Robert Barton Englund: horror fans around the world know the name well, and for good reason. He is a legendary character actor loved by many, and in an industry where many actors include one character, Leatherface for example, he will always be Freddy Kruger, barring polarizing remakes of course. Although many return to Elm Street for their horror movie marathons this Halloween season, there’s a lot more to the master of horror than one, albeit iconic, character.
The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most adapted stories in the public domain, with each actor taking on the lead role putting their own spin on the character. Charles Dance was the master of sass, Lon Chaney let his makeup and body language do the talking, Gerard Butler made it sexy, and in 1989 the master of the nightmares tried as the masked maestro. How did he interpret such an iconic character? What makes this movie a hidden gem of 80s horror? Could there be more to this story? The writer really wanted an excuse to write about The Phantom of the Opera again, so today we are going to answer all these questions and take a look at a hidden gem of a horror legend.
In this adaptation, Englund plays Erik Destler, a brilliant composer who makes a deal with the devil to become a beloved composer. Of course, as with any Faustian bargain, this one comes with a terrible price as his face rots and decomposes. Despite his deal with the devil, he still poses as an angel of music and singing teacher to an up and coming ingénue named Christine (Jill Schools), and manifests a murderous obsession as he creates his magnum opus, “Don Juan Triumphant”.
Even this brief plot summary gives nice little allusions to the book. The performance of Charles Gonoud’s Faust is a key plot point in the novel and would be featured in multiple adaptations, as would the combination of the two stories à la The ghost of paradise. “Don Juan Triumphant”, Erik’s coveted life’s work as it appears in the book, is a major plot point and a beautiful orchestral motif, appearing in fewer adaptations than you might think. The name Erik Destler itself may be familiar to many who are deeply rooted in the ghost of the opera fandom, so many fanfiction writers have chosen it as the Phantom’s canonical last name, despite the presence of other options, and the book doesn’t give him a last name at all.
The references and connections to the book that I hadn’t seen in other adaptations of the story initially drew me to this film, but Englund’s portrayal is what sets the film apart, especially in the way it undercuts expectations.
How Robert Englund played The Phantom
When you think of Robert Englund as the phantom of the opera in the 1980s, an idea definitely comes to mind. In some ways those ideas are correct. In this story, Erik is a shadowy figure prowling the misty streets of London, a Jack the Ripper type who skins his victims to make a mask for his horrifying, decomposing face. His disfigurement is certainly one of the most icky and grotesque, his kills are the bloodiest, and he’s definitely one of the Phantoms who is an obvious antagonist rather than the dark side of a love triangle. However, the way he stands out isn’t when he’s a monster, but when he’s not.
We get more of a sense of Erik Destler’s character alone than of him in relation to Christine, his daily life and interactions with strangers, which is incredibly fascinating. Englund, of course, masterfully portrays him as the one-liner squirting slasher villain; but while the character gets deserved heat in some adaptations for being a romantic protagonist who can act quite deplorably, Erik Destler is a slasher villain who has a fair set of standards. The screen shows a character who, while attacking brutally and joyfully, only chooses victims who actually provoke or wrong him, or Christine. He doesn’t kill random strangers in this story nor is he merciless, he actually subverts the classic horror stereotype by not killing a sex worker, tips his bartender and would otherwise keep to himself. A brilliant artist whose obsession not even necessarily with Christine herself, but with his own music, pushes him to the limit. This was someone who had the potential to live a normal, fulfilling, murder-free life, but was corrupted by his insatiable ambition to become a great musician.
The sequel that was that kind
A sequel was planned to this film, which made it open-ended. We were going to follow Erik Destler into the sewers of modern New York City, Englund was eager to do it, but unfortunately due to the poor execution of the film, it ultimately didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean the script was abandoned entirely.
Dance Macabere is a 1992 film starring again Robert Englund in a St. Petersburg dance academy. Gone is the supernatural, time-traveling tale of immortal composers, and what we’re left with is a more typical slasher with some of the more gothic themes that lingered from The Phantom of the Opera, misery in love, jealousy and women with striking resemblance to long-lost lovers. This is definitely more of a Giallo movie than anything resembling what it once could have been, somewhere in between psychosis and Dario Argento‘s Operabut it’s nice to see more of what Englund is capable of than just the hat and striped sweater.
There comes a time when you find a film that underperformed on release, that many are unimpressed with, that gives you endless pleasure. Something you don’t even notice the flaws because you’re having too much fun. This is such a movie for me. The Phantom of the Opera is an overlooked gem, a fun, campy goth that doesn’t deserve nearly as much of the hate it initially got. Even fans of the source material would enjoy this, despite the increasing blood and guts. The jewel in the crown is Englund himself, and perhaps with… A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child premiering the same year, his involvement gave people the wrong idea of what this movie would be. But what’s magical about this film are the radical character differences between Erik Destler and Freddy Kruger, and the new performance that Englund brought for this role. He’s sophisticated, yet campy, and he’s clearly having the time of his life, he’s dangerous, but also very tragic in his fate, and one wonders what potential the character had to be a good man which is a fascinating kind of villain.
Robert Englund is a horror icon for a reason, and that reason should go far beyond one role.