If not the worst "Phantom" certainly the most unfaithful one
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 01/29/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I have nothing against the idea of doing "The Phantom of the Opera" as a splatter flick. But with both Dwight H. Little's 1989 version starring Robert Englund and Dario Argento's effort from 1998 the problem is not the blood and gory but the liberties they take with Gaston Leroux's original novel. For the former it was the idea the Phantom had been marked by the Devil and was pursuing Christine Daae through time, and for the latter it is the idea that the Phantom was raised by rats. If you are not reminded of the flashback in "Batman Returns" where the infant Penguin is dispatched in a basket on a river when the parents of the Phantom do the same thing in the opening of this film when they send their baby sailing away on a Paris sewer then it is only because you have not seen both films. Apparently the rats are telepathic, which explains how it is the abandoned infant grows up to speak, play music, and build a pipe organ in the catacombs beneath the opera house.
Despite the cover art for the DVD this Phantom, played by Julian Sands, does not wear a mask. This is because he does not need to; there is nothing wrong with his face, but inside he is twisted as a result of being raised by telepathic rats. The rats actually become an important part of the story, but more in a "Willard"/"Ben" way than a "Tarzan of the Apes"/"The Jungle Book" way. But before we get to them let us consider the changes in the love triangle that Argento and co-writer Gérard Brach have come up with for this version of the familiar story.
You can easily pick out the trio from the rest of the cast because they are the ones with long hair. This time around Raoul De Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano) seems to be as warped as the Phantom, although this might because he spends too much time with his brother at a local opium den surrounded by naked people of both sexes and all sizes. The Phantom does not spend a lot of time teaching Christine (Asia Argento, the director's daughter) how to sing, because she is sounds pretty good the first time she gets on stage in the empty Opera House and starts singing high notes. But he does establish a psychic link with her so that instead of fetching her down to his lair he can just send out a call. For all those of you who have been waiting for the Phantom and Christine to consummate their love, this is the version of "The Phantom of the Opera" to see. The problem is that I do not know why Christine turns on the Phantom or what besides a hail of bullets drives her into Raoul's arms. But then I do not know why the director wants to photograph his daugher naked (my Italian bloodline has been watered down too much I suppose).
Then there are the rats. Ignace (Istvan Bubik), the head rat-catcher has been around for eight years and has killed over 4,000 rats and counting. He keeps tabs by keeping the tails of each rat he kills in a jar of formaldehyde with the month, year, and tail total written on the label. Given that every time a rat gets killed the Phantom must be hearing the rodent equivalent of a death shriek in his mind you would have thought that the Phantom would have tracked down this murderer well before this time, but that is not the case. Instead Ignace has a bad encounter with the rats and decides the best recourse is to invent a killing machine that can be driven around on the smooth floors of the catacombs while it does all sorts of interesting things to the rats it catches.
You keep thinking that the whole rat catching bit is simply comic relief, and for much of the film it is. But it turns out that it is Ignace and not Raoul that the Phantom has to worry about. Besides, as long as Ignace and that pervert passing out Swiss chocolates to the under-aged girls of the corps de ballet is running around, the Phantom is not the biggest monster running around and/or under the opera house. However, if I had to pick a low point in "Il Fantasma dell'opera" it would have to be the way Argento caps off the fall of the chandelier with a joke. I was already trying to figure out how what the Phantom was doing with the big mallet would bring around the desired result (although I understood the work was hard enough for him to ditch his shirt), so my confusion turned to dismay when the famous disaster becomes just another joke at the expense of diva Carlotta Altieri (Nadia Rinaldi).
Is this the worst version of "The Phantom of the Opera"? I have no problem with the idea that it is the least faithful, even compared to Little's movie, but even if you disagree with the changes there are some things of interest here. The opera house in Budapest is gorgeous and there are some nice gory special effects, although certainly not as many as you would expect from Argento and none of them really standout pieces of blood and gore that are seared into your brain forever. The opium den scene is the most memorable scene and it has the least to do with the plot than anything else in the entire film, relying on dozens of bronzed naked bodies to make its impression. Ronnie Taylor's cinematography makes things look good to your eyes even when your brain is complaining about the story. The performances are all adequate, but I found that for me the most sympathetic character ended up being Carlotta: the Phantom attacks her and she still shows up to sing, the strongest moment of anybody in the movie.
