A third review requested by K. Rice, with thanks for contributing three times to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Of the many pop culture heavy-hitters in the 1980s, two of the heaviest were the Andrew Lloyd Webber & Charles Stilgoe stage musical The Phantom of the Opera, which premiered in the West End in 1986 and arrived on Broadway in 1988, and the venerable cinematic form of the slasher movie, which exploded into ubiquity on the back of 1980's Friday the 13th, tapered off until 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street gave it a brief shot in the arm, and had largely died off by 1989. But oh! in its heyday...

Now, you probably think of these two powerhouses, and see them as close to polar opposites: every mom's favorite show in the period between Cats and Wicked on the one hand, a violent exploitation subgenre pandering to horny teenage boys on the other. This is because you are sane. But history is not made by the sane, and soon after the musical Phantom started its still-ongoing march to remake the entire theatrical marketplace in its own image, swallowing up countless dollars in the process, one of the most colorfully insane figures in cinema history decided that he just needed to do something about that. I refer to the great and powerful Menahem Golan, one-half of the madcap genius behind Cannon Films, one of the other biggest forces in '80s pop culture. By the end of the decade, he and his cousin and business partner Yoram Globus had gone through an acrimonious split, with Globus retaining the Cannon name, but the company itself had truthfully ceased to exist. Globus without Golan, Golan without Globus, in either case the visionary fire just wasn't the same.

Still, Golan was always the battier of the two - for example, he was the one who directed The Apple and Over the Top, while Globus merely produced; for another example, when the cousins battled with a pair of lambada movies in 1990, Golan's champion was the gloriously nuts The Forbidden Dance to Globus's relatively sedate Lambada - and his post-Cannon career comes closer to the heights of lunacy. After all, the reason we're here (as I suspect you probably were able to guess) is because Golan stood astride the late 1980s, looking at the broad popularity of Phantom and the intense niche fanaticism of the remaining slasher partisans, and decided that obviously those two things should be combined.

This brings us to the 1989 release of The Phantom of the Opera, the umptillionth adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 horror-romance novel, and I believe the first movie released by 21st Century Film Corporation after Golan took it over; the exact history of what happened around the end of the '80s gets a little muddy. It is certainly among the earliest of Golan's solo endeavors. It's every bit the work of a consummate mercenary, clearly telegraphing its intentions through the marketing campaign - which disingenuously refers to the film as The Phantom of the Opera: The Movie - and in the casting of no less a slasher icon than Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger himself, in the role of the iconic Phantom (it can surely be no coincidence, either, that the hideous deformities afflicting this iteration of the Phantom are particularly Krueger-esque patches of raw tendon and skinless meat).

I would dearly love to report that the whole film is a demented balancing act between the stage musical and the slasher film; gory deaths resting uneasily against a melodramatic love story about a tortured soul driven to madness. Sadly, that's not really what happens: the actual movie is pretty much a straight-up slasherfied take on Leroux's novel, peppered with the odd reference to the musical to keep fans happy: the Phantom's costume as the Red Death at the masquerade is a dead ringer for the equivalent getup in the stage version, and generally speaking, the scenes that Webber & Stilgoe cut out are also the ones that screenwriters Duke Sandefur and Gerry O'Hara cut, and the versions have surprisingly similar structure, given that the film was obliged for budgetary reasons to cut enormous chunks out of the middle of the book, and given that it invents a whole new backstory (a powerful stupid one, but we'll get there soon enough).

Whether this actually did make fans of the musical happy, I can't say, but it would astound me to learn that it did. More than any other film version I've seen, this Phantom is unabashedly a horror film, and Englund's take on the title character is in many respects not much else than a variation on his best-known theme, Freddy by gaslight. Which is not to say that he's a problem - he is, in fact, the best thing that The Phantom of the Opera has to offer, maybe even objectively so. In this telling, the Phantom - born Erik Destler - is driven above all things by his desire to create potent, transporting music, enough so to sell his soul to the devil for the certainty that he'd compose at least one piece that would live through the ages. For which Satan uses devil magic to badly scar and deform his face. Toldja it was dumb. But anyway, the point I was aiming for was that Englund's performance of this insane passion to become a musical legend works, and his murderous rage at anyone who threatens that goal feels like something that comes up out of the character, rather than being imposed upon him by the requirements of the genre. And that is, I think, the key to this Phantom: he feels neither love nor lust for virginal ingenue Christine Day (Jill Schoelen), only seeing her as the vessel for his genius. Coming on the heels of a reinterpretation that so famously transformed the character into a tragic romantic antihero, a version of the story that situates him firmly in the realm of sociopathy is pretty cool, in fact, and Englund does well by the iconic role.

