Il Fantasma dell'opera

(Phantom of the Opera, Italy - 1998)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Asia Argento, Julian Sands, Andrea Di Stefano, Nadia Rinaldi
Genre: Romance/Drama/Thriller/Horror/Comedy
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento & Gerard Brach based on the novel by Gaston Leroux
Cinematography: Ronnie Taylor
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 106 minutes

This is not the latest adaption; it's a reconceptualization. Thus, it should be expected to be true to the original only where the writers, Gerard Brach and Dario Argento, see fit. Many people are up in arms that the phantom's face isn't disfigured, but that is not the problem. The problem is Dario replaces the disfigurement with a raised by rats story that sadly seems ripped off from the atrocious Batman Returns, yet we get a Richard Gere type of suave, supposedly poetic phantom instead of an uneducated Christopher Lambert in Greystoke. What makes this worse is that the script is so weak that even a totally literate phantom has almost no chance to utter a decent line of dialogue.

Virtually the entire movie takes place within the opera house, but this is in no way limiting or constricting to the look of the film because this is Dario Argento we are talking about. Argento creates a bizarre underworld in the depths of the opera house that is original, but at the same time evokes memories of Jeunet & Caro's City Of The Lost Children and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The use of color in lighting the sets is, of course, reminiscent of one of Argento's mentors, the late great Mario Bava. Dario's pays great attention to detail when it comes to the look he wants, but seemingly could care less whether the set is plausible in the real world. This is Dario's world; accept it or watch boring, visually stunted, formulaic directors rehash equally bad scripts in a conventional manner.

The movie often succeeds in being darkly comedic, and the characters are only meant to be viewed in the sense of what the represent in the real world. This is why the outside world isn't normal the two times we see it. Julie Taymor's ancient Rome is the only one that had cars and video games, but that doesn't stop most people from thinking Titus is a good flick. Both are bold visionary movies that are not trying to be realistic. You can make a valid argument that certain unrealistic aspects don't add anything to the movie and/or simply dislike them, but things like electricity in the opera house were deliberate decisions that intentionally make it implausible in the sense of the real world.

The biggest weakness of the movie, as usual, lies in the script. The most annoying aspect is The Phantom (Sands) has the special powers at the outset, but they mysteriously disappear when he needs them most as if they were provided by the Witchblade. The dialogue is definitely worse than the usual English as a second language stuff we get from Dario. The secondary characters are used well though, societal parodies. Some of the funniest work Dario has even done comes when he mocks the vulgarity of the opera society.

It's hard to figure out what the main characters were designed to do. They don't serve the purpose they did in Leroux's novel, but also don't provide chuckles or really elicit our love or contempt. I'm one of the least concerned people you'll find when it comes to whether you "should" like or dislike the characters, but they don't have near the complexity that makes characters you could feel either way about the most interesting. It's hard not to be ambivalent toward them.

The thrust of the film is the odd attractions between The Phantom and Christine, and too a much lesser extent between Christine and Raoul De Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano). Unfortunately, the leading men seem to chase Asia because they become addicted to her at first site. While I won't say that's hard to believe, even though I'm not thrilled with Argento's writing I still hold him to a lot higher standard than John Derek. Asia essentially professes to have no concept of love, so her feelings toward them are mostly based on their last action. Instinct vs. duality is a worthwhile concept, but the characters only seem drawn to each other because they are supposed to be. It eventually clicks, but not until the final segment of the film. The most interesting sequences actually involve a rat catcher who uses this unbelievable (in every way) extermination vehicle. This thing is just killer, but it could just as easily have been used to make Graveyard Shift watchable.

The strength of Argento's movie, as always, is the look. Some aspects were a little below his own top standard, but this was not the typical Dario movie. The improvements in sets, staging, and costuming help balance off the areas that are obviously going to be weaker given the type of movie. He successfully branched out with the sex related scenes. In the past, a naked or scantily clothed women would appear to titulate you for a minute before she was butchered. Here, when the men are haunted by their desire for Christine Daae (Asia), the scenes are erotic and/or funny. They gave the film the art house feel that makes up for it lacking the haunted house feel Dario wasn't going for this time.

I don't see where the movie would have looked any better with an overbloated American budget. The only thing lacking visually is the innovation we used to get from Dario. There aren't any shots/scenes that really stick out in terms of being shockingly different or original. The tongue being bitten out was the gory highlight, but that would normally be no better than the 4th part you'd mention. The gore is mainly close-ups. Argento & Stivaletti do them better than anyone, but they've overused the grinding/biting/ripping stuff here.

The film doesn't have the edge or create the suspense Dario's used to. That's mostly purposeful because I don't believe Dario intended to make a horror film. Sands is the cartoon avenger who kills off grotesque characters and sinners that we should only feel contempt for, so why should we be worried whether they get decapitated? That's why rats were a great choice of animal to raise Sands. They aren't fluffy little kittens that everyone supposedly likes and can't stand to see harmed; they are vermin. The people who try to steal from the phantom, sin in his presence (note that he saves the little girl, who then returns and tells the tale only to get slapped by an adult), or outright harm `his family' are considered lower than vermin. Of course, no one films animals and insects better than Argento's crew, check out Phenomena if you don't believe me. Sometimes he gets better `performances' out of them than from humans.

If you are watching for the acting, Argento movies are not the ones to check out. Sands & Asia (who sucked in Trauma, but really impressed me in the underrated Stendahl Syndrome) do a very good job considering the extremely limited material. Sands is able to exude the right amount of confidence by being much lower key than usual. Dario should have taken a look at the very good Albert Lewin film The Picture of Dorian Gray because what he's doing here is more the handsome exterior but scarred interior of Oscar Wilde's novel than the phantom of Leroux's. Unfortunately, there is not credible material to give Sands chance to be scarred inwardly and he seems too content with his condition. Asia is probably never going to give you subtlety, but she always does well as the object of sexual attention (especially in Abel Ferrara's vastly underrated New Rose Hotel). She's active enough with her body to get over the bad dialogue, but she looks ridiculous `singing' and the audio dub during her opera scenes is usually atrocious. Considering the legendary Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack, I expected more from that department.

Phantom of the Opera certainly has many problems and doesn't hold a candle to Argento's underrated 1987 film Opera, which featured some truly magnificent scenes in the opera house and generally Ronnie Taylor doing a much better job of showing his ability in staging and cinematography. To me, the Phantom is so reviled not because it's awful, but because it doesn't meet people's expectations. It's too altered and gored up for fans of Leroux's work, and too far a departure from Argento's visceral, atmospheric, and visually innovative gialli or supernatural horrors. That said, I'd still rather watch this than most films because it offers a unique visual experience that very few directors have the ability and the balls to provide.




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