The film opens in Victorian London on a December night in 1900. The first night of the season at the London Opera House finds the opening of a new opera by Lord Ambrose D'Arcy (Michael Gough), a wealthy and pompous man, who is annoyed and scornful when the opera manager Lattimer (Thorley Walters) informs him the theatre has not been completely sold out. No one will sit in a certain box because it is haunted. Backstage, despite the soothing efforts of the opera's producer, Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza), everyone, including the show's star, Maria, is nervous and upset as if a sinister force was at work. The climax comes during Maria's first aria, when a side of the scenery rips apart to reveal the body of a hanged stage hand. In a panic, the curtain is rung down, and Maria refuses to sing again.
With the show postponed, Harry frantically auditions new singers. He finds a promising young star in Christine Charles (Heather Sears), one of the chorus girls. Lord Ambrose lecherously approves of the selection, and invites Christine to dinner. In her dressing room Christine is warned against Lord Ambrose by a Phantom voice. At dinner, Lord Ambrose attempts to seduce her, but as they are about to leave to his apartment, she is saved by Harry. On the ride back home, Christine tells Harry about the voice she heard. Intrigued, Harry takes Christine back to the opera house, where in her dressing room, the same voice tells Harry to leave her there and go. At the same time the rat catcher (Patrick Troughton) is murdered by the Phantom's lackey, a dwarf (Ian Wilson). Investigating the murder, Harry leaves Christine by herself where she is approached by a man dressed in black, wearing a mask with only one eye, The Phantom of the Opera. He tells her she must come with him but she screams and The Phantom flees. Harry comforts her and takes her home.
The next day Lord Ambrose sends a dismissal to Christine for refusing to come back to his apartment. Lord Ambrose chooses a more willing but less talented singer to take Christine's place. When Harry refuses to accept this he is also dismissed by Lord Ambrose. Visiting Christine at her boarding house, Harry finds some old manuscripts which he recognizes as a rough draft of the opera he has been producing. Questioning Christine's landlady Mrs. Tucker, he learns that it was written by a former boarder by the name of Professor Petrie, who had been killed in a fire at a printers that was to print his music. Making further inquiries, he learns that Petrie did not actually perish in the fire, but was splashed with Nitric Acid while apparently trying to extinguish the blaze, had run away in agony and was drowned in the River Thames. This is confirmed by the policeman who was in the area at the time, but the body was never recovered. Harry and Christine have a romantic day together. While having a moonlight carriage ride Harry tells her about Petrie, and that he is convinced that Lord Ambrose stole Petrie's music. He leaves it at that, as he believes that the Professor is long since dead.
When Christine gets home she is confronted by the dwarf and faints from fright and is carried off. When she wakes she is in the Phantom's lair deep in the cellars of the opera house and the Phantom is playing a huge organ. He tells the frightened girl that he will teach her to sing properly, and rehearses her with fanatical insistence until she collapses from exhaustion. Meanwhile, Harry, reinstated as the opera producer, is worried about Christine's disappearance. Pondering the story of the mysterious Professor, he checks the river where he had last been seen. At that same moment, he hears the echo of Christine's voice emanating from a storm drain, and soon finds himself following the voice through one of London's water-filled sewers. The faint sound of the organ playing draws him down a tunnel where the dwarf attacks him with a knife. Harry subdues him, and finds himself facing the missing Professor as Christine looks on from a bed (where she'd been sleeping).
Harry asks the professor what had happened in his past. In a flashback, the Phantom says that five years before, as a poor and starving composer, he had been forced to sell all of his music, including the opera, to Lord Ambrose for a pitifully small fee with the thought that his being published would bring him recognition. When he discovered that Lord Ambrose was having the music published under his own name, Petrie became enraged and broke into the printers to destroy the plates. While burning the music that had already been printed, Petrie unwittingly started a fire, then accidentally splashed acid on his face and hands in an effort to put it out, thinking it was water. In terrible agony, he ran out, jumped into the river, and was swept by the current into an underground drain, where he was rescued and cared for by the dwarf. The Phantom says that he is dying but he wishes to see his opera performed by Christine. They both agree to allow him time to complete her voice coaching.
