Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Like several of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, The Phantom of the Opera is a giant cultural object, and with it comes a lot of expectations. Pretty much everybody recognizes the half-mask, the brooding figure of the Phantom (at least in the abstract) and the general moodiness and melodrama. Also, for many (especially queer/female people) there’s a very specific sexiness in the fantasy of reaching into the forbidden and ‘monstrous’. You would think that Joel Schumacher, director of seminal queer films like The Lost Boys and Batman and Robin, would be able to capture this feeling perfectly, but instead The Phantom of the Opera ends up feeling bizarrely flat and dry.
The central issue with this film is the Phantom. As a start, it feels like he’s cast badly for the role. If the point of the Phantom is that he’s so aesthetically monstrous that society rejects him and makes him a freakshow, then casting Gerard Butler in 2004 (or frankly any year) makes very little sense given how closely he hews to the norms of attractiveness.
This is compounded by the makeup which reads more like a bad burn, rather than abject monstrosity to be rejected by his mother and thrown into a freakshow (which is the site of some very gross anti-GRT racism). It’s very hard to believe this society is so deeply ableist and aesthetics-driven that it would reject Gerard Butler to that degree, and Phantom never meaningfully establishes any sort of ableism/aestheticism in this world outside of people’s direct relation to the Phantom.
Beyond the casting, Butler (with his mediocre singing and his ever-changing accent) just doesn’t have that necessary presence to be this perversely alluring figure. His melodramatics just come across as flat and incel-esque rather than an expression of a misguided passion. When Butler sings “let your fantasies unwind,” he feels less like an incubus and more like a creepy man in your DM requests.
This feeling is accentuated by the Webber/Schumacher script trying to make him both a father figure and a supposed lover for Christine, something which could perhaps be interesting, but Schumacher is never meaningfully interested in unpacking. It just also feels weird for two actors in their thirties (Butler and Patrick Wilson) to be playing the love interest for a character played by an 18-year-old without the age/power dynamic ever really being acknowledged or addressed.
The Phantom has a very specific queer appeal, as many monsters do. Whilst he isn’t explicitly queer, he is rejected by society in the way that many queer people are, for something which is harmless. He’s also rejected by the person he loves as a result of this trait. After all of this he self-destructs and lashes out at the world around him – which feels almost justified (and relatable from this perspective) after all of the trauma of persistent rejection.
When Butler sings “let your fantasies unwind,” he feels less like an incubus and more like a creepy man in your DM requests.
There’s also the frequent ideas of the darkness and temptation, which once again lend themselves to queerness. None of this translates or lands: there are very few points where you even feel sympathetic for the Phantom, instead he’s outright villainous for most of the time and it feels like a film directed using the most dull reading of the text. This all feels really odd from Joel Schumacher when The Lost Boys, a film he made twenty years earlier, seems to do a lot of the things which are lacking here around the queer sexiness of monstrosity.
The flaws go beyond Butler and his Phantom — it’s also evident in the leading triumvirate. Emmy Rossum is the best singer in the cast by a long way, but Christine as a character really gives us nothing. Instead she’s this pure and virginal figure that is merely there for the Phantom and Raoul to project their desires onto. Her lack of agency is an issue in the play as well, but it’s frustrating that this adaptation doesn’t even attempt to reframe any of that to give her, or any of the other women, a more interesting role to play. Wilson’s Raoul is also pretty, flat and generic, and that would perhaps work as a foil for Butler’s Phantom, but neither of them are giving enough for the contrast to be interesting.
The flatness extends to the world of the opera as well, everything feels stuck in an uncanny valley between Serious Prestige film and high camp. So the scenery is colourful but for the most part those colours still feel muted. Whilst there are a few interesting shots, John Mathieson’s cinematography largely hits the most straightforward ones, which is fine but a little underwhelming.
This lack of commitment to an approach is most evident in the script, which wants to throw in a few jokes and a few fun and camp-adjacent scenes (like the Masquerade), but never commits to letting the entire film be high camp. The problem is that, like most Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, The Phantom of the Opera simply does not work if you play it straight.
As much as this is a bad film, it’s not completely unwatchable. There are fun bits and pieces, and a lot of the instrumental music from the original is still effective. I was less repulsed and more disappointed and perplexed. A melodramatic text dripping with raw sexuality and camp seems like the perfect playground for Joel Schumacher, one of the most notably queer mainstream directors to do what he does best, and yet he fumbled it. The end result is a dry and sexless slog that feels like it could’ve come from anyone but him.