Insert a very dramatic, ominous organ because welcome to Monstrous Babes, a semi-regular series of retrospectives and reviews on films where the main romance is centered around a human and a monster. “Monster” is going to be a totally subjective term for this series and I’m mostly going to be writing about movies that set off the good ol’ brainworms. So enjoy my first retrospective about Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2004 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera!
So. I am guessing that many of you that will be reading this either despised, never seen, or are completely ambivalent to Joel Schumacher’s critically maligned adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. That’s fine and commendable because that means you’re either normal or not a theater kid that has tons of opinions about Broadway musicals! Well, I am not normal and I’m a theater kid In Name Only because acting school just ain’t a thing in Tennessee. For me, to accurately describe my relationship with this film is to acknowledge just how much it meant to me in one special way: it was baby’s sexual awakening. Yes, this is a thirst retrospective, you clicked on this, and you can either abandon ship or strap on for the ride.
Now, “baby’s first sexual awakening” sounds ridiculous because the movie definitely lost most of the musical’s subtle sensuality for tango dancing Dread Pirate Roberts and 2000s era Gerard Butler. So they weren’t exactly light on the sexiness, but really trying to shout “HEY YOU, FIND THIS SEXY” to the rooftops! If it sounds like I am just ragging on this film, please realize that this is coming from a place of love and roughly fifteen years of fandom membership (I have seen Phantom on tour and bear the great privilege of seeing the North American tour of Love Never Dies, the failed sequel that is apparently so bad that they haven’t put it on Broadway). That being said, 2004 Phantom is like an angsty teen girl’s friends-only Livejournal that is filled with earnest attempts at steamy self-insert fanfic and colorful diary entries on how hot what tight pants, smeared eyeliner sad boy of the week.
Deep cut shade and referencing aside, it is absolutely no surprise that it hit it big with that sort of demographic back in the day! The Fairy Puberty Godmother worked her magic and made a legendarily development hell passion project happen, but it had a healthy dose of new sexuality and new sexy actors to go along with it. For this retrospective, this will not be a critical examination of the film’s failings and if you’re looking for one, I’m just gonna link Lindsay Ellis’ video essay on how the movie is a giant hot mess structurally and visually. While I wish I had the range to discuss how not great this film is like Ms. Ellis, this retrospective is going to be an examination of desire, teenage girls and young women as an audience, and how horniness will always be the greatest content generator. For the sake of argument and future entries in this series, horniness will be treated as somewhat of a subjective modifier because we’re humans and our levels of yuck and yum vary from case to case!
Some of us have a big boner for ultraviolence, but some, like me, were raised on a diet of horrific beast men and ghouls being seen as sexy, sensitive, and receptive partners.
Realistically, I could do an exhaustive rundown on how exactly did this film get made, but in reality, it does not have the most exciting production history: The film adaptation was rumored to star the original cast of the musical (meaning Sarah Brightman and Micheal Crawford) back in the 80s and just never happened. During this time, Webber’s relationship and marriage with Brightman would deteriorate and as a result, the film adaptation sat on a shelf until the 2000s. Enter Joel Schumacher, the de-facto auteur of all things in the realm of camp genre movies and Batnipples, and this is where our story begins.
The behind the scenes crew is not at all surprising since the credits literally alternate between Schumacher and Webber, but the cast is truly remarkable. In its supporting cast, you have Minnie Driver, Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow, and Claran Hinds playing principal supporting characters. With the main leads, you have a trio of now famous Hollywood regulars: Shameless‘ Emmy Rossum (who was an actual teenager and playing a role in which she had to suck face with men MUCH older than her!), The Conjuring (and two DC franchises that end with a conjugation of the word “man”)’s Patrick Wilson, and playing the Phantom himself, once shining star of action films and rom-coms, Gerard Butler.
I was not going to rewatch the movie but in light of a beer named outbreak, I thought it was a good idea to revisit the film without strictly going off the dome and oh my God, I can see why I was around the legion of obsessed Phantom teenage girls. Of course, the film has aged like grits left in the sun and some of the more heteronormative and sex negative aspects of it makes late 20 something year lesbian me cringe intensely. However, it is frankly undeniable to see how this film ticked so many boxes off for young women.
While the setting design still screams shot in a film studio, the intimacy and closeness of it is undeniable when the Phantom and Christine are together in the Phantom’s liar. The lushness and color of the elaborate ensemble numbers, the opera house itself and the costuming. In terms of acting, the sense of yearning and budding sexuality that is displayed in Rossom’s Christine stuck out to me in such a major way this rewatch. It feels like a recurring self fulfilling dream of a young lady desiring to a heroine that yearns and desires safety, but the allure of darkness and danger is still prominent in your mind.
