A recent Twitter discussion mentioned the 1990 ABC/Disney production of Phantom of the Opera. At mention of the name, a long-forgotten door blew open within the crumbling, decrepit Memory Palace of mind, and suddenly I was 12 again.
Confession: I’ve never cared much about the Andrew Lloyd Webber production, and this television series is why. It had everything a 12-year-old romantic’s seething, fevered heart could want: unrequited love, misunderstood romantic gestures, flowing poet shirts, sword fights, caves, capes, opera, and fantastic costumes. Yes, the Webber version has all that, but I saw this one first.
If you are already a fan or if you just like Charles Dance and want to check it out, it is uploaded to Youtube in two halves. I’ve embedded the first half below. The titles are in German, but the show is in English. I can’t recommend it highly enough – filmed in the actual Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, with spectacular costumes and a beautiful, unique score by John Addison, it presents a romantic, tragic version of the Phantom and gives equal time to Christine’s journey as an ingenue singer. Although usually a more sedate villain (at least in recent years), Dance in the tv series is more physical – he leaps, runs, swordfights, climbs, and yet can still intimidate with his piercing eyes and tall frame. His Phantom is the best parts of the 20th century’s most famous Draculas – Bela Lugosi’s courtly manners and hypnotic menace combined with the tigerlike attacks and sexual charisma of Christopher Lee. Most actors have trouble projecting through masks – since most of Dance’s most memorable roles required him to be restrained to the point of frosty, a mask was almost the perfect counterbalance to negate his coldness – in Phantom, he’s warm, earnest, even silly or funny sometimes, and more likeable than ever.
For a deeper dive, please keep reading. There will be spoilers!
I waffled on whether to even do a deep dive on Phantom, because I enjoyed the rewatch but was aware it was an example of romanticizing stalking behaviors and normalizing toxic masculinity. But then I decided, you know what? Screw it. Nobody should take the Phantom’s behavior as a blueprint for relationships. And identifying with him is why he’s a compelling villain.
If you’re going to stan someone toxic, you could do much worse than Erik.
Erik, as the Phantom is known, is definitely a villain. Gaston Leroux wrote him as a monster akin to Frankenstein, and that’s how Lon Cheney played him… but that’s not how Arthur Kopit, who wrote this miniseries and had hoped to create a musical based on the story until Webber beat him to it, adapted him. Kopit gives Erik a tragic backstory that would break anyone’s heart – it’s schmaltz writ large, and I eat it with a spoon. Born with some kind of facial deformity, Erik has an appreciation for music that borders on the fanatical, and he’s been secretly managing productions in the opera for years, through Gerard Carriere (Burt Lancaster, playing the former Opera manager and Erik’s only human contact with the outside world). While Erik does kill people, his love for music leads him to worship Christine Daee (Teri Polo), who resembles his mother, the only person who could look on his real face and still love him. Early in the series an opera employee dies in the vaults, but it’s an accident and Erik mentions to Carriere that he’s never killed anyone before.
There’s a slight difference between Erik and most villains – he knows Christine doesn’t love him. He imagines she might grow to love him if he helps her with her singing career and gets to know him better. She is not an object to be won, but a person to be admired. And Christine trusts him enough to not only spend hours in his company practicing music, but to accept his help in dressing her for her debut at the local bistro. It’s a short scene but plays as very sweet – still unsure of herself, she looks up to her teacher, apologizing for how long she’s taking to get ready. He drops the line ‘I have never seen such perfection.’
Unfortunately Christine has been hanging around with Phillipe, Comte De Chagny (the capable Adam Storke, doomed to be likably bland despite his amazing hair). It turns out they were childhood sweethearts. After Christine’s triumphant performance at the bistro, where all the cast gathers for impromptu tryouts, she goes off with the Comte for a charming carriage ride. Erik returns to their rehearsal space, waiting all night for her, to no avail. When Christine returns she starts with a lie to Erik that she went off with Carlotta, but finally confesses she was with the count. Erik is disappointed, and hints that the Comte’s interest in her might not be related to music given his past.
Teri Polo turns in a strong and grounded performance as Christine Daee, even if her dialogue was sometimes bland. Discovered singing at a country fair by the Comte, he sends her to the opera house intending she receive lessons. Other singers in the chorus all make it known that the Comte is a bit of a cad who has sent lots of girls to Carriere for singing lessons, and it is implied the Comte has had sex with all of them and might be expecting the same of Christine in exchange for his help. Instead they begin a real relationship.
Polo’s lip-synching is incredibly convincing – she includes the tremors, breaths, chin movements, and facial tics that real sopranos display during performances, albeit dialed down for TV consumption. It was so flawless I checked to see if she had opera training. Although Christine could have been a boring role, Polo makes the character accessible, intelligent, and self-aware – far from the presentation of Christine as an an unlikeable bubblehead in Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade book from the Discworld series. She’s a suitable match for the eponymous villain, with her own story and sense of moral obligation.
