Phantom of the Opera

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. 1998

Director: Dario Argento

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



I suppose few will call Dario Argento's Phantom of the Opera a great film, but I enjoyed it. If one wishes strongly to find Argento's special brand of misogyny in this one, it'll be a hard search. His trademark kill-all-girls is completely subdued & his first gross-out effect is hacking some dirty laborer in half. The one main chase-the-girl sequence ends with her tongue being ripped out by the roots.

These gore sequences detract from what otherwise attempts to be a moody gothic romance. But even if Argento hadn't personally wanted to be tasteless & tacky in this film, leaving such scenes out altogether would probably just annoy his fan base, who've frankly not given this film very good reviews as it is, I suspect because they weren't especting the deeply romantic stuff to dominate & they greatly missed the expected torture of women.

Nobody in this film can act worth a pit, but Julian Sands is as good as he ever is as the Phantom, & he looks really cool in a leather cape & long blond wig striding through underworld caverns. In fact he comes off cooler than ratshit. I hugely enjoyed watching his performance, & to a very great degree, his hammy excesses were just what the film required. As the Phantom's love-interest we have Asia Argento as Christine. She mugs wonderfully as she lipsinks at the opera house. I enjoyed every minute of her performance; whenever she's on screen the film is just dandy.

Most of the supporting cast stank to high heaven, but the exception would be the ratcatcher & his dwarf assistant. I could've happily seen a whole movie just about their exploits. The ratcatcher's wonderful "invention" for exploring the catacombs killing rats all along the way was comical grotesquery of the best sort.

Though mainly only Julian & Asia were good enough to even qualify as acting, the third-lead grew on me. By the time the Baron's character has his climactic scenes alongside Christine & the Phantom, he's not doing too badly, & I began to buy into who he was pretty thoroughly. A key scene for the Baron was to establish his Decadence at a sex & opium den; it was totally hoky but I loved that scene anyway.

Now & then a scene was so much fun it didn't matter if the acting was mediocre & the visual style badly dated (everything Argento has ever made looks like it was filmed in 1976 -- he just never evolves; this one came dangerously close to the look of an old Hammer period horror film, despite added excesses)

Frankly, if the corny & moronic gore scenes (tongue-extraction & hacking laborer in half) had been left out, this might've been darkly effectively moody throughout, as all three key players are just such angst-ridden weirdos I found it easy to love the Phantom, Christine, & in the end even the Baron. Unfortunately Argento is incapable of sustaining a mood & interupts his own film for stupid things. Like the Phantom goes up on the roof of the opera house to daydream moodily, but envisions Christine in a burlesque costume like at some cruddy strip joint, totally spoiling what was momentarily working pretty well in the movie.

While on the roof the Phantom also envisioned humans caught in giant rat-traps. That bit of campy gore actually worked because it was tied to the Phantom's character. He is not the traditional Phantom of previous films or Gaston Leroux's novel. He is not physically & facially burned/maimed, but only psychologically maimed. He is not avenging himself against someone who stole his music & destroyed his life as in all previous versions, but was an abandoned infant who floated like the Penguin in the second Batman movie into the sewers of Paris where he was raised a feral boy by rats. He wants humanity to die because they are always killing his friends & family, the rats.

There's a scene just before one rather effective gore-scene in which he says, "I'm a rat." ›If it was meant to be funny, it wasn't. It was moving & cool -- Julian's actual long-nosed face & his love of rats (which I related to quite a lot) was just excellent, then he kills the guy gruesomely for drawing a tiny knife on him. At least this time the Phantom was somewhat justified; when he killed the three laborers at the beginning, he was just pointlessly psycho.

Another scene has him killing a would-be child molestor. There's a heroic quality about the Phantom, but we never really forget he also killed totally innocent laborers, & only if we impose a greater certainty that he wants to take vengeance for the sake of the rats does it make sense that he kills willynilly. The character is thus only roughly drawn in the script, & only some of the Phantom's acts of cruelty make any story sense.

The psychology of the thing is simple, as the story required. Christine has something of a goth's heart. She is instantly drawn to the Phantom & acquires a telepathic unity with him. But she is equally drawn to the Light, so has as much love for the Baron. There's a moment when things change when the Phantom & the Baron confront each other face to face, but I won't give it away. I felt the emotion of some of these scenes however, I felt like Argento really got a lot of it right on target for expressing the gothic beauty of horror, though he kept falling off the track making it an uneven achievement.

Never once did it seem like they were in Paris. It was some alternative reality & mostly Italian. But that's a minor thing; I am willing to provide the missing fill-ins for such failed points, & decided early on it was indeed an alternate dimension in which the Phantom was a feral boy & Paris is an Italian version of Budapest.

When the film ended on the most angst-ridden of all its angst-ridden moments, I was completely satisfied by the experience. As my sweety said when the credits rolled, "That was bad. But I liked it." It's a film worthy of cherishing ›in spite of the fact that it's not going to be mistaken for a "good" film by many viewers. It's a rewarding film & that must stand as sufficient.

There was just too much wonderful inside the experience of viewing it to even care awfully much that there was also some stuff too dumb for words. If it really had been made in 1976 instead of recently, it would've been one of the best films of its era. By today's standards its at best "retro" in its style, at worst twenty years too late to matter. But all criticisms are swept away by the fact that it was an enjoyable film over all.

copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl



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