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Phantom of the Opera: Classic Monster Collection

Claude Rains first made an impression on international moviegoers in Universal's 1933 The Invisible Man — a part that required an actor with a distinctive, characteristic speaking voice — and ten years later he returned to the Universal horror fold for a similar turn, this time in The Phantom of the Opera, in which he portrayed the deranged, masked Enrique Claudin, who haunts the Paris Opera, embittered for being dismissed from the orchestra while nursing an obsession for a young, attractive diva. What's just a little odd (but also very telling about the production) is that Rains, despite playing the title role, is third-billed behind vocal talents Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. If you haven't seen it, you must be told up-front, because the 1943 Phantom, directed by Arthur Lubin, is as much a glorious Technicolor musical as it is a horror flick. That doesn't mean it's bad. It just isn't all that creepy. Based on the popular 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, Rains stars as Claudin, a violinist who comes down with a mysterious malady and is no longer able to perform professionally. Turning to composing to make a living, Claudin hopes to land on his feet, but he becomes enraged when he discovers his work is being stolen, and in a scuffle his face is burned by acid. Adopting a theatrical mask and stealing a master-key to the entire Paris Opera House, the now-insane Claudin takes refuge in the underground chambers, only surfacing to watch over Christine Dubois (Foster) and do what he can to further her career — even if it means harming her competitors, or the general public. But the unaware Christine already has two suitors — handsome baritone Anatole Garron (Eddy) and local gendarme Raoul D'Aubert (Edgar Barrier), both of whom intend to solve the inexplicable mysteries of the opera. For fans of Rains, best remembered as Captain Renault in the previous year's Casablanca, Phantom is a treat, as his skilled inflections give life and scope to a character who is concealed throughout much of the story. But there just isn't enough of him, and if this film was anything to go by, one would have to assume that opera was all the rage in America during World War II. Long, long sequences are dedicated to elaborate stage productions, which are duly impressive if a little shrill in the original mono. And director Lubin skillfully uses these set-pieces to move the story forward without dialogue, as the scarred Svengali schemes from clandestine vantage-points. But if you think opera sounds as lovely as two alley-cats feuding over a garbage can in your backyard, you may find this "horror" film's 90 minutes tough going. Nonetheless, Universal's Phantom of the Opera, part of their "Classic Monster Collection," is a definitive disc, with a remarkably clean source print (in the original 1.33:1) that retains much of its Technicolor splendor, and the original mono in a Dolby 2.0 configuration. Supplements include the 51-minute documentary "The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked," hosted by film historian Scott MacQueen, a commentary with MacQueen, a still gallery with the original score, the theatrical trailer, and notes. Keep-case.

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