Ennio Morricone is credited with the score, and there is also additional music by Maurizio Guarini, but the film makes nice use of actual operatic arias and overtures fom "Carmen," "Faust," "Lakmé: Air des clochettes," and "Romeo & Juliet." This also makes the film sound classier than it is. This DVD is the unrated director's cut, while you can get the original R-rated version on VHS (I have no idea where it is the gore or sex that makes up the differences). I am not enough of a fan of Dario Argento to be offended by this particular effort and have seen enough liberties be taken with the story of "The Phantom of the Opera" to be rather jaded by what happens here and knock off another star. There are enough warnings here and in other reviews to know whether you want to be disappointed either as a fan or the director or of the story."
Art-House horror for the soul - Multiplex freaks stay away!
Peter Neal | 06/20/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Well, after the pretty poor by Argento standards Trauma and the near-perfect Stendhal Syndrome , Dario Argento pulls off his most expensive in-joke yet! This is a very difficult film that demands a lot from it's viewers. It is not always easy to read between the lines of an Argento film. It never has been easy after all.Argento does not care to make a traditional horror film, that's for sure. Instead, he creates a self-ironic film, deliberately balancing between shots of poetic grace (the Phantom's visions of children pierced by mousetraps - chilling) and shots of extravagant kitch (Asia's appearance in the same scene!). Argento's choice of not to have his Phantom disfigured was not without a point: This man is disfigured from the inside, and thanks to the script, it shows. Let's not forget that Gerard Brach, the co-scripter, is the man who co-wrote "Frantic", "The Fearless Vampire Killers" and many other Polanski films. He lived up to our expectations once again. The film is deliberately funny in places but it contains some very weird scenes (like the one in the brothel - unbelievable for an Argento film). I would say that it is his most 'Fellini-esque' film yet. It is his "8 1/2". This is his contribution to a tradition kept by directors such as Fellini or Visconti for that matter (he is often called "the Visconti of violence" after all).Let's not forget the help he gets from his actors: Julian Sands couldn't be a better choice. His phantom is gentle, vicious, romantic and monstrous all at the same time. Asia on the other hand seems to be stoned for most of the film which adds more to the dreaminess of the concept me thinks. Sergio Stivalleti has done some great work with CGI, especially in a scene where a poor guy gets impaled (you think it's really happening!). Ronnie Taylor's photography is NOT up to perfect standards (it is known that he could not stand the weather conditions and wanted to leave as soon as possible) but the known quality of his work is there, once again. A movie that belongs more to the Art-House section than to that of Horror, I might add. Don't miss it though. And buy the Ennio Moriconne soundtrack, it is a masterpiece!"
I love Dario Argento to death, but...
jason hyde | chicago | 02/11/2000
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This, admittedly, is a boring, sloppy, embarrassing mess. Easily the maestro's weakest since Inferno (which married gorgeous visuals to the least involving story in Argento's entire career). The flaws here are massive, starting with a surprisingly poor script from Gerald Brach. It's interesting that Argento's first collaboration with an acclaimed screenwriter is also the worst script he's ever filmed. Acting is very uneven, although the dubbing doesn't allow for complete critiques. Sands tries hard, but the phantom has been rewritten in such a silly manner that he's ultimately working in vain. Asia Argento looks great, as usual, but she's just wrong for the part. Idiotic elements abound, the violence is unimpressive and inserted seemingly at random, the material involving the rats is just stupid and silly. Dario's camerawork is shockingly restrained and conservative, as if the period setting caused him to quell his usually baroque techniques. It's those techniques, though, that make him unique and inimitable. Here he seems too mannered. Attempts at comedy mostly fall short of being funny, and there's far too many of them - Dario shouldn't do comedy, as Five Days in Milan ably demonstrated. On the plus side, the cinematography is beautiful, creating probably the most accurate recreation of the period i've ever seen. Ennio Morricone's music is lovely, although not as good as his work for The Stendhal Syndrome. And there's a dwarf. Argento works best with modern settings, attitudes, and ideas, and this failed experiment at a period piece is hopefully just that - a failed experiment and not a new direction. Besides, the director already covered this material in Opera (aka Terror at the Opera) in 1989, giving it an amazingly cold, nihilistic, and misanthropic attitude that's far more impressive than this film's more "polite" approach. Watch that film instead of this one."
