When Christopher Lee’s booming baritone intones, ‘Here lies the chambers of death. Where shadows linger and time stands still. Nothing moves save rats and spiders who have made these damp, cold stones their home,’ you know it’s going to be an over-the-top night at the opera.
That we remember Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of twisted obsessional love at all is largely thanks to the 1925 Hollywood adaptation starring Lon Chaney in the titular role. Commissioned by Hammer Film Productions in the 80s to add a new soundtrack to the film, Wakeman took to the task with an enthusiastic swirl of his cape and set about creating a continuous score that lasts just under an hour and a half.
Operatic tenor Ramon Remedios, ex-Cheetah singer Chrissie Hammond, and Ashley Holt, long-time collaborator from Wakeman’s English Rock Ensemble, handle the vocals. The music follows the general gist of the on-screen action: minor-key ruminations for the darker, moodier sections contrasting with frothy uptempo embellishments elsewhere.
The music and visuals are sometimes at odds with each other. During the masked ball scene, as the Phantom strides menacingly down the grand staircase sporting a rictus-grin skull mask, the scene is one of dread, the revellers at the opera frozen in fear at the sight before them. However, Ashley Holt, blasting out lines such as, ‘He appears at night with second sight – has anybody seen the Phantom? He hides his face in a shadowy place and casts out an evil anthem,’ seems inadvertently comedic.
Perhaps the most famous unmasking in movie history, where the full horror of Chaney’s distorted features are finally revealed, is handled much better, with heightened, dissonant swirls colliding with each other. This being the 80s, the keyboard-dominated score uses synth settings that today sound brittle and shrill. Coated in a toppy sheen and with Tony Fernandez’s electronic kit drums sounding under-powered, the sonics are often hard going on present-day ears.
Despite the passage of time and numerous remakes, not least of which is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, the original film retains a gothic atmosphere that’s still impressive, with its sets of vaulted ceilings, ominous archways and an icy, underground lake being particularly striking.
While 1990’s Phantom Power collected the songs from the soundtrack, this three-disc package presents the film and full score for the first time since its original release. This isn’t Wakeman at his compositional or imaginative best but its reappearance, after being thought lost for several years following the collapse of Hammer films, is something that hardcore fans will welcome.