Nine More Nights of Argento #4 – “The Phantom of the Opera” (1998)

phantomLast October, I saw the first nine films directed by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. With the spooky season upon us again, I’ve decided to check out the back-half of Argento’s filmography, from 1990’s George A. Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes to 2012’s notorious flop Dracula 3D.

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Over a century after its 1909 publication, Gaston Leroux‘s tragic tale of unrequited love between a gifted opera singer and her horribly disfigured benefactor has stood the test of time and produced many memorable adaptations. Most notably, there’s the iconic 1925 Lon Chaney silent version, Claude Rains‘ vibrant 1943 remake from Universal, and the wildly popular Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical, which spawned a 2004 film adaptation from Joel Schumacher. Personally, I’m a fan of Dwight H. Little‘s woefully underrated 1989 version, which successfully blended Leroux’s gothic love story with 80’s slasher kitsch and featured excellent performances from A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Robert Englund in the title role and scream queen Jill Schoelen as his beloved Christine.

Now. If you’ve seen all those versions and said to yourself, “That’s all well and good, but I want a version where the Phantom has sex with rats!“, then do I have a film for you!

For the rest of us, Dario Argento‘s Phantom leaves us with our brains dribbling out of our ears in a frozen state of “what the fuck” bewilderment. A wholly incoherent pastiche of awful CGI, rodent fetishization, and inane dialogue screeched in awful French accents, this has to be the worst adaptation of Leroux’s novel ever produced in any medium, as well as the most inept entry in the Argento cannon. If not, I am deathly afraid of what else is out there.

Instead of his traditional origin as a brilliant but deformed composer, Argento’s Phantom is portrayed as being abandoned as a baby and raised by rats beneath the Paris Operahouse. The vermin apparently endowed him with supernatural powers, an animalistic sexual appetite, and a nibbler’s hunger for human flesh, although none of this is ever made clear. Respected British thesp Julian Sands looks like he wishes he had half a mask to hide behind as he glides around wearing leather pants, whispers creepy pick-up lines, and, yes, engages in a very uncomfortable relationship with his rodent brethren. My heart goes out to Sands, who probably leaped at the chance to work with a legend like Argento, only to be forced to read embarrassing dialogue like, “your female smell… it flows through my veins like the melody of the rolling ocean!

Faring even worse is Asia Argento as Christine, who comes across more like a barfly from the 1990’s than an opera diva in 1870’s Paris. After a chance encounter with the Phantom, who raises a million red flags with his stalker behavior and laissez-faire attitude towards biting people’s tongues off, Christine immediately throws herself at him. Their relationship makes absolutely no sense, as Christine falls in and out of love with him at random throughout the Phantom’s murderous attempts to make her an opera star.

Did Dario Argento think he was making an erotic horror film? If so, then Phantom has to be the most monumental failure of his career. Aside from the Phantom/Christine relationship being thoroughly off-putting, the inclusion of pedophilia, rape, and the aforementioned bestiality will make you feel so dirty that you’ll want to take a shower immediately following the awkward freeze-frame finale.

Of course, no Argento film is ever without some pleasures, even if in this case they’re pretty scant. Some of the kills are mildly inventive, while the inclusion of a pair of crazed rat-catchers and their whimsical rat-killing mobile (seriously) is kind of fun. What takes the cake for me is an unintentionally hilarious visit to a steam room full of naked obese people, which culminates in an awkward tongue-wagging attempt at seduction from a flailing Asia Argento, after which a man throws wine in a woman’s face and smashes a bunch of shit with his cane while screaming “GET BEHIND ME, SATAN!” for no discernible reason.

If you want a gory and imaginative retelling of Gaston Leroux’s classic horror tale, take my advice and steer clear of this film and seek out the awesome 1989 Phantom starring Robert Englund. You won’t regret it.

Next up: SLEEPLESS (2001)

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Categories: Dario Argento, Director Spotlight, Features, Reviews

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