After the villanous Carlotta (a specatularly diva-tastic Andrea Ferreol) drugs Christine and disables her voice in the middle of the latter’s debut performance, causing the crowd to laugh, Erik is livid. He’s devastated Christine’s angelic voice will not be heard and appreciated; all their hard work was for naught, and Christine is horribly embarrassed. Furious, he drops the chandelier on the audience, dumps rats all over Carlotta, kills a police officer, and sets gunpowder in key places under the opera house to prepare for war.
In a misguided attempt to protect her from ‘The World,’ Erik takes Christine down into his vaults, sometimes carrying her, sometimes leading her on foot. Citing the cruelty and stupidity he’s experienced in The World, he brings her to his underground home and lovingly tucks her into bed. Another point in Erik’s favor – the bed is only big enough for one, indicating he has no creepy intentions of joining her. He sings her to sleep, and goes off to do the chores that make up his day – mask maintenance, deadly trap tuning, and cape washing.
At no point does Erik make sexual overtures, verbal or otherwise, toward Christine. Twice, Christine takes his arm or his shoulder in affection and he is nearly overcome by emotion – it’s an interesting character decision and it makes sense. After all, he hasn’t been touched by another person in years, especially not one he has feelings for.
When Christine wakes, he shows her the better world he’s created in the catacombs – a magical grotto decorated with statuary and props stolen from the opera, and a garden he planted. He’s delighted to share it with her, almost childlike in his glee. All this makes his villain status less clear – he’s made the best with what he has, and he wants someone to appreciate it with. He suggests a picnic, and what begins a pleasant outing goes wrong when Christine asks to see his face unmasked. She can’t handle the grotesque sight and faints. Erik’s reaction is predictable, but so well performed it doesn’t matter: first he’s utterly crushed and curls up in despair, then stalks off and destroys his grotto in a rage fueled by 30 years of accumulated self-hate. This is when Dance’s physicality really shines: up until now Erik has been graceful, his movements exact and elegant, his manners in Christine’s presence courtly. This is the face that reassured Christine when a masked weirdo showed up and offered singing lessons, and won her trust. Now we see his other face – the murdering, tempestuous face.
After Christine escapes, Erik realizes his dreams of love, understanding, and sharing life with someone are gone. He falls into despair. Dance plays him as painfully aware of his own shortcomings while speaking of all his broken illusions. He delivers a matter of fact plea to Carriere about being buried in a hidden, unmarked grave so he won’t be displayed as a curiosity. It’s heartbreaking. I still remembered that scene after 30 years.
Sweet, Sweet Sorrow
But alas, the show must end. Christine escapes Erik but has nightmares about him dying alone in his vaults. Rather than return to him and apologize (which kind of makes sense, since this isn’t a person who speaks anything but Grand Dramatic Gestures), she insists on attempting her part in Faust again, as the stage is audible down below and Erik will hear and understand she does love him. The plan works – the music reaches him, he throws on a cape, clambers up the many levels of the opera basement to his own Box 5, and is so moved he joins in her performance, singing Faust’s part flawlessly to the delight of all.
The staging of the story is also worthy of note – we meet Erik in the vaults as always, and he spends much of his time down there. Gradually, through his interactions with Christine, he spends more time above the ground, eventually ascending figuratively and literally to the top of the house. His reclaimed spirit is shown not just by saving Phillipe from a deadly fall, but also by the lining of his cape: black in the beginning, and now with a white lining.
Unfortunately Police Inspector Ledoux was waiting. The Phantom tries to make his classic escape with Christine to the top of the opera house, where he is surrounded by the police. Their orders are to take him alive, to his horror. Carriere, who has apparently been planning for this day, shoots him with a gun he has been hiding for years. Christine approaches a dying Erik, removing his mask long enough to plant a loving kiss on his forehead before he breathes his last.
Tears. Tears and snot everywhere.
The First Step (in Liking Villains): Admitting You Have a Problem(atic Attraction)
Many reasonable discussions* occur on Twitter and Tumblr about fandoms, especially villains. Hannibal Lecter kills and eats people yet enjoys a warm and loving fandom. Three MCU characters introduced as villains now have incredibly popular and well-written shows.
*and loooooooooooots of arguments.
At the end of the day, liking a villain doesn’t make you a bad person – assuming you understand you like a villain. You’re *allowed* to like villains. Depending on the villain and how they fit into the narrative arc of that universe, villains are supposed to be compelling. The important thing to recognize is that A. this is a villain so don’t do what they do, and B. the reason this villain is compelling might be very personal. In a time when people saw Thanos murder half the universe and believed he did the right thing, it’s more important than ever to hit pause on love for a villain and really ask why that character appeals. It’s worth doing a little self-examination to figure out why.