Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1998)

13. The Phantom of the Opera
Il fantasma dell'opera

This is a strange film. It is strange by Argento standards. It is strange by the standards set by “Phantom of the Opera” adaptations, which includes a glam rock musical and a Satanic slasher. This is a film that starts with rats raising a baby (Instead of, just, you know, eating it) and goes from there.

First off, the Phantom isn’t deformed, scarred, or wearing a mask. He does however have an unexplained psychic domain over the opera house. Julian Sands plays him as a shy outcast, a sincere lover, a sexual deviant, and a mindless killing machine. The script never settles on one characterization.

The Phantom isn’t the only character radically altered. Asia Argento plays Christine Daae as a wide-eyed, blank-minded, screeching princess. When the Phantom’s possessive side begins to show, she erupts into a petty screaming match, like a selfish teenage brat. Christine decides she hates the Phantom and must love Raoul, a crushed wimp with no personality, who she was platonic friends with just days before. Asia spends the latter half of the film screaming her head off and wearing ridiculous hats. It doesn’t help that the movie lingers on her obviously dubbed singing. Christine is also apparently the kind of girl who fucks on the first date, as the Phantom is humping her doggy-style (rat-style?) not long after meeting her. Near the end, when someone calls her “the Phantom’s whore!,” the audience isn’t given much reason to disagree.

The movie is unusually vulgar. Early on, a couple plots to steal the Phantom’s treasure, but not before the girl gets naked. As soon as they enter the caverns, he brutally kills them, impaling the dude on a stalagmite and biting the girl’s tongue off. There’s an unnecessary sequence where Raoul’s brother takes him to a Turkish bath, full of grotesquely fat naked people. When the Phantom threatens the Opera’s primadonna, he gropes her breasts for no reason. Of course there’s the scene where the Phantom undresses and lets rats crawl around on his body. Thankfully, the scene cuts away just before he takes off his pants, but the proceeding bestiality is more then implied.

Gore is to be expected from Argento, but kill scenes are placed without rhyme or reasons. The film opens with a guy getting cut in half off-screen, in circumstances that are completely impossible. The above murder of the couple is barely mentioned again. There’s an extended sequence where a dirty old man tries to bribe a young ballerina with some chocolate, before the Phantom tears his gut open. However, you’re not really sure what’s happening, since the camera just focuses on red meat and fake blood rolling around. None of these murders have any impact on the story.

The film is rife with other special effects failures. In the opening, we see a fluffy animatronic rat. There’s a gratuitous shot of a very fake CGI fly. And then there’s the chandelier drop, surely the center-piece of any “Phantom” adaptation, but spectacle is ruined by the presentation. The Phantom, shirtless with his long silver hair blowing in the wind, looking like he’s in a hair metal video, smashes the chandelier’s holding mechanism with a hammer. Obviously CGI cracks appear in the ceiling and an obvious model crashes down on obvious dummies. The scene is punctuated with a horrible blue screen shot of Carlotta running away from a falling statue. After the statue hits her, she gets up and coughs white smoke.

The what-the-fuck moments pile up quickly. White light shoots out of a crack in the wall. The Phantom sits on the roof of the opera house, with a very fake CGI city behind him, when he has a vivid vision of naked rat-men squirming in a mouse trap. This is followed with a vision of Christine dancing in a black-mesh outfit that most definitely does not fit the time period.

But no what-the-fuck moment is what-the-fuck-ier then when the Rat Catcher and his dwarf sidekick build a weird rat killing device. It looks like a roller coaster cart crossed with a jet ski. It has street sweeper brushes that push the rats into some vacuum tubes. They spin around in a rotisserie oven before popping out of the top, where the dwarf grabs the bodies. There’s also a giant swinging blade that serves no purpose. The Rat Catcher takes a rough turn and puts on the brakes but just produces bad CGI spraks. The cart careens off a cliff and crashes. The CGI blade reveals its purpose by dramatically decapitating the dwarf. This scene is utterly inexplicable. If Argento himself flies to my house and explains why this had to be in the movie, I still won’t understand.

By the time you see an opera attendee sitting in the audience, wearing a cast and bandages, you think Argento is fucking with you, that this is meant to be absurd. But then Julian Sands literally flies onto the stage and we get an earnest climax. The Phantom goes down like the Terminator, taking far more bullets and stabs to his body then is humanly possible. Asia’s screaming face transfers to a wandering, unstable view of the opera house auditorium, as the end credits play.

Just how the hell did the genius who made “Deep Red” create this disaster? Argento’s direction is stale and uninteresting when it isn’t hilariously inept, like when the camera ping-pongs between two faces. Argento also manages to make a real cave look like a cheesy set.

About the only thing I can recommend is Ennio Morricone’s score. While it’s rather bland over all, the main theme, “Sighs and Sighs,” is beautiful. It perfectly captures the loneliness and unrequited love central to the Phantom character. It deserves a much better movie.

I’ve got nothing else to say. This is a complete and utter train wreck from beginning to end. [Grade: D-]

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