The Phantom of the Opera is a story most people are familiar with, probably from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s brilliant musical version, the 2004 film adaptation of which, by Joel Schumacher, I’ve seen more times than I can count. When I discovered Dario Argento had made his own adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s classic, much-adapted novel I jumped at the chance.
I am quite forgiving of the bizarre events that often occur in Argento’s films, whether his early Giallos or his all-out horrors, they have a dreamlike quality that allows the viewer to accept certain twists and turns that in another director’s hands would be too outlandish to follow. However, there are moments in this that are quite difficult to come to terms with. Not least the opening sequence, a bit too reminiscent of Batman Returns, we see a screaming baby basket being cast into the river Seine and washed up against rocks in an underground waterfall. Since it’s an italian horror, we have some obligatory shots of rats but this time the rats become far more involved as one swims over to the basket. What would, given any sense of realism, have been one of the most horrific opening scenes in cinema takes a more bizarre turn when the rats take save the baby from drowning, take it in and raise it. After pausing the DVD & sitting, sobbing uncontrollably for a few hours I decided it was best to simply accept this was okay in whatever universe the film exists in an get on with it.
In fairness, the film does improve once we reach the more familiar plot which has been tweaked somewhat to allow the Phantom to be a bit of a serial killer for reasons not 100% clear, but once again, given the genre in which it lies we shouldn’t have expected anything else. The art direction of the film, for a considerably lower budget, is pretty on par with the Joel Schumacher version that wasn’t made until 6 years later, the lavish opera house and dismal catacombs shot in saturated colours, surely satisfying hopes for Argento’s trademark visuals. Asia Argento is cast as Christine Daaé, in a decision that cynics wouldn’t be entirely wrong to suggest has a lot to do with her father being the director, but it transpires pretty quickly that she plays the part rather well. Erik/The Phantom however, played by Julian Sands, is the weakest point of the film. Being the title character, it is a somewhat fundamental issue. It’s difficult to say where the blame for the soulless (and not in a good way), bland, and almost completely un-frightening depiction; the script is quite awkwardly written for his character, with stilted romantic language that sounds like the script was written in Italian then translated on google translator, losing some of the point intended – Erik & Christine’s first exchange includes this passage:
Erik: I said nothing. But I caught myself thinking about you. Thoughts that surprise me. And I’m not easily surprised.
Christine: Thinking about me? Why?
Erik: I wanted to tell you, your voice fills my heart with divine light. Listening to you is sublime, wonderful. This must be our secret. Tell nobody, then no one will know. We’ll meet again.
The blame can’t entirely go on the script however, because there have been plenty of roles with flowery language and odd metaphors that actors have pulled off convincingly enough. It really feels that Sands either phoned this role in, or simply wasn’t suited to it. We’ve seen Gerard Butler on film and countless others on stage toe the line of mysterious & seductive with a fearful edge of creepiness and danger in portraying Erik, but Sands errs far too far on the side of outright sleazy creepiness. What romanticism may lie in the awkwardly written script is delivered with a desire and emotion of a Tesco checkout assistant. While the film does well in creating an air of melancholy around the legend of the phantom and any scenes where he’s ominously present yet unseen, as soon as Erik has a major part in a scene, be it with Christine or in one of his kills, there’s nothing.
The horror elements of this film don’t all feel shoved in unnecessarily; while we’re not too sure why Erik kills people beyond protecting his ‘home’, the sequences do fit into the reworked plot and are pulled off with a skill that we’d expect from Argento, offering his trademark beautifully choreographed violence and one or two great chases in the labyrinthine, claustrophobic catacombs. The famous chandelier scene is recreated excellently here, referencing the 1925 silent movie’s already brilliant sequence whilst taking it many steps further with some gruesome shots that would never have been acceptable in those times. It’s this pairing of sumptuous period romance and gruesome italian horror that could have gone terribly but works well. As with this style of film, there are plenty of scenes that don’t make complete sense or are jarringly odd, such as rooftop scenes featuring horrendous computer effects and laugh-out-loud dream sequences, plus another scene with a brief suggestion that Erik may have grown closer to his rodent companions that we’d ever like to imagine, but for any Euro-horror fan it would almost be disappointing for there not to be such oddnesss. However, an incredibly derivative subplot that I can only imagine is meant to be comic relief does it’s best to destroy the film, featuring a rat-catcher and his dwarf companion building a steampunk-styled sweeper cart complete with spinning blades upon which they tear down the catacombs sweeping up, blending and slicing rats before a ‘hilarious’ mishap. If it were one single scene, I’d recommend anyone watching skips it on their DVD but it’s interspersed throughout the film so even that isn’t possible. This subplot has absolutely no bearing to the rest of the film so the decision not to cut it is unforgivable in my opinion.
It’s fair to say that I have very mixed feeling on this film. It being my first ‘modern’ Argento movie, it wasn’t the train wreck I’d been lead to believe his career had become and (rat-sweeper carts aside) I have come to expect a level of incredulity when watching these films. It didn’t feel like a video nasty with delusions of grandeur as I’d feared it might, the tone of the film was pretty spot-on for the most part, with the mis-casting of Erik being a massive shame, as with a good Phantom this could have been a great, if still flawed, horrific take on the dark tale. All in all it’s an entertaining (if sometimes baffling and frustrating) watch, especially for fans of Argento or other European horror greats who like other versions of Phantom of the Opera.