When the opera is presented several weeks later, Lord Ambrose is confronted in his office by the Phantom. He rips off The Phantom's mask and sees his terrifying face, he runs out screaming into the night. As the curtain rises, with Christine in the lead role, the Phantom watches eagerly in the "haunted" box. Her performance brings him to tears as he hears his music finally presented. Listening enraptured to the music, the dwarf is discovered in the catwalks by a stage-hand and in the chase, he jumps onto a huge chandelier poised high above the stage over Christine. As the rope begins to break from the weight, the Phantom spots the danger. He rips off his mask, leaps from his box to the stage and pushes Christine safely from harm. He is impaled by the chandelier before the eyes of the horror-stricken audience.Herbert Lom as The Phantom of the Opera/Professor Petrie
Heather Sears as Christine Charles
Edward de Souza as Harry Hunter
Michael Gough as Lord Ambrose D'Arcy
Ian Wilson as The Dwarf
Thorley Walters as Lattimer
Harold Goodwin as Bill
Franco de Cudlitz
Marne Maitland as Xavier
Miriam Karlin as Charwoman
Patrick Troughton as The Rat Catcher
Renée Houston as Mrs. Tucker
Keith Pyott as Weaver
Based upon the interest generated by the Phantom of the Opera sequence in the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, and the success of the 1943 remake, Universal was interested in revisiting the story again. The first plans for remake were in-studio, with William Alland producing and Franklin Coen writing. Plans for this remake fell through, but upon the success of the distribution of Dracula for Hammer, Universal decided to let the British outfit tackle the project instead and announced the project in February, 1959.
Two months later, Hammer Pictures struck a five-year deal with Columbia Pictures to produce five films a year. On these terms, Hammer's previous arrangements (such as The Mummy for Universal Studios and The Hound of the Baskervilles for United Artists) could be fulfilled, but thereafter could produce only two pictures a year for other studios. Phantom of the Opera was among those announced for Universal.
Over the next two years, the project fell on and off the charts. In 1960, the project was connected with Kathryn Grayson, although she had not been in pictures for some years. According to his author Wayne Kinsey's interpretation of a quote from producer Anthony Hinds, the romantic lead (Harry Hunter) was written for Cary Grant . Grant had expressed his interest in doing a Hammer horror film, at a time when it was common for American actors to be featured in British films. Actually, what Hinds said repeatedly in interviews was, "I wrote the script for Cary Grant," which makes it far more likely Grant was to play the title role, not a subordinate leading man.
Production for the film started in November 1961. As with most of the Hammer productions, the film was shot at Bray Studios on a modest budget. Lom recalled in one interview how the producers at Hammer expected actors to throw themselves into their work: "For one of my scenes, the Hammer people wanted me to smash my head against a stone pillar, because they said they couldn't afford one made of rubber," Lom reveals. "I refused to beat my head against stone, of course. This caused a 'big crisis', because it took them half a day to make a rubber pillar that looked like stone. And of course, it cost a few pennies more. Horror indeed!"
Many of the exterior sets utilised were on the studio's backlot and had already been used for many Hammer productions previously. Interiors of the "London Opera House" were filmed at the Wimbledon Theatre in London, which was rented for three weeks. Over 100 musicians and chorus people were hired for the shoot. The film had a reported budget initially of £200,000, but it was reported after principal shooting to be £400,000, both figures unusually high for a Hammer film.
All of the flashback scenes showing how Professor Petrie became the Phantom were filmed with "Dutch angles," meaning the camera was noticeably tilted to give an unreal, off-kilter effect: a time-honored method in film of representing either a flashback or a dream.
The Phantom of the Opera opened in New York City on 22 August 1962 at the RKO Palace Theater. In person was Sonya Cordeau, who played "Yvonne" in the picture. Cordeau later went on tour with the film for Universal.
When the film had its American TV premiere on NBC, additional footage of Scotland Yard police inspectors (played by Liam Redmond and John Maddison) looking for the Phantom was filmed to increase the running time. This footage was shot at Universal Studios, and Hammer Productions had no input at all. The Kiss of the Vampire and The Evil of Frankenstein also had American-shot footage added to their television showings as well. This was a common practice when it was thought that parts of the film were "too intense." These scenes were edited out, and more acceptable scenes replaced them or extended the running time.
In common with Hammer's usual practice, when shown in British cinemas in 1962, the film was paired with Captain Clegg, another of the studio's films.
The music in this movie features Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, arguably the most famous piece of organ music ever composed, and one that has become commonly associated with horror films.
The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films wrote of the film: "Although distinguished by some fine acting, sets and music, The Phantom of the Opera seems decidedly half-baked." The author(s) called Terence Fisher's direction "misguided", and noted that distributor J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors' "emasculation of the British print sealed its fate." The film also takes away much of the Phantom's dark, morbid side, making him a tragic hero.
In North America, the film was released on 6 September 2005 along with seven other Hammer horror films on the 4-DVD set The Hammer Horror Series (ASIN: B0009X770O), which is part of MCA-Universal's Franchise Collection. This set was re-released on Blu-ray on 13 September 2016.