The Phantom of the Opera Reborn: Part Two
Desperate for a change of pace, Robert Englund takes a role requiring facial prosthetics by Kevin Yagher. No, you’re not dreaming.
By: Marc Shapiro
Published in Fanorgia #87.
Freddy Krueger hanging 10 on a surfboard is a bad dream worthy of Elm Street, but riding the waves has turned out to be a real-life nightmare for Robert Englund.
“I’m so damned old now that a day of surfing, which used to be a breeze, totally exhausts me,” Englund groans. “All I want to do is crawl into bed.”
The actor, just back from an afternoon of shooting curls at his Laguna Beach hideaway, is in the midst of the first thing resembling a vacation in nearly three years. Nightmare 5 is a few weeks behind him; while he is doing a bad guy bit opposite Andrew Dice Clay in director Renny Harlin’s Ford Fairlane (his first non-makeup role in two years), this is still Englund’s first full-length break in quite a while.
Before Englund makes a beeline for the bedroom, he agrees to get particular about his role as the Phantom Erik Destler in the latest remake of The Phantom of the Opera, which opens in October. “What can I say? It was real hard to say no to to all the money 21 Century threw at me, and it was real hard to say no to a free trip to Europe,” he laughs.
21st Century, a new company run by former-Cannon chief Menahem Golan, approached Englund with the remake proposal around the time filming began on the Freddy’s Nightmares TV series. “It started out of a promise I made to my agent that, outside of Freddy, I owed him one other horror project,” Englund sighs. “Initially, the agreement was that I would do an Anthony Perkins type of film, but then I was approached by producers Menahem Golan and Harry Alan Towers about doing Phantom. I liked the idea that I would be in the company of great actors like Herbert Lom, Claude Rains, Max Schell and Lon Chaney, who all played the Phantom, and I liked the idea that the film—based on what I read in the first draft of Duke Sandefur’s script—had a heavy Hammer influence. I also liked a lot of Dwight Little’s work on Halloween 4, so when I learned he was going to direct, that sort of cinched it.”
The Phantom of the Opera, which also features Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey and Stephanie Lawrence, opens in present-day New York, where aspiring actress Christine (Schoelen) stumbles upon a rare piece of music from the long-deceased Erik Destler and decides to use it in an upcoming audition. After the tryout, Christine is accidentally struck by a falling prop; while unconscious, she is transported back to London, circa 1889, to meet Destler as the Phantom in all his disfigured glory.
Christine returns to consciousness and assumes her encounter with the Phantom was only a nightmare, until she discovers that the Phantom is now committing untold acts of violence on behalf of his intended protege. After a fiery finale in which both Destler and Christine die, the girl once again “awakens” in the present from what appears to have all been a dream. Or was it?
Budapest, Hungary and New York City played home to The Phantom of the Opera. Kevin Yagher (who holds more than a nodding aquaintance with Englund’s face, thanks to handling Freddy’s makeup in Nightmares 2 through 4), created the various stages of the Phantom’s hideous makeup. Yagher employee Everett Burrell assisted with the sculpting and applied the Phantom’s makeup while on location in Budapest. John Vulich and Mike Deak of MMI supervised all of the movie’s blood gags.
Englund, who envisions this version “kind of like [Phantom novelist] Gaston Leroux’s best bits,” feels the film is not so much a remake as an updated and separate take. “My intent was not to try and make the definitive Phantom of the Opera,” claims Englund. “What we all had in mind was to reinterpret it. We wanted to crossbreed the best of the previous films and play up elements of the supernatural, the Faustian side of the story. Bookending the film with this contemporary framing device was also intriguing and very smart. It’s a device that will attract an older, Broadway theater crowd as well as the Freddy and the classic horror film audiences. We’ve combined many elements, and I think they ultimately serve this movie well.”
The clasically trained actor looks on the film’s period piece nature, ripe with melodrama, as his acting meat, and this meat was a challenge to chew when he began framing his interpretation of the Phantom. “Coming up with a complete Erik Destler really tested me as an actor,” concedes Englund. “Initially, I attempted to go all the way with a heavy English accent I had designed, but Dwight didn’t think it should be that extreme. So I compromised, split the difference and came up with a seasoned British voice.
“There’s a strong sense of sexuality about this Phantom, especially when he’s dealing with what is obviously his unrequited love for Christine,” he continues. “I also think I’ve injected a lot of Jack the Ripper and the Faustian aspect into this character. He’s been wronged in just about every way possible, so it was important to let that rage and paranoia come out.”
