The Phantom of the Opera (1998)
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Giorgina Caspari
Starring: Asia Argento, Julian Sands, and Andrea Di Stefano

The Plot: When a baby in a basket is rescued by rats who live under an opera house within Paris, he is raised as a violent but quiet man. He (Julian Sands) becomes our “Phantom of the Opera,” and he strikes against those who threaten his way of life by entering the secret underground canals that lie beneath the opera. We are soon introduced to Christine DaaĆ© (Asia Argento), who is a young girl trying to break into Opera. Christine and the Phantom are soon wrapped up in a very strange relationship that revolves around sexual desires and the bizarre telepathic link that they have. Although Christine seems to love The Phantom, there is also the Baron, Raoul De Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano), who is currently making plays for Christine’s attention. As this love triangle ties together, it seems that a tragedy may be waiting around the corner.

The Review
Not to be confused with Dario Argento’s infinitely better feature Opera, tHE Phantom of the Opera is one of the earliest titles to display the dramatic fall of this once-great director. Sandwiched between The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless, Phantom of the Opera was one of the first titles that very few audience members could stand to defend. From my experiences, it was a title that even Argento’s most ardent fans were known to lightly attack. As the new millennium dawned upon us, it seems that the prospect of Dario Argento directing a “great” film was considered to be a much more surprising affair than finding another dud within his library. However, during the nineties, Argento was still riding high on his artistic and commercial successes from the seventies and eighties. So, knowing the reputation that Phantom has, why would anyone actually search the movie out? Well, there is a completest lying inside the heart of every film geek. As a writer, I too find myself interested in covering every aspect of Argento’s filmography, but the lowest of his lows can be just as intriguing as his highest peak. Still, for all of my ranting and raving about how terrible the movie is purported to be, upon watching it for myself I was a bit disappointed to find a title that can only be described as “ho-hum.”

The thing that always puzzles me about the late stages of Dario Argento’s career is his complete loss of visual creativity. This is a trait that can be seen throughout the careers of several horror “aueteurs” who continued to work after the seventies and eighties. With Argento, Toby Hooper, Wes Craven, George Romero, and John Carpenter, we see filmmakers who at one point had a brilliant understanding of both cinematic tension as well as the crucial visual nature of the artform. Even though each of these filmmakers has experienced a downfall of sorts, the tragic finale of Dario Argento’s career has been something infinitely more depressing. In his prime, Argento stood out as the true successor to Mario Bava, and it seemed that he was capable of making interesting visual narratives out of just about anything. At one time, Dario Argento arguably had the greatest “eye” that the horror genre had ever seen. The nineties, however, proved to be quite unfair to this director. At some crossing along the road, it seems that Argento misplaced his ability to stage interesting shots. Gone was the fantastic set design that accompanied all of his projects, but this could be forgiven since the Italian film industry was no longer the juggernaut that it once was and almost all budgets were scaled back. Yet, Argento no longer included long tracking shots, his visual flare continually became dulled down, and eventually his films have taken on the visual style of generic TV thrillers. This shift in interest can be tracked back further into Argento’s career, arguably beginning in the mid-eighties with his rock & roll score for Phenomena, but Phantom of the Opera was certainly one of the first titles to shock all audiences with its lack of imagination or depth.

Despite all of these things, Phantom of the Opera is not exactly a visual mess. It certainly isn’t as bad as I expected from Argento at this point in his career. Although he is unable to channel the creativity that was at work for him when making Opera, the director does manage to create a slight sense of style within this feature. The real change within Argento’s work seems to be from his move away from the colorful and supernatural worlds that crafted his earliest works, and instead he moves into a grittier era that is dominated by low saturation levels and muddy earth tones. The sporadic use of red drapes, or even hints of color within wardrobes, only seems like a tease of something that might be worth admiring. Instead, the majority of positive “sights” within this film deal heavily with grungy hallways and underground paths that may not be beautiful, but at least there is some “design” at work. In a movie like this, fans can at least be thankful that there is something worth admiring, unlike in many of Argento’s future films.

At some point in his career, it seems that Dario Argento began to see himself as an heir to Lucio Fulci’s throne. This is an idea that still seems to be in play for the man. All it takes is one viewing of The Mother of Tears, with all of its comparatively explicit gore, and it becomes apparently how drastically different Argento’s work has become over time. His earlier films, while often bloody, featured few moments of chunky gore. The new Argento, born after The Stendthal Syndrome, didn’t get the memo about what fans wanted or expected from his work. Argento fans were always able to forgive the lapses in logic that his films featured, because when the artistry was set at such a height it only seemed fitting that there would be a surreal charm to his movies. When you take away the colorful visuals and the highly textured layering of scenes, we are left with very banal looking movies that retread numerous genre cliches. In doing this, it seems as if Argento has attempted to compensate for his lack of style and imagination by ramping up the gore in his movies, and it simply doesn’t work. While The Phantom of the Opera does indeed have its moments in terms of visual interest, this same sense of compensation can often be felt throughout the duration of the movie. Nothing truly seems to happen in the movie, certainly nothing of interest, and by the time the credits roll the audience will be left rather weary from the mundane script.

The Phantom of the Opera is a failure from Argento, but its the sort of failure that remains tolerable. Unlike recent films, such as Do You Like Hitchcock? and The Card Player, there’s at least a certain amount of style to be found in Phantom. This just happens to be a case where there’s not enough of Argento’s style to make up for the tedious and dull plot. Even in Argento’s best films, it would have been a bit of a stretch to call him a master storyteller. Visually, he had the prowess, but his scripts often used devices that were utterly cheap in order to make up for poor writing. Phantom features a plot that also relies on such devices, but it is also quite listless for the most part. Few characters jump off the screen or leave an impression. The audience is supposed to rally behind Asia Argento’s leading woman, but the character is as milktoast as they come. Julian Sands can be an amazing villain, but his work here is surprisingly toned down. Aside from one or two scenes, particularly one where he appears in a nearly orgasmic state while rats crawl over his body, Sands sleeps through this performance.

The Conclusion
The Phantom of the Opera isn’t the worst film that Argento has ever directed, but it sure isn’t one of his finest. I believe that the movie could have been slightly more palatable if it were directed by a filmmaker who was not as well known for his incredible stylistic qualities. If John Smith were to have directed this movie, then it would simply be a generic horror/thriller that would have been forgotten years ago. Chances are, I wouldn’t even be reviewing the movie, but overall it would have remained rather harmless. Despite my general disappointment with the film, I give it a two out of five. There are two or three standout scenes in the movie, and Julian Sands tries to shine through despite having a very bland script. However, make no mistake, this is a movie that is only worth searching out for a Argento completest. For everyone else, you can skip this one. It gets a 2 out of 5.