine, who is being couched from the shadows by a mysterious voice that calls itself the Angel of Music. Meanwhile, the opera has been terrorized from the shadows by the mysterious Phantom of the Opera. Christine is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as she does not put two and two together until the Phantom kidnaps her and drags her to his lair.
The Phantom wears a mask at first, which is removed by Christine shortly after her abduction. The Phantom, whose real name is Erik, is revealed to be hideously deformed. The rest of the novel deals with a love triangle between Erik, Christine, and an old childhood friend of Christine’s named Raoul who only re-entered her life at the start of the book.
The book ends on a bit of a bittersweet note. After receiving a kiss from Christine, Erik reveals that he had never been kissed by anyone before, not even his own mother. He lets Christine go to live her life, and soon afterwards dies “of love” as the book says. The last chapter of the book tells the Phantom’s life story, which is kind of a little late considering that the title character of the book has passed away already.
There have been multiple adaptations of the story. I’m not going to discuss all of them here because then I’d be writing descriptions for sixteen films and four stage plays. The one that I will talk about here is 1943’s The Phantom of the Opera from Universal Studios. Yes, I have a preference for the Universal Horror films. So sue me.
This story changes Erik’s backstory considerably. In the novel, Erik was born deformed and worked various jobs in a circus, working as a magician, ventriloquist, singer, etc. Eventually, he starts a construction company and builds the opera house that the book takes place in, complete with the hidden lair that he was somehow able to keep a secret from everyone. The various skills that he has developed over his life help him haunt the opera as its “Phantom”.
In the film, Erik (changed here to Erique) is an aging musician who is fired from the opera company when he can’t play music anymore, and has spent all his money on singing lessons for Christine. In a last ditch effort for money, he tries to publish a concerto that he has composed. A misunderstanding leads to him killing one of the publishers, and one of the employees of the publishing company throwing acid in Erique’s face.
The rest of the story has some changes as well. The film adds another love interest for Christine, a fellow opera singer named Anatole, and has members of the opera house being more skeptical of the idea of a Phantom haunting their production. The finale involves a fight scene as Anatole and Raoul try to rescue Christine from the Phantom, but end up causing a cave-in. The Phantom is presumed dead as the others escape, and Christine chooses her career over either of her love interests. That’s pretty progressive for a movie from the 1940’s, I’ll give it that.
The film version of the Phantom makes little sense. Unlike with the version in the novel who had years of experience with tricks and illusions, the movie version is just a disgruntled ex-employee who has to wear a mask to cover his scars. I guess working in the opera for many years gave him knowledge of where he could go to stay hidden, but that’s a far cry from the wicked mastermind of the novel.
There were never any other Phantom films in the Universal Studios series, although a sequel was planned called The Climax. I’m not sure what happened, but the film that was eventually released as The Climax had no connection to The Phantom of the Opera. Maybe the studio couldn’t get Claude Rains to reprise his role.
The inclusion of the Phantom in the “Monster Mash” stories is always a head-scratching one. Unlike the other human characters who at least have a scientific background, the Phantom is simply a deformed man with either a ton of skills that could make him a legitimate threat or just the ability to write and play music. The more comedic stories tend to have the Phantom only around to provide musical accompaniment, which is sadly the only reason I can think to include him with the other monsters too.
There have also been one or two stories that have the Phantom appear as a literal ghost. I’m not sure if this is because he dies in the original story (which is true of most of the other monsters as well), or if the author(s) of those stories didn’t know that the Phantom name was not supposed to be literal. You could make a case that he is using his illusions to pretend to be a ghost, but that’s probably stretching things a bit far.
For those of you that are tired of me talking about the “Monster Mash” genre, then good news! This is the last “monster” to talk about regarding those stories (for the most part). Tomorrow, we’ll discuss a monster that has been popular for a long time but is generally not included in stories with other monsters: zombies!