Michael Mackenzie has reviewed the R2 Italian release of Il Fantasma dell’Opera (The Phantom of the Opera), Dario Argento’s adaptation of the classic tale, which is almost unanimously regarded as the lowest point of his career.
Even the greatest filmmakers mess up from time to time, and this particular movie is Dario Argento’s moment of failure. One has to wonder what he was honestly thinking when he made Il Fantasma dell’Opera, a film that is tedious, pointless, gratuitous and clumsy. It even features a bath-house segment that plays more like a scene out of Caligula than the work of the man who is arguably the greatest director of European horror. Getting excited yet? Read on.
What we have is essentially a film that tries to be a romance, a costume drama, a horror movie, a comedy and a soft-core porn flick at various points in its running time, often with bizarre combinations of these elements. The story should be familiar to most by now. This is Argento’s take on Gastox Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. This time round, the Phantom (played by Julian Sands) is a handsome fellow who was raised by rats in the caves beneath an opera house. One night, after wandering through the corridors of the building (for some reason, no-one notices him), he comes across Christine (Asia Argento), the young understudy to a large and obnoxious opera singer. Christine desperately wants her moment of fame (as far as I can tell – no-one in this movie really seems to know what they want), and the Phantom, smitten by this fair lady, decides to do what he can to give it to her. Of course, this somehow involves butchering random people in ingenious ways, and of course bedding the lovely Christine. Elsewhere in the mix is Raoul De Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano), Christine’s brooding fiancé, who knows that something is the matter with his future wife, but seems clueless as to what.
The single biggest problem, which makes all the other minor ones stand out all the more, is that Argento here attempts to make the kind of film that simply will not stand up to his usual idiosyncrasies. It is clearly a serious attempt to tell the story of The Phantom of the Opera, yet it is dotted with elements which don’t belong, the worst of these being a comedy subplot featuring two rat-catchers who build a contraption to chop up those pesky vermin. Argento also trots out painful stereotypes that show absolutely no creativity, including a fat and obnoxious diva who bears the brunt of the film’s so-called jokes, a cleaning lady who likes taking her clothes off, a greedy servant who wants to plunder the Phantom’s labyrinth for treasure, and of course Christine’s fiancé Raoul, who spends the most of the film looking suspicious and disapproving, only to have an irate outburst about religion in the middle of a sleazy bath-house (don’t ask me).
The acting is singularly awful, and while some of this can be attributed to the fact that the script gives the actors so little to work with, the show put on by Julian Sands is unforgivable. He gives one of the most bland performances I’ve ever seen, constantly looking completely removed from the scene and simply reading out his lines as if on an autocue. Asia Argento, whose acting abilities are always the subject of heavy debate, continually switches from bearable to awful. She alternates between being as bland as Sands and overblowing everything in the worst possible way. The scenes where she sings opera have to be seen to be believed, as she stands with her eyes and mouth wide open, nodding her head from side to side. She is absolutely the wrong person for the role, as she comes across as a modern woman dropped into the 19th century, and although she is magnificent eye candy, she really should stick to playing characters with a harder edge.
Arguably the most important element of the film, the romance between Christine and the Phantom, is incredibly unconvincing and not explored in any detail. I didn’t buy any attraction between the pair, and since they rarely even meet, it comes across as completely bizarre when, about half-way through the film, Christine suddenly leaps into the Phantom’s bed and, uh, takes it up the back end. (I’m not kidding.) Their loves scenes are meant to be romantic, but they fall dead because of the complete lack of audience engagement with the characters. I get the impression that Christine is meant to feel torn between the Phantom, who represents her dark side, and her fiancé, who will provide her with riches and comfort, but since she never demonstrates any real rappot with either of them it doesn’t work at all.
One of the film’s few saving graces is the cinematography. This was English director of photography Ronnie Taylor’s second (of three, so far) film with Argento, having previously done Opera with him. While the look of the film is nothing like as inventive as either that film or most of Argento’s other work, Il Fantasma dell’Opera has a rich and professional look that belies the relatively low budget of the film ($10,000,000). Ágnes Gyarmathy’s costumes and the production design by Antonello Geleng (who has designed the sets for all Argento’s films since La Sindrome di Stendhal) are also exquisite. Of particular note are the subterranean caverns beneath the opera house, where the Phantom hangs out and gets up to all sorts of hijynx with rats. These locations look real, despite the fact that they are constructed sets.
