The altering of the human form has been an omnipresent theme of Horror pictures. Whether that is being tossed into something or off something, made into something, or having something removed, the result is a change that does not make us or those that love us the same. The face is a key to human identity, a door to human love so if that changes, sometimes we change. Two examples of this are the Hammer films adaptation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962,) directed by Terance Fisher, and the little known 1959 picture FACE OF FIRE (1959), directed by Albert Band.
Gaston Leroux’s novel has been the subject of many adaptations as we all know; much like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I recently viewed it again and found parts to be some of the best subtle acting and directing that Hammer Studios has done.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962), which moves the story from the streets and sewers of Paris to London in the 1900s, is a showcase for Michael Gough as the morally bankrupt Lord Ambrose d’Arcy who wants to give every pretty ingénue who auditions for him ‘lessons’ in his apartment. Gough is wonderfully snarly if not slightly ‘one note” as he does anything and everything to get his opera on the boards including stealing music from an unknown composer- Professor Petrie- played by a young Herbert Lom.
Lord Ambrose prints Professor Petrie’s music with his name not the Professor’s. Petrie breaks into the printer’s shop at night and there is a resulting fire and acid blow back that sends him running out into the street when he find solace in the sewers where he lives for years plotting revenge. Like the best Horror pictures and stories, the action is what is done by those who fall under the influence of the absent monster, in this case The Phantom Professor Petrie becomes a tragic figure, pleading for a chance to work with Christine for, ‘a week, a month,’ just so he can hear his music before he dies. Lom and Terence Fisher work subtle action with a single eye – either a malevolent stare or at one point a close up of a tear.
FACE OF FIRE (1959), directed by Albert Band is not really a Horror film, more a narrative of our prejudice against deformity and the fear of it. It was based on a story by American Stephen Crane called “The Monster”. Crane was considered to be one of the most influential writers of his generation who wrote in the naturalist mode. Crane’s other major work that is more familiar is the Civil War story THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1895), which he wrote without having battlefield experience yet went on to become an American classic. Crane’s hallmark was to show small town life as neither good nor evil.
The story of FACE OF FIRE is a simple one, yet again like the best films, the story is about those affected by events not an actual creature. The setting is a small town in late 1800s America where a lowly handyman Monk Johnson (played by James Whitmore) whom women want to be with, children want to befriend, animals love him. Cameron Mitchell is the town doctor Ned Trescott, whom Monk works for, and also takes his son Jimmie (Miko Oscard) he takes of fishing trips. All is pastoral till one night a fire erupts at Trescott’s residence and Monk charges into the burning building to save a sleeping Jimmie. Overcome by smoke from chemicals, Monk collapses.The boy escapes through a nearby door. Monk is pulled from the building with severe burns removing his facial features, and what is later revealed as brain damage.
The townspeople that once revered him now shun him. He sits in his room slumped over, face covered by a black cloth. The farmer whose house he has moved into asks for more money. The farmer’s children do not eat, his wife refuses to go in the room and social isolation takes place as friends refuse to call. The farmer, however, does find time to try on Monk’s disused jacket and boots that he covets and eventually gets.
Direction wise the photography is very stark in black and white with effective use of foreground and background action plus light and shadows. The people move throughout the film in an almost sleep like trance along the streets. No, this is at heart a drama, and a painful and devastating one at that. It takes a long, hard look at how people would react to a man suffering such extreme deformities, and often their reactions are just as ugly as his visage. It is quite harrowing to see their reactions, especially when they think Monk is dead and begin hypocritically praising him for his bravery. What makes it most painful is its air of truth; it is quite easy to see people acting this way when you know that they (and we) are capable of it when we let fear take control of us. James Whitmore and Cameron Mitchell are both excellent as the deformed handyman and the doctor (whose son it was that was rescued from the fire) who cares for him, even when he himself becomes a pariah and has to watch his son cope with the situation.
There are strong influences of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) as Monk is well enough to be outside, sheds his hood and tries to join in a dance with the townspeople but is shunned. He approaches the woman who once tried to get him interested in her – she runs screaming from him now. We only see his back in the sequence as again its effect on the people that is important. The one constant is a collie dog who will still give him a stick which is a repeat from earlier in the film showing that animals love unconditionally, unlike humans. There is a plot of kill Monk by the townspeople as he is not human which is stopped when the Sheriff intervenes. Monk is offered a free house away from the town by one person all in an effort to keep him away.
Character actor Royal Dano as townsman Jake Winter battles his own feelings as opposed to his families. A young Lois Maxwell (Her pre Miss Moneypenny days) as Trescott’s incipit appearance loving wife are both stand outs. The ending is a wonderful example of what a simple human touch and gesture can do to someone who has changed on the outside.
I remember FACE OF FIRE on television years ago and the one sequence that stuck with me is when Trescott’s son brings Monk his breakfast. Monk slowly turns and his face is seen in profile causing the boy to run. PHANTOM did not do well at the box office and actually caused Terence Fisher to fall out of favour as a director. Shades of later David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) as it was also in black and white and dealt with an ‘outsider’ by appearance. It is interesting to note both these pictures were done by non- horror genre directors. FACE OF FIRE was done by Albert Band who did also produced I BURY THE LIVING (1980) and the cult classic TROLL (1986) amongst other titles, including HONEY I BLEW UP THE KIDS (1992), as Executive Producer.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) and FACE OF FIRE (1959) are two examples of the altering of a face causing a once sympathetic individual to be thought of as a monster. Both pictures are examples of subtle film making, all wonderfully photographed on a limited budget released by major studios.