11 FEBRUARY 1944, Page 11

"Phantom of the Opera." At the Odeon.


THE horror film has always seemed to me a dubious form of enter- tainment. It can boast a respectable origin in Grand Guignol hitt the limitations of the stage demand a subtlety scorned by the cinema, with the result that in the theatre our flesh is often made to creep with a delicacy which may lay claim to the name of art whilst in the cinema our sensibilities are bludgeoned by the rude unshrouded spectacle of horror itself. I had supposed that the horror film was on the wane until it was announced that Phantom of the Opera, an old shocker, was to be remade and that Mr. Claude Rains was to follow in the grisly foOtsteps of Lon Chaney, Boris ICarloff and other monstrous impersonators.

Phantom of the Opera is a much more ambitious job than its predecessors. There are enormous and elaborate sets ; a melange of operatic airs is presented in an expensive opera-house setting before a huge and gorgeously clad audience (later to be decimated by a crashing chandelier) ; Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster are hired for the singing and director Arthur Lubin is no cheapster. For all these reasons the film demands critical examination. -Yet the music is adequate only in small scrappy snatches the acting, other than that of Mr. Rains, is over-obviously intended to leaven the shrieks with laughter ; whilst the horrifies are refurbished rather than new. Phantom of the Opera remains a heavy financial invest- ment Made on the lowest level of audience appeaL It is Mr. Rains' acid-disfigured face lurking in the vaults and sewers beneath the opera-house which is calculated to bring the money to the box-office. The fact that he goes mad and murders the music publisher who thwarts his passionate, hopeless devotion for a young opera singer is

only incidental to the shadowy cloak and the mask peering from behind the back-drop. Now it appears to me that any true drama which may conceivably lie in the fact of disfigurement is a matter to be handled with extreme delicacy in these war-time days when, for too many families, ghastly wounds are a matter not of a thrill in the cinema but of courage in the home. Moreover, to present at this time a film which suggests that mutilation gives sufficient cause for its victim to withdraw from the community into insane isolation is not only to present a miserably old-fashioned conception but is to make a serious contribution towards undoing the effects of the careful psychological treatment which forms an essential part of much war-time surgery. To consider a crude melodrama in these terms may appear an unwarrantable extravagance yet surely the film industry, aware of the importance of its war-time role and its effect upon public morale, should have had more sense than to advance with elephantine discretion into this particular territory. Surely, also, it can find roles for Mr. Claude Rains which will allow that extremely able actor to make proper use of his powers and will not ask him to play the part of a gruesome lay-figure which equally well could be impersonated by a second-grade actor.

The reactions of war-time audiences are hard to predict. Phantom of the Opera may prove to be a popular success though many people, I am sure, will echo the gasp of protest with which I heard an RAF. officer greet the brutally unmasked face of the disfigured hero. Many people will surely ask themselves on what grounds certain Russian war films showing the true horrors of the battlefield have been handicapped in their distribution, whilst the commercial exploitation of horror for its own sake is apparently encouraged.

The West End of London is an unreliable guide to the nation- wide taste of audiences, but lengths of recent pre-release runs seem to indicate a preference for war films such as Sahara and San Demetrio, London and, next to these, farces like Crazy House and And the Angels Sing. Serious films, not about the war, are on the whole poorly received. A recent audience viewing Wuthering Heights seemed often to find its sombre drama merely comic.. Purely personal tragedy often seems petty beside the world-calamity of