The most charitable way to describe Il Fantasma dell’Opera is as a failed experiment. Argento has never been afraid of taking risks, but in the past they more often than not paid off because he was able to try something new and unusual. The problem with Il Fantasma dell’Opera is not that it is too atypical but that it is a mismatched collection of poorly orchestrated elements, none of which are particularly original on their own. The “costume drama”-type setting takes Argento’s most common flaws, which are usually acceptable within the framework of his giallo and supernatural films, and amplifies them to the point of distraction. I have read a couple of reviews where it has been suggested that the film is in fact a parody and should not be taken seriously, but I feel that, even if viewed that way, it fails completely. In conclusion, this film is for completists only, and Argento neophytes are advised to stay well away from to avoid their impression of the director’s work being unfairly tarnished.
The film is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Medusa’s transfer is very good, and if not for a couple of small problems it would be getting full marks.
Sharpness is almost always breaktaking. The film was transferred to DVD with absolutely no filtering or noise reduction applied, and as a result the details practically leap off the screen. Some scenes seem slightly softer, but I suspect that this was an artistic choice. Due to the lack of filtering, the transfer shows a nice amount of very fine grain, avoiding the overly-digitized look that a lot of DVDs have. The compression, for the most part, is superb, with no major blocking and only the slightest bits of artifacting in a couple of shots. The colours are rich, with a lot of oranges, reds and earthy tones. The image seems just a tad too dark at times, but this is not overly troublesome.
The only slight problems come in the guise of aliasing and minor shimmering. The only real time this is evident is in the first shot of the interior of the opera house, featuring a slow pan which features a bit of shimmer on some of the detailed decorations on the walls. It shows up again occasionally, to varying degrees, and while it is unlikely to significantly hinder your viewing experience, it means that the transfer is not quite deserving of full marks.
448 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in both English and Italian are provided, and as always, it’s a toss-up between which one is the better option. On one hand, the Italian track sounds a good deal less silly, but on the other, the lip movements correctly match up to the dialogue in the English version. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the English version was the better of the two, due mainly to the fact that the majority of Asia Argento and Julian Sands’ dialogue was in fact recorded on set, so unlike most Argento films, their dialogue is not post-dubbed (that said, all the other characters seem to have been dubbed).
Both tracks are of a very high standard, with Ennio Morricone’s sumptuous score represented very well. The opening credits are set to a thunderstorm, giving the surrounds a great work-out, with great bass to boot. Overall both tracks are very strong.
The menu is static with no music, animation or transitions. They are quite nicely designed, although one of the menu screens (the liner notes) is, for some reason, heavily overcompressed.
Packaging tends not to be Medusa’s strongest point. The cover for Il Fantasma dell’Opera is reasonable but has a thrown-together look. A lot of this is arguably due to the original theatrical poster, which is used on the front cover and is not particularly imaginative.
Bonus material is another area in which Medusa are often a let-down, at least for Argento’s films. On this occasion, they include slightly more material than usual, but it is still quite lacklustre. Bear in mind that these extras are all in Italian with no English subtitles.
Trailer – The standard Italian theatrical trailer. This actually makes the film look a bit better than it is, and is edited together in an energetic fashion. Unfortunately it is cropped to 4×3 and the quality is pretty weak. The version that appeared on the UK DVD of Trauma (the same trailer, only in English) looked much better.
Special – A very short made-for-TV featurette featuring brief interviews with Dario Argento, Asia Argento and Julian Sands, this is mostly comprised of brief clips from the film and some behind-the-scenes footage.
On set featurette – This is a reasonably interesting 10-minute selection of material taken during the production of the film. It mainly shows scenes being set up, with a reasonable amount of footage of material actually being shot. The lack of subtitles is not really a problem here, as there is little dialogue anyway.
Liner notes – 18 pages of notes about the film are provided, and from what I can gather (my knowledge of Italian is virtually non-existant) it explains the original Leroux story and provides information on various earlier film adaptations of the text, complete with main cast credits.
Cast and crew bios – Reasonably detailed bios are provided for Asia Argento, Julian Sands, Andrea Di Stefano, Dario Argento and Ennio Morricone. Filmographies are also included for each person.
This is a poor film by any standards, but when compared to Dario Argento’s other work, it is quite simply appalling. Clearly this was a genuine attempt by Argento to try something completely different, but it was an incredibly bad decision on his part to create a film like this. What makes it doubly painful is the fact that, a decade ago, he visited a similar concept with the vastly superior Opera. This, more than anything, makes Il Fantasma dell’Opera look embarassing and pointless. Although completists will probably want to buy this DVD, it’s not a title I can see myself recommending to anyone.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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