I will not go so far as to call him the solitary aspect of the film that works, since there are bits and pieces throughout that land: a shot here, a jump scare there. Everywhere and always, there's a really marvelous score by Misha Segal, who accomplishes one of the hardest tasks for any composer of dramatic music: assigned a script that in large part hinges on a piece of music that's a clear-cut masterpiece, the Phantom's opera Don Juan Triumphant, Segal comes up with a set of themes good enough that, within the film's universe, it's not obviously ridiculous to think that the work could have that kind of reputation and appeal.

Much more doesn't work than does, however. The worst of it is undoubtedly the framing narrative, which starts in 1980s New York as Christine hunts for the perfect piece of music for her audition at the Met. Her good friend Meg (Molly Shannon), a musicologist, has just stumbled across the manuscripts for the obscure but admired opera composed almost a century earlier by Denstler, shortly before he went on a psychotic rage killing everybody. Christine sings a few bars, and for her troubles finds the book oozing blood; this foreboding sign gives her no warning for when she's actually auditioning, and an accident knocks her out, all the way back to the London of so many decades before, where Denstler's reign of terror took place. It's not entirely clear if Christine remembers her true past. It's even less clear why the film needs this framework at all, lest it be to set up the final scene that does exactly what you suppose it will, especially armed with the knowledge that this film's Phantom has been rendered immortal through Satanic machinations. The ending is pure slasher movie boilerplate, and easily the worst part of a movie with its share of dubious choices on that front: the half-puns that the Phantom delivers as he kills some of his victims ("You're suspended" he informs stagehand Joseph Buquet (Terence Beesley) before hanging him from the flies), the awful, awful way that all stylistic and jittery with the shutter angle to punctuate some of the action scenes.

There's also, in a more global sense, the common sin of the horror film that pits a charismatic killer against a couple of wooden planks: Schoelen is acceptable at best and hardly inspired in a part that has a tendency to devour young actresses - Christine is always a bit of an insipid doormat, and combining that with the slasher movie's love of reductive characterisations, we've got an awfully tedious heroine indeed. But oh, how much better she is than Alex Hyde-White's Richard Dutton, this movie's version of Raoul; he is as stilted and dispassionate as any bad romantic lead you could hope to name, and while this Phantom of the Opera very intelligently sidelines him, he still pops enough to suck the air out of the proceedings.

All that being said (and I haven't said all of it: director Dwight H. Little has a remarkable facility for making things look cheap and garish - the scene with the Phantom cooing to Christine from behind the mirror, with reflections of fire framing his face, is uniquely tacky - so there's a good amount of the movie that simply doesn't work), the parts that work best are also the parts that linger, and the film's raw commitment to the horror in Leroux's novel are to its credit. As Phantoms go, we're of course a very long way from the extraordinary Lon Chaney vehicle of 1925; but we are also a long way from the wretched Dario Argento adaptation from 1998. Most of what works in this Phantom are the most slasher-derived elements: the incredibly off-putting scenes of the Phantom methodically stitching a mask onto his ruined face, and the horrifyingly smooth doll-like face he ends up with after slathering makeup onto that base; a scene of a flayed-alive man in a closet that leaves only a small amount to the imagination, hits like a sockful of pennies, and serves as a bridge between the grotesque Italian horror of the late '70s and early '80s and the French extreme films of the 2000s.

What's good in the film is absolutely outweighed by what is bad: the film's successes as horror come along mostly only on a scene-by-scene basis, while the failures of narrative, of costume drama, and of character are pervasive (seriously, I'm not going to belabor the cast, but they're all kind of dreadful, even a wee tiny young Bill Nighy). The film looks like hell: doing a period piece on an '80s slasher budget - an '80s slasher Menahem Golan budget - was a doomed idea, and Little's not the director to hide the shortcomings of his production. Still, given everything stacked against an '80s slasher movie literary adaptation needlessly combining two time periods and trying to market itself to middlebrow theater fans on top of all of it... The Phantom of the Opera isn't good, but it's also not a complete, dumbfounding boondoggle, and that in and of itself is something of a victory.