Despite his confidence, playing a demented composer who carries the added baggage of childhood disfigurement was going to be a stretch for the actor. “I was nervous,” he admits. “I knew I wasn’t just doing Freddy again. I needed time to work into the role.”
He found that time during a stopover in London on his way to the Phantom set Hungary. “I didn’t run around strangling the locals,” he laughs, “but the mere act of prowling that city at all hours of the night helped me get the feel of what it would be like for the Phantom to be out and about.”
Once Englund arrived in Budapest, the filmmaking process became surrealistically blurred into the stark reality of Hungary at night, not too far removed from the realm of Erik Destler. “This was the first time since 1970 that I had ever worn a cape in anything, and not stepping on the cape was a real challenge,” Englund specifies. “Just trying to appear natural in an 1890s costume was a big test for me all the way through. So was walking down rat-infested tunnels and hitting my marks.
“There was also the irony of working with state-of-the-art cameras and equipment alongside film pyrotechnics that were positively ancient,” he goes on. “We were filming on these totally combustible—and totally illegal, in many film circles—foam sets, and here we had these torches that were melting and dripping all over the place. That was really frightening. So was Budapest, to a certain degree. Budapest is like a soiled version of Paris at this point, and the night life was really bizarre. I remember going into this all-night club and watching a bunch of Russians trying to pick up Meg Tilly look-alikes with bad teeth. That was strange.”
As was the appearance of Erik Destler, who, when he isn’t flaying people and sewing their skin onto his face, is as decomposed as any 100-year-old rotting face can be. Kevin Yagher, to cover the various Destler guises, created forehead, cheek, nose and chin appliances that highlight Englund’s features in a grotesque way.
“But this isn’t just another Robert Englund makeup role,” the actor counters. “I’m in and out of makeup all through this picture, and we’re dealing with a wide variety of looks. You see Phantom fresh, Phantom stale, Phantom puckered, and all of them are based on an aristocratic Robert Englund look. I’ve got a real New Romantic chin and a Beethoven mane of hair. There’s a lot more going on here than just one look.”
Since he brought up the “just another makeup role” issue, Englund seizes the moment to dive into the quagmire of differences he sees between Freddy and the Phantom. “They’re two very different characters,” he explains. “The Phantom character has much more going on psychologically than Freddy. Erik Destler’s obsession is more artistic, while Freddy is on this sort of purgatory plane. The Phantom is on much more of a survival quest, while Freddy’s quest is based primarily on revenge. Age is also a major factor in the difference between Erik and Freddy. The Phantom is a little younger and much more of a swashbuckler. Freddy’s this ugly old man who’s set in his ways.”
The Phantom momentarily eludes Englund as the conversation addresses the issue of his other alter ego’s future. “There’s not going to be any more makeup on this face for quite a long time,” asserts the actor. “I’ve been told by a couple people that the constant application of makeup to my face is starting to hurt my eyes and that I would be smart not to put makeup on for a while. At this point, I will not rush into a Nightmare 6. I don’t see myself doing another Nightmare film until at least midsummer of next year, possibly even later.
“I’ll only be directing a couple of Freddy’s Nightmares episodes this year, so I’ll be in a situation where I can go off and do other things without makeup,” he adds. “I’m not giving up horror, but I’d like to take my horror juice in a different direction. I’d like to do a Tony Perkins kind of thing or a Vincent Price role. I’ve paid my Freddy dues, and I think that entitles me to try something else.”
Englund, however, may have a few more dues to pay. Word has it that there’s already a Phantom 2 script with a tentative fall filming date in Montreal and New York. Englund has heard this rumor and, while not coming clean on whether he’d do Phantom 2, he does claim that a sequel would have some creative possibilities.
“Without giving away the ending, Phantom does leave itself open for a sequel. He’s now in another realm, a sort of Faustian/time machine hell. He could play off some topical lifestyle situations. To a large degree, a sequel would almost have the feel of Death Wish Meets the Equalizer.”
At this point, Englund is not thinking beyond this outing and what the rewards have been. “I’ve really gotten my rocks off on this film,” he beams. “I got to wear the period costumes and the wigs. It was like being a movie star in the 1940s. Plus, it’s been a reward for all my classical training. The period thing is something I do really well. I hope the right people see this and realize I can do things like ride horses and wear high boots. If Jane Seymour is out there, I’d love fifth or sixth billing in one of her miniseries.
“But right now,” Englund concludes, “the only thing I want to do is crawl into bed, turn on the tube and watch Donahue.”