I could very much do a queer reading of this entire production because once again, Joel Schumacher’s hands was all over this and that’s another chestnut to crack in a different article, but how the film seems to amplify female desire is almost ingenious? Yes, there are several lines where the characters shame Christine for allegedly using sex to advance her position in the opera house, but with those character isolated, it is a classic case study while certain tropes are attractive to young women: the childhood friend who has pleaded to protect and love you no matter what and the “monster” whose tortured soul appeals to the darker reachs of your heart but promises you love and devotion as well.
No matter what iteration of Phantom I watch or read, Raoul will always be one of the most underdeveloped characters, but in the 2004 film, Patrick Wilson gives him a bit of a personality the best he could and aesthetically, he is the quintessential high waisted trouser, pirate shirt dreamboat that always resides on the covers of old and contemporary historical romance novels. Wilson does a decent job of giving a sense of safety and unconditional love in the romantic scenes, but you definitely feel the condescension when he dangles Christine as bait and quickly goes, “Oh s--t, no, he’s ACTUALLY seducing her” and suits up in his puffy shirt to save the day. I could very much bang on (heh) about the failings of a character archetype such as Raoul, but you are here to read about why teens and young women were horned up for the Phantom, right?
In this Phantom’s case, his status as monster is rather subjective and relies heavily on him being treated as a monster rather than him looking like one. Seriously, the brunt of discourse that’s been present in the Phantom fandom is that the “deformity” is not exactly a deformity, but a case of REALLY bad sunburn or in my calculated opinion, the third degree burns of a grease fire gone horribly wrong. Nevertheless, the Phantom’s newest acolytes were attractive to him because of his loneliness and the scorn the outside world had for him (questionably so).
To out myself further as a fanatic, there was a song cut from the movie called “No One Would Listen,” which would be refashioned as end credits song, “Learn to Be Lonely,” that is accidentally the thesis statement of my project as a whole. The Phantom sings that the world has shunned and pitied him while Christine was the only one that could truly understand him and thus love him. If you were a teenage girl in any capacity, loneliness is a constant and the desire to be loved by someone was something that you absolutely had to obtain to be seen as “normal.” Phantom was not a monstrous boyfriend that titillated the senses of truly mingling with supernatural forces, but he was a monster boyfriend that was obtainable, slavishly devoted, and just as lonely as these girls were. Absolutely, there was a desire to embrace their darkest desire sexually with someone like the Phantom, but the crux of the attraction was having a partner that you could love no matter what the world was saying. You two could have been lonely together.
I mentioned I was going to talk about horniess was the greatest content creator, huh? Boy, lemme tell you, I have seen a tour production of Phantom and several filmed versions of the Broadway and West End musical, but nothing can beat the sheer amount of would be Big Dick Energy as this version of “Point of No Return”! There is no demurity and playful seduction in this number at all! We have reached PEAK Harlequin romance novel bullshit with the appropriation of flamenco, the spectacle of Gerard Butler in those pants, and the fact that Emmy Rossum’s boob looks like it is ready to say hello at any time in this number!
Watching that scene as an adult caused me to laugh like a freaking goblin because it is so horny that it’s almost inconceivable how on the nose it is, but on the same token, I absolutely got how sexy it still is. It resides in a category that is still subtle and sensual as the lyrics coyly suggest that our two protagonists are singing about being in the throes of passion. Truth be told, it caused me to harbor a very embarrassing crush on Gerard Butler that was not helped by the release of Zack Synder’s 300 (which I will lose this job if I’m ever allowed to review/write about that) to the point that my very closeted ass was very horny for this man whose filmography discouraged/disgusted me. Teen girl horniness does not have to make sense at the very least, but it is a very exploitable resource that can yield content that will be embarrassing to them when they get older (as I write this and try not to laugh).
While Phantom as a monster boyfriend does not yield the most useful of discourse that is actually worthy of the two English literature degrees I possess, I wrote this article to be a primer to how monstrous boyfriends are attractive archetypes for certain marginalized groups and how one can be horny for a man that would be called an incel in every definition of the world in 2020. Dear readers, the next film in the Monstrous Babes series will require a little bit more restraint, but it is going to be very furry and Disney may have made a live action version of it recently!