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The Phantom of the Opera

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 5 November 1999

Phantom of the Opera  

Directed by Dario Argento

Starring Julian Sands, 
Asia Argento, Andrea Di Stefano, 
Nadia Rinaldi, and Coralina Cataldi

Written by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento, 
from the novel by Gaston LeRoux

Dario Argento made his name as the heir apparent of Italian giallo (a genre of stylish slasher pictures) master Mario Bava, delivering murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at time surreal situations, he could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento lifted the slasher film from the mire of villain-as-hero exploitation in Friday the 13th films and the like and turned it into violent, bloody poetry.

Those films seem a long time gone and the nineties have seen Argento try to be more than Italy’s giallo Hitchcock. The results have been… mixed at best and on the downward slide. The Stendahl Syndrome, a 1996 psycho-thriller about a detective who goes, literally, mad while tracking a serial killer contains some of his most astounding cinematic adventures as art, reality, and dream bleed together and the young detective becomes an Alice through the looking glass of her nightmares. Yet Argento succumbs to the worst of his cinematic sadism and puts that detective (unconvincingly played by his lovely daughter Asia) through an ordeal of sheer brutality and she becomes the center of a spectacle of mental torture and physical rape. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth that only turns more sour when you realize that it’s his own daughter he’s torturing for all to see onscreen.

Asia also stars in his latest film, his second go at Phantom of the Opera (his first, Opera -- aka Terror at the Opera -- took the idea and turned it into a pure giallo tale of a murderous madman making a spectacle of his victims). If The Stendahl Syndrome pushed the giallo to mind-game extremes, this Phantom (more faithful to the book than his previous, if only by contrast) is Argento playing it straighter… sort of. This Phantom is a dashing, darkly handsome character with long blonde hair, black eyes and a smooth face. Julian Sands, a Phantom who doesn’t hide behind a mask, is more than a simply a cellar dweller: he’s King Rat, a man raised by rodents after a maternal mama rat drags the infant phantom from a floating basket in the Paris Sewers (the scene is supposed to suggest Moses, but the sheer silliness of the entire sequence evokes the birth of the Penguin in Batman Returns). As he haunts the basements and hunts the humans that venture below (the first attack leaves a gushing stump where a plumer once hung from a pulley rope), upstairs a lovely young ingenue, Christina (Asia Argento), plays understudy to a tyrannical diva. The Phantom, who telepathically whispers sweets nothings to his lady love, decides to turn Christine into a star and begins his insidious campaign to… well, you know the story.

What you don’t know is the sheer weirdness Argento has injected into it: a slovenly rat catcher who pickles a memento from every rodent dead at his hands, a clockwork brass go-cart that sucks, snatches and slices up the skittering vermin (a bizarre contraption that could have emerged from a twisted Dr. Phibes sequel), an Opera House manager with a creepy, not-too-secret sexual attraction to the pre-adolescent girls taking lessons in ballet and voice. Argento goes to town with such visions as the Phantom’s day-dream of squirming, cherub-like naked humans caught in a monstrous rat trap and a sidetrip to a Fellini-esque spa of fleshy decadence (where Christina’s other love interest, a young Italian noble of high flown romantic fantasies, flees to drown his sorrows). This Phantom turns into a veritable Beauty and the Beast, complete with love scene (how Daddy Dario can photograph his naked daughter in simulated copulation is beyond me) and tortured romantic tragedy, set in a grandiose, astoundingly beautiful, opera hall (the Budapest Opera House, standing in for Paris) where Degas sketches the little girls and young students running around the edges of the drama. And of course Argento spices it all with a few gory deaths.

By the time Argento works up to the climax (a dramatic and stylistic disappointment) the film is deep in an identity crisis: it doesn’t know if it’s a horror film, a love story, a tragic drama, or a spectacle, and it tries to go all directions at once. The result isn’t so much a mess as a morass, with a schizophrenic love story that bounces all over the push-me pull-you drama and splashes of gore that haven’t the invention, the horror, nor the poetry of his early work. What’s left is an incredibly handsome film (Argento makes the most of his Budapest locations and the film swims in rich colors and magnificent settings, courtesy Ronnie Taylor’s lush cinematography) where shrieking characters rattle through a story that tears itself apart in conflicting directions.

Argento’s horror masterpieces never worked for their stories --his best films throw narrative construction to the wind as surreal rollercoaster rides and nightmarish fairy tales cascade in dream logic and sheer cinematic momentum -- so this sudden attempt to mute his baroque style for a mainstream story of tragic romance and high drama loses his assets while floundering on his deficiencies. I guess every aging artist wants to move on to create “meaningful” works of emotion and intellect (just look at Wes Craven doing the art thing with Music of the Heart), but Argento is simply no storyteller. Go back to dream weaving and choreographing fantastic nightmares, and leave the tragedy to someone who creates emotional dramas instead of gory spectacles.

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