Synopsis: Mysteriously, a series of terrifying accidents and brutal murders leaves a bloody body trail in the subterranean caverns of an opera house basement. Born into the murky sewer waters below the theater stalks a man / monster raised by creatures of the underworld. This Phantom’s dark and grotesque life is shattered when he becomes obsessed with a beautiful young singer, seducing her with his chilling but erotic presence. The blood-curdling terror and disturbing eroticism of this classic story make this horror film one that will haunt your dreams forever.
eyelights: Julian Sands. the nude baths sequence.
eyesores: Asia Argento. the ridiculous script. the campy tone.
‘Il fantasma dell’opera’ is Dario Argento’s take on the literary classic Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, by Gaston Leroux. Released in 1998, it’s one of the most recent adaptations, in a long line of big screen, television and stage renditions of all kinds.
This is possibly the least palatable of the bunch.
Although 1989’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, featuring Robert Englund as The Phantom, is often cited as the worst version out there, one could easily make a case for Argento’s unimaginative, dull and patently absurd twist on the tale.
To be perfectly honest, I can’t even be bothered to argue for or against it.
I was so thoroughly bored that my mind quickly decided to excrete this mnemonic refuse. I just don’t care. I was so ambivalent that once the credits rolled I couldn’t muster the effort needed to watch the special features – some of them astonishingly short.
Thus, the best I can do in this case is to provide a few salient points, in the hope that it will prove somewhat insightful:
-‘Il fantasma dell’opera’ is based on the original book, but it takes many liberties. For one, The Phantom has been raised by rats in the catacombs. Yes, raised by rats – much like The Penguin was raised by penguins in ‘Batman Returns’. However, nothing explains why The Phantom seems well-groomed (and unscarred!), can speak English and is telepathic. Apparently Mowgli and Tarzan missed out by being raised in the jungle.
-Asia Argento plays the lead, Christine, in an exceptionally execrable “performance” – likely the worst aspect of the film. Asia’s delivery was absolutely ghastly, but the worst of it were her operatic performances, which were so poorly lip-synched and delivered as to be risible. Now, I understand why she was getting the loving support of her father, but Dario truly should have done himself a favour and hired real actresses for his films. Heck, Hitchcock only hired his daughter a few times – and in minor roles at that.
-There’s this very intriguing bath sequence, which was meant to evoke a Roman orgy in some fashion – but done on the cheap. Anyway, I found this scene particularly interesting because it featured gay coupling and even obese people, all fully nude, and it made them all look pretty good, or at the very least dignified. I’d say that this is the biggest highlight of the film because it eschewed conventions and did it with a certain amount of class. Surprising, especially in a horror film, but a nice surprise.
-The opera house’s rat catcher has caught over a thousand rats, and he keep the tails as trophies. Seriously, when he boasted about how many rats he’d caught in so short a time, I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t just burn the place down; what a disaster area. But, when I saw his Rat-kart, a motor vehicle he devised precisely for catching them, and the bizarrely cartoonish sequence it’s featured in, my disgust turned to the film – why didn’t anyone just burn the celluloid?
From the onset, one of the key issues for me was that I was unsure as to whether ‘Il fantasma dell’opera’ was intentionally camp or not. Was Dario making a bad film on purpose, or had he totally lost it? This shows none of the vaunted skill that the icon has built his career on. Once favourably compared to Hitchcock, with this film one can’t help but feel disappointment at seeing that he’s become nothing more than a mere straight-to-video hack.
Um… unless he meant to make a campy film, and skillfully succeeded, that is. Which would then beg the question: Why?
After all, ‘Il fantasma dell’opera’ is not a film one would want to add to one’s legacy. Dario Argento had a reputation for making intriguing, if imperfect, films that were compelling enough to garner him a significant fanbase. It made him into an icon of horror cinema. He has had much influence on the genre, so the mind reels at the thought that he would jeopardize it all on purpose.
Be that as it may be, what I remember most about this picture is a long haze of nothing, frequently punctuated by short moments of ineptitude of all kinds – mostly from the cast, the script and its once-legendary director. Honestly, the only reason I rate it as highly as I do is because I didn’t actually hate it; I was far too disconnected and ambivalent to care. This ‘Phantom’ could vanish, and I really wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
Post scriptum: Rifftrax have made a commentary track for this particular film. That should be a hoot, so there’s a chance I might actually watch this movie again – but for laughs this time. Thank you, Rifftrax!
Date of viewing: March 20, 2013