x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Phantom adaptations

Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, which arrived in theatres this month, is one of many incarnations of the story.

Was Love Never Dies really the best title for Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, which arrived with a deafening thump and jangle on stage in London this month? To judge by the reaction, this warbling masterpiece of hubris may die a lot sooner than anyone involved in its creation expected. Wicked bloggers lost no time in labelling the production "Paint Never Dries", while The Times's critic in London invited audiences to "picture Starlight Express crashing into Alton Towers and you pretty well have it". Even Lloyd Webber was observed commenting with uncharacteristic venom (but, let it be said, complete exactitude) on the "whole sad culture around the world of people who seem only to live by the old Phantom of the Opera".

But this latest continuation of the Phantom story, which imagines the eponymous masked anti-hero escaping from the bowels of the Paris Opera and heading to America to build the Coney Island theme park, is by no means the strangest elaboration on Gaston Leroux's original story. As the world waits in excitement - or dread - for the inevitable spectacle of Love Never Dies to grind into town, shirkers and Phans alike may wish to remind themselves of some of the forms that the legend has taken over the years.

The underground chambers beneath Charles Garnier's elaborate Second Empire opera house in Paris were used as dungeons and holding cells during the period of recrimination and punishment that followed the Siege of Paris in 1870. The discovery some years later of a skeleton in one of them gave Leroux, a detective writer and filmmaker, the idea for his deliriously silly novel, published in 1910. Artfully combining the supernatural tale with the police procedural, Leroux created the figure of the Phantom, the wounded potentate of the dark spaces beneath the gilded opera and very possibly the world's first emo.

The reality is less impressive, as those lucky enough to get backstage at the Palais Garnier find out. There is a warren of rooms beneath the opera, but they're dank and gloomy rather than opulent and full of wicked contrivances. The underground lake, meanwhile, is a large concrete cistern built to channel and contain the high water table that interfered with the building's foundations when it was being built. Sprinklers at the Garnier run from the cistern, firemen occasionally use it for training and it is inhabited not by the brooding Angel of Music but by a friendly family of fish.

But since when did facts stand in the way of good cinema? Lon Chaney, who played the first Phantom in a 1925 silent adaptation of Leroux's novel, brought his extraordinary gift for make-up to re-creating Leroux's vision of a skull-faced outcast. Using fishskin, glue, wires, rubber and prosthetics, he created a Phantom so horrifying that contemporary audience members were reported to have fainted at the unmasking scene. It's still strikingly unpleasant today, even though the real horror of his snaggletoothed, mat-haired, hollow-eyed creation now appears to be its resemblance to Steve Buscemi.

Other versions of the Phantom story take greater liberties. Claude Rains, who played the police captain in Casablanca, took up the Phantom's mantle and mask in 1943 for a lavish adaptation from Universal. Rains's Phantom (newly Franglified as "Erique") was presented as an expert violinist and composer who strangles his publisher in a fit of pique and is disfigured when a secretary throws acid on him. Imagining the scriptwriters' faces when they come up with insane bits of bombast like this is often the main pleasure in Phantom adaptations, one that looks to be in no way diminished with Lloyd Webber's latest offering.

Even the Italian master of schlock horror Dario Argento had a crack in 1998, with predictably peculiar results. Argento's Phantom is not a hideously disfigured former assassin, nor even a musician: instead, he's a social misfit raised by rats. By the time he starts biting out people's tongues, pretty much the only pleasure left in the film comes from imagining all the Phans who bought the DVD on eBay pinned back against their sofas in wide-eyed, drooling horror.

Another attempt to convert the Phantom into a slasher was made in 1990 by the director Dwight H Little, featuring Robert Englund (Freddy from the Nightmare on Elm Street films) as the disfigured killer. But many music lovers have argued that the most primally horrifying adaptation of all was Joel Schumacher's full-dress adaptation of Lloyd Webber's musical, released in 2004. Following the stage production in transforming Leroux's Gothic thriller into a pompous tale of doomed love, the film encapsulated most of what was good and bad about the show, and divided audiences accordingly. Doubtless Schumacher, who produces as well as directing and is a Lloyd Webber fan of long standing, will be eyeing reactions to the sequel with interest.