Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: 'The Phantom of the Opera: Angel of Music Edition'

We’re all cinephiles here, right? So it’s OK to assume we all agree that it’s criminal to tamper with a classic film unnecessarily, whether you’re a doofus zillionaire who decides It’s a Wonderful Life is somehow inferior in black & white or a curmudgeonly geek who insists on constantly “upgrading” his own films with off-putting digital effects and freshly dubbed cries of “Nooooooo!” Yet— and bear with me here— the first truly great American horror feature may be an exception to this rule. That’s because Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) has a long and rich history of being monkeyed with. The film has appeared with various soundtracks, in tinted and untinted versions, and two distinct edits with alternate title cards and shots and running times that differ by fifteen minutes. The 1929 edit also committed a revision of Lucas-proportions by featuring newly shot scenes with original actors Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry speaking their dialogue for the first time (Chaney was unavailable for the reshoots). Additional dubbing was added to this new, “improved” semi-talky version of the silent classic.

So, I must admit I wasn’t totally against the concept of Terror Inc. Films’ new “Angel of Music” edition of The Phantom of the Opera. The independent company not only remastered the film to the best of its ability (it looks much better than any other budget version I’ve seen), but it gave The Phantom a whole new dialogue track, a new music track, re-edited it using bits from both the 1925 and '29 versions, and converted it to 3D. If you’re going to monkey with a classic, might as well go ape.

Though purists are justified in regarding this reupholstering as an unconscionable violation, the producers clearly love the movie. I admire the amount of work that must have gone into composing a new script and synching the voice actors up with the lip movements of the original actors so well. But if you’re going to go to such trouble, why not spring for voice actors with stronger chops than this cast? And since that cast only consists of six actors, they often alter their voices in ridiculous ways to differentiate the characters. The guy who provides the Phantom’s voice sounds like a teenager doing a bad Frankenberry impersonation. The inspector is made to sound like the French Taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Others have absurd cockney accents. A work of high art transforms into high camp; What’s Up, Tiger Lily? without the jokes.

Perhaps it would have been a good idea to grunge up the dialogue track a little. Even without the poor performances, the voices would still be distracting because they sound too digital-clear set against the relatively scratchy images. Seeing these images in blurry 3D doesn’t help. The effect is arbitrary, lapsing for long stretches then highlighting random foreground objects like a statue or a chair. More questionably, 3D is employed to make a letter’s signature and a newspaper’s headline leap off the screen. These things aren’t 3D in real life. Why are they 3D in this movie?

No matter, because you’re likely to switch off the eye-aching 3D before long and switch to the 2D version conscientiously included on the first of this set’s two discs. Then you’re likely to hit the mute button since that version includes the bad dialogue track too.

The extras are definitely preferable to this set’s main feature. There’s a nifty motion comic utilizing still photos to recreate the film’s lost ending, which gives the Phantom a more sympathetic exit (and bonus points for allowing speech bubbles, rather than crappy voiceover, to convey the story). There’s a crude but fun vintage RKO cartoon called “Tom and Jerry in the Magic Mummy” (no, it’s not the Tom and Jerry you think it is), a handy comparison of the 1925 and 1929 edits, and a short piece that allows us to drool over select Phantom toys, models, comic books, novels, laser discs, masks, and advertisements. The most substantial extra is an 18-minute primer on the film’s history. Alas, it is also marred by a bad voice over, the narrator affecting a gravelly grunt reminiscent of Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. Apparently, good voice talent is hard to find.

Get The Phantom of the Opera: Angel of Music Editon at Middle Earth Collectibles here.
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