Friday, July 30, 2021

The Phantom of the Opera (1998)

Dario Argento's career in horror reached its crescendo/peak in the 70s and 80s, and from then on things went into a downward spiral that shocked everyone, from his passionate fanbase, to even those who never liked him in the first place ("I mean, I've never cared for his movies myself, but what the hell happened?!" I can imagine them saying). One of the lowest moments was definitely his 1998 adaption of Phantom of the Opera...

Talented but unappreciated opera singer Christine Daae finds herself admired by the mysterious Phantom, a ghostly figure who butchers any who dare intrude in his domain, or prevent his wishes. He wants to make Christine a star, and for her to join him forever in his secluded world of darkness...

Argento's Phantom of the Opera is a film that has to be seen to be believed. It is so spectacularly bad that it's baffling! It's not just one thing either, but a whole slew of problems.

The movie gets off to a very abrupt start, like we're already partway though the story. Elements like a telepathic connection between Christine and the Phantom only serve to make this more confusing, as we suddenly hear a character's inner monologue have a conversation with someone else, before we even know who's who.

As an adaption this is bizarre. Some things are reasonably faithful, some are more superficial, while the film contains some wild diversions. For example, here the Phantom never wears a mask, isn't deformed, and was raised by rats. I think it is good to see someone take a risk, and do things a little differently. The important thing is to not be too different, and to keep the tone of the original. This captures the atmosphere perfectly, with the opera house being a living breathing organism. But its lack of loyalty in other areas are annoying, and the gore is a little out of keeping with the book.

Where the film gets even weirder is the new additions. Everything involving the rats is strange, namely one almost icky scene. There's one bit where the Phantom randomly hallucinates a bunch of rat-headed naked men caught in a mousetrap, with zero explanation, foreshadowing, or context. The whole sequence of Raoul and his bro at a brothel is not only weird, but disgusting! We see lots of obese people in states of complete undress, as well as a sense of grossness.

A complete lack of subtlety is one of the biggest problems with the film, and also what makes it so darn funny! The best example being when the rat catcher jumps onto the stage mid-performance and screams "CHRISTINE DAAE IS THE PHANTOM'S WHORE!!!!"

Onto the characters. I don't have a problem with this story starting in media res, as it's exactly what the book does. The Phantom has long been a regular haunter of the opera, and Christine already works at the opera and has communicated with him for a while. My problem here is that even by those standards, things happen far too quickly, with nowhere near enough context. It's like the writer just assumed we'd all know enough to not care about proper introductions.

The Phantom's character feels at odds with the atrocities he commits. For example, his selfless actions in the end are as faithful to the book's Phantom as anything else I've seen. You know what isn't faithful though? The Phantom chopping people in half and eating their tongues!

Christine is likeable in some places, in a classically milquetoast sort of way. She also acts schizo in some scenes, like when she laughs to herself for no reason, then randomly growls to some coworkers backstage. Where this culminates is her relationship with the Phantom. She loves him from the get-go, even banging him. Yet later on she suddenly hates him for no reason, yelling and screaming at him. Until about 20 minutes later of course, when suddenly she's all over him.

Her relationship with Raoul takes quite a backseat. They only share a few scenes, and how she feels is unclear. I feel bad for the poor guy. Here he is in love with a nice girl, who seems to like him back, but she then readily jumps the bones of a psychotic madman, then wails with a broken heart when he dies. Your boyfriend is right there honey, maybe not cry that much for another man!

The others at the opera house get a little to do, but not much, and don't often feel as fleshed out as their book counterparts. Carlotta is annoying, and her being an obese middle-aged lady is a weird addition. I liked the little ballet girl. The poor kid just can't catch a break! Harassed and chased by a perverted opera manager, then witnesses his brutal murder by the Phantom, then when she runs back to safety, her instructor doesn't believe her and hits her for telling lies! That was a bummer. I was hoping the Phantom would kill him, and that we'd see the girl get some kind of victory or success later on.

The next important character to discuss is the Rat Catcher. Surprisingly, this grotty asshole, who looks like he's taken a bath in a septic tank, is a main character! There are several moments where you think surely he's gonna die. But he makes it to the very end of the film! This is frustrating, since he is by far the most annoying person in the film, and you'll want him to die in every scene he's in.

Phantom of the Opera is a gorgeous film in some scenes, due to filming taking place in a real opera house. The sets for the caves look neat, as does the Phantom's famous catacomb. There's great lighting too. For all this movie's numerous faults, it's clear the director still had a great visual flare.

The gore effects are neat too! Wasted on a film as bad as this, but Sergio Stivaletti is always a reliable effects artist. We get numerous deaths, and while the accompanying sound design doesn't go well (it sounds like video game hack and slashing), they are otherwise very satisfying. They also made me just about die laughing too, with how over the top they can get.

The CG is less than stellar though. It's really awful in places, and even spoils otherwise good locations, with the green screen making things look like a video game.

The acting is mixed. Julian Sands is appropriately fancy in the way he speaks, and delivers some lines well, but falls victim to hilarious overacting. I felt bad for him being in this movie. He might've thought it could be a big new break, and it could've killed his career then and there! Asia Argento is her usual self. A lot of the character's erratic behaviour is down to her. She does ok for the most part, but less in others.

Istvan Bubik delivers a stunningly awful performance as the Rat Catcher. He seems to be doing his best imitation of Bela Lugosi, and props to him it's a good one! Though spoilt by the poor direction, and the character's constant gross actions. The remainder of the actors are tolerable at best, though many overdo it. The English dubbing is responsible in some ways, but not others.

Phantom of the Opera is a bad film, make no mistake, but it's also a hilarious watch. It will make you despair for Dario Argento's career, but make you laugh heartily while doing so. And frankly that's better than some of his later bad movies do...

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