A rare Argento misfire
Jeffrey Leach | Omaha, NE USA | 08/04/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)
"I'm shedding a few tears as I come to the end of my two-year plus journey through Dario Argento's filmography. I've now seen his most celebrated works; films such as "Deep Red," "Suspiria," "Tenebre," "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage," and "Phenomena." After I work my way through the rest of his stuff--"Trauma," "The Card Player," "Four Flies on Grey Velvet," and a few other odds and ends--it will all be over unless the man makes a few more films before shuffling off this mortal coil. Never again will I watch one of his masterpieces for the first time. Never again will I watch those black-gloved killers rip into a shrieking victim with the same sense of anticipation I held during the first viewing. Ahhh, to go back in time and re-experience the bloody pleasures of Dario's best work! The director has fallen on hard times in recent years, unfortunately, as the quality of his films has dropped precipitously. He just can't seem to recapture the magic of his early days. Oh well. Even a substandard film from Argento is better than the vast majority of horror films on the market today. At least that's what I thought before sitting through the interminable torture that is "Phantom of the Opera."
This 1998 take on the classic Gaston Leroux novel ranks as the worst Argento film I've sat through. It's so bad, in fact, that even lesser works like "Sleepless" and "The Stendahl Syndrome" look magnificent in comparison. The story resembles most of the other versions of the book we've seen over the years, i.e. a social outcast hidden away in the nooks and crannies of an opera house develops an intense fascination with a lovely young singer whose obscurity practically ensures that her new fan will wreak bloody havoc on those around her. The Phantom (Julian Sands), unlike in other versions, bears no discernable disfigurement on his face or his body. He's actually a rather handsome fellow who somehow ended up in a byzantine series of caverns underneath an opera house while still an infant. A pack of telepathic rats raised the young boy to appreciate arias and bloodletting (not necessarily in that order). We learn that the Phantom is a thuggish goon early on when he tears a few workers into bloody shreds as they attempt to perform some work in one of the caverns. We also learn at roughly the same time that the understudy in the opera house's most recent production, Christine (Asia Argento), has caught the eye of the Phantom.
When Christine--greatly despised by the star of the production and generally ignored by the managers--flits onstage at the end of the day to belt out a few sweet sounding notes, the Phantom overhears her and immediately lays plans to win her heart. Clandestine meetings in out of the way places cause Christine to swoon with passion (must be that telepathy thing), but she's not quite sure who this man is or why she feels such joy at his presence. As this lovey dovey nonsense plays out, Argento treats us to a couple of subplots. One involves a pair of greedy lowlifes who think they can go down into the catacombs and find a vast treasure. The Phantom gorily dispatches these two dolts in a scene that, while bloody in an entertaining way, seems to drag on forever. A second thread concerns a greasy looking chap whose sole means of employment revolves around catching rats underneath the opera house. With the help of a diminutive helper, dirty ratcatcher builds a go-cart type device that sucks up rats and chews them up. The scene where we see this vehicle in operation, accompanied by appropriately "kooky" music, is wildly unfunny. Anyway, the movie wraps up with Christine oscillating between love and hatred for the hapless Phantom as human authority figures close in for the kill. The end.
Egads, "The Phantom of the Opera" is an atrocious film! Only two things help this production avoid a one star review: Asia Argento and the gore. Asia is one absolutely gorgeous gal even though her performance here is mediocre. The gore, thankfully, looks quite good. We've got bodies ripped in half, a nasty looking impalement, crushing by way of chandelier, throats cracking red smiles, and some French guy taking a rifle stock in the face. These things help, but fail to redeem the film. I didn't like the cinematography at all, which looked more like a television production than a feature film. I also didn't care for Julian Sands as the Phantom. He's not disfigured, which is hard to get used to after seeing other film versions, and thus he never really comes across as a sympathetic character. That's an important theme of the story, isn't it? That we come to empathize with this horrible creature? Maybe not. I've never read the book. But I do know a couple of the film versions I've seen embrace this idea. Forget about feeling anything for the Phantom here. To make matters worse, those special effects we see when the Phantom is daydreaming on the roof of the opera house? Embarrassingly cheesy, my friends. Try and watch them without cringing.
Maybe "Phantom of the Opera" would have worked better had Dario slapped a pair of black gloves on this dude and given him a case full of funky looking knives. You know, turn it into a giallo. Something, anything would have been preferable to this film. The DVD version of the movie throws us a few extras in an attempt to make us feel better. An interview with Julian Sands, behind the scenes footage, photo galleries, and a text article lifted from Fangoria do little to take away the sting of this rare Argento misfire. Give this puppy a wide berth; you're far better off revisiting a few of the past glories than wallowing in this poor excuse for a horror film.