Friday, September 11, 2009

Mask-Off: Phantom of the Opera (1998)

I must first state two things at the start of this review. First off, I really love Dario Argento's films as a whole. His flair, sense of storytelling and use of camera work is amazing. Secondly, I heard nothing but bad things about this movie before I watched it. Based on what people said, it would be worse than The Stendhaal Syndrome (the only Argento film released on DVD by Troma!) and Trauma (which I still have not seen). How could it be this bad? It's directed by 'The Maestro of Gore' and stars Julian Sands, who is a very underrated actor in genre films! Sure, it stars Asia Argento in the lead, but is this really another case of The Godfather Part III? Let's find out in my review of...
And yes, I do think that using the Italian title makes me seem clever. Thanks for noticing.

For better or for worse, the film deviates from the source material very early on. Of course, this is still nothing when compared to the final Phantom film I have for you tomorrow. Our Phantom is an orphan left in the sewers and raised by rats. No, they don't ever explain exactly how that works. One time-jump later and we have Julian Sands lurking in the sewers. Through some exposition, we learn that it is dangerous to go down there because everyone is killed when they wander in. Why? Because rats are killed when they wander to the surface. It's just karma! Through spying, he discovers a young opera singer (Asia) and is instantly attracted. Fortunately, he is telepathic and begins to communicate with her. What? You find this to be odd? I don't know why. I should also note that this Phantom is not scarred in any physical. Emotionally- he's obviously in a bad place. The conflict comes into play when a local lord has it in for our heroine as well. Our young woman is conflicted- who can she love? Will it be the man who can give her everything or the bad guy from The Medallion? Choices, choices.

One thing that is quite noticeable is that Argento did not cast a classically-trained opera singer as the lead...well, opera singer. Of course, we all know why he cast who he did. To be fair, she does lip sync pretty convincingly. Another change is that he does not help her learn to be a better singer. Why this omission is made is completely beyond me. I have never been one to question Argento's ways. Well, okay, I do question why he casts his daughter in the lead when said role 'requires' there to be a rape scene of sorts (both in Stendhaal and this film). Then again, this is the guy who had his eldest daughter 'killed off' in the beginning of Phenomena and has 'killed' his ex-wife on at least three occasions.

The climax of the film is pretty much what you would expect, although with an interesting twist or two. The Phantom actually sends Asia and the royal off to safety as he dies in battle with the police. Why? Because he is afraid that they will kill her off now that they know she has been involved with himself. Incidentally, he actually gives up on Asia and lets her be with the other man. This is another change in the story that you just sort of have to deal with. Dramatically, the pair row off to safety as our heroine cries out in anguish. The End.

I may get some flack for this, but I did not hate this movie. Is it as good as Suspiria or Tenebre? No, not really. Is it a bit silly that Asia plays the lead role here? Maybe a little. I think Julian Sands did a really good job in his role, despite it being a departure from the usual version we get. One curious thing is that the 80s version is actually bloodier than this one. To be fair, the atmosphere and setting is much better done in this version though. It is helped by not actually being shot on a Universal sound stage or anything like that. Moments in the film have the Argento flourish, but many of them are just dirty and grimy. The film is mostly set in a sewer though. Anyone who thinks that Argento has lost his touch in the wake of this film needs to watch The Mother of Tears or Do You Like Hitchcock. Even at nearly 70, the man has still got it. Everyone just has bad times, even directors of classic films. Does Alexander ring a bell?

To finish out the trilogy, one more classically-trained director takes his shot at the tale. This one does have singing...just not the kind that you would think. Stay tuned...


  1. Ill agree to that, I dont hate it by any means, but it certainly isnt the film I would pick to first initiate new fans into Agentos canon of work. Its ok. Trauma and Hitchcock are certainly worse by comparison. I like the added gore, but now that I know the Englund flick doesnt disappoint in that arena I may give up on the Argento entry and side with The Phantom of the Freddy

  2. The Argento version is a more crazy version that sort of veers off on its own. That's interesting, for better or for worse.

    The Englund film is basically a gory 80s film that is wrapped loosely in the Phantom story.

    Neither one is a good version of the classic story. Neither one is all that faithful.

    Of course, they are both far more faithful than De Palma's.