A while ago I posted a ‘review’ of ABC TV’s 1990 miniseries, The Phantom of the Opera. I told myself I was done and needed to stop writing about it but then I realized who the hell cares, I do what I want. Also, I’m following the news. Waiting for the Derek Chauvin verdict on Tues afternoon was its own micro-hell in a recent span of hellish moments so splitting time between things I need to think about and things I want to think about is just good living.
So here we go!
This post will contain the best source for finding the series, a short discussion on why the miniseries rendition of the Phantom is so appealing, and appreciation for the actors’ performances in the show. It will include spoilers.
Where to Find It
An easy, free source of quite good quality is the Youtube link I posted on Monday. You can also download it from there, if you know that hack.
Out of obsession and with reckless disregard for my carbon footprint, I ordered the DVD Sunday, which came from Korea and arrived Tues night. I felt guilty for having mostly air, paper, and files shipped across the Earth in this year of our lord 2021, but the very cheerful sticker thanking me for supporting the sender’s family helped alleviate that guilt.
Unfortunately the dvd picture quality is not as high as the Youtube version – details are lost, such as Teri Polo’s eye color change when she appears in flashbacks as Belladova; background details in the vault/opera basement and prop room; even the Phantom’s eyes through his mask lose some of their vibrance in the DVD. Still, I’m glad I bought it and that maybe that little .0000000000000001 cent will go toward the performers and crew of this wonderful production.
But Y Tho?
Why is this character archetype and this performance in particular so captivating, to me and others? If you checked the YT video you’ll see hundreds of comments thanking the original poster and expressing nothing but love for the version, and of course a quick Google produces a handful of modern reviews and explorations. But why does it endure?
For the answer, we have to get a bit personal. It might get weird. Just FYI.
I’m most familiar with the Phantom’s various iterations over the decades. I’ve never read the Gaston Leroux novel, although the 1925 Lon Cheney version was mentioned in every book about horror movies and the mental image of Christine unmasking him is burned into my consciousness. His visage is instantly recognizable, even if people can’t explain the plot. I’m not a particularly big fan of opera, but a good one is stirring. I saw half the Andrew Llloyd Webber musical live and enjoyed it (half because I got lost on the way to the venue).
I’m most familiar with monsters.
I grew up an only child and was isolated physically and emotionally. That does a number on the mind. You don’t get a lot of socialization, and your ability to communicate can be stunted. People call you shy or introverted because you don’t speak or interact with others much, and prefer your own company. Teachers, because it was the 80s/90s, might suspect you are autistic and hint at this to your parents without ever discussing what it might mean. These are all true of me and many others. (Note: with respect to people on the spectrum, subsequent discussions with mental health professionals have identified that I am not autistic). Outsider characters particularly appeal, like Madison the mermaid from 1984’s SPLASH, the Grinch, Frankenstein’s monster (longtime readers will remember I cosplayed as Caliban from Penny Dreadful one Halloween), Medusa, The Winter Soldier, etc. But I digress. Monsters was what I identified with, all my life.
Charles Dance’s performance of Erik was the first time I had ever seen someone on screen like me – starved for affection and meaningful connection with another person. He was a little socially awkward, but more importantly, he was a functional adult. He’d built a life for himself in the vaults of the opera – maybe a lonely one, but still rich and beautiful. The opera was his world and he shaped it as he saw fit – he moved confidently through the vaults, planted a garden in the cave, and ran the performances from behind the scenes. Erik gave hope that I might A. grow up to be functional, B. meet someone like me someday.
It is no bad thing to grow up missing something; but it’s up to the individual to recognize that missing piece, how it affects one’s life, and try to be better. Anyway, moving on.
Surprise! I Don’t Hate Christine
Elsewhere in this particular version’s Phandom there is a lot of hatred for Christine. Consider:
For all intents and purposes and despite his situation, Erik is happy in the first act. His tone in his first scene with Gerard is playful as he tries to cheer Gerard up after his dismissal. His creative decisions, from what operas to put on, to costumes, to props, has made the Opera successful, which is why it’s sold in the first place. Although the Opera House cast and crew fear the Phantom, they follow his rules and all is well. It’s important to note that the rules are not tyrannical whims that encroach on their liberties; in fact, the single rule (don’t go down below) keeps them safe since the vaults are so dangerous.
This unusual species of happiness is disrupted when Christine comes along. He realizes how lonely he is and that he wants to share life with someone. Granted, he could have gone about his business and ignored her, but her voice is so beautiful that he can’t – for a person powered by music, it’s impossible. To be clear, that’s not her fault, I’m not saying she is somehow responsible. She has been sent to the opera for singing lessons and to join the production, so that’s what she wants. When he offers her singing lessons, she accepts. She doesn’t owe him anything and can’t possibly realize who he is, and as she’s the first person besides Carriere he’s interacted with, and she’s lovely and soft-spoken and kind, he falls madly in love with her.
After her disastrous debut and Erik has brought her to his grotto, they go on a picnic where he asks her to sing for him. She says she will in exchange for a favor. He waves this off, saying he would grant her anything she wishes, so long as it’s in his power. *This* is an ideal time for Christine to request he let her go. Instead, she asks him to remove his mask so she can prove her love for him, in hope of reaching him. He refuses several times, and she continues pressing him, even playing the ‘if you really loved me’ card and taking his arm, which visibly affects him.
In defense of Christine – her passing out doesn’t make sense for her character. One thing the series could have done better was consider her life after she and her father were dismissed from the Comte’s household – they would more than likely have encountered unkindness from strangers, hardship, hunger, etc. The French countryside in the 19th century would definitely have tossed up some frightening sights. But Christine as she’s written is supposed to be innocent and can’t conceive of what she’s asking – she has no idea what her company means to him. She can’t possibly imagine how alone and isolated he feels, and how much power she has over him, so she abuses his trust. It’s not good writing for her. If *I* were writing this story, I would have her realize through overhearing the other Opera staff that her teacher Maestro was the Phantom, and call Erik to account for the deaths attributed to him. The first one was an accident, but subsequent deaths were definitely his responsibility (Don’t worry, I’m laboring over a fanfic of this even as we speak). Now she has to consider his two sides, the kind and supportive Maestro with the murderous Phantom, and get him to disarm his bombs and traps. That’s her motivation now. Of course it’s shitty that she must try and change his behavior and is back in the ‘woman must take responsibility for dangerous man’ tale, but that’s what heroes do – they do their best with the situation at hand. Carriere also tries to take responsibility for Erik’s behavior, but too little, too late.
So I don’t really hate Christine. Teri Polo did the best with what she had, and did it very, very well.
What a Difference Three Decades Makes
At age 12, I was obsessed . We taped the series off television (commercials and all!) and I watched it until the cassette wore out and the image was warped. I drew pictures of Erik and knew his dialogue by heart. Everything he did was right.
After thirty years of life experience, that view has definitely changed. A larger vocabulary, instruction in basic psychology, relationship dynamics, and human sexuality, feminist theory, and cognitive behavioral therapy, etc have all unpacked the complex feelings I had for this story. Kind of feels like I solved a childhood mystery.