Dario Argento’s take on The Phantom of the Opera begins not unlike Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, with an unwanted baby thrust into the sewers to join the rest of a city’s refuse and excrement. And just as The Penguin was taken in by the creatures who dwelt beneath Gotham, so too is this poor wretch saved, in this case by the rats who teem amid Paris’s catacombs. Leave it to Argento to take a Gothic work and compound it with even more Gothic touches, here recalling the plague-like connotations of Nosferatu.

Curiously, Argento elects to make the Phantom (Julian Sands), a character defined by his hideous deformities, completely unblemished. Instead, the unmasked, classically handsome figure stalks the crevices of the opera house looking like Sephiroth with his long, straightened hair framing sharp features. As such, he’s less a repressed stalker for soprano ingenue Christine (Asia Argento) than a literally hypnotic paramour, embraced from the start and only abandoned at the end for what seems more plot necessity than sensible behavior. It doesn’t help that the competition for Christine’s heart is the baron Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), whose teen-boy mustache and blank expression make him look altogether more socially maladjusted than the man with rats for parents. But with the Phantom unmarred by defects and readily able to seduce his crush, there’s no motivation for the character to commit violence, leaving his rampages to feel like strange intrusions in what is otherwise just a bit of Gothic erotica.

The source material, with its action localized entirely within the labyrinthine corridors of a Paris opera house and its cobwebs of sewers beneath its grounds, is ideal for Argento, who is at his best when exploring impossibly dense architectural nightmares. Almost from the outset, however, it’s obvious that the director is working with diminished powers. Where, say, the house in Suspiria was deliberately divorced from firm spatial coherence in its hellish funhouse but had a steady internal logic that kept mounting the absurdity, here Argento just seems to bounce from location to location with no sense of rhythm or progression. There are opulent shots of the opera hall, but the backstage areas are all but entirely nondescript, a series of dark hallways and hidden passages that lead nowhere save for variations on interchangeable areas of craggy rocks. Argento doesn’t even arrange the handful of odd diversions, like a wardrobe filled with costumes and masks, as culminations of strangeness. Everything seems to have been assembled in random order.

To make matters worse, nothing in the film has the jolt of horror, nor even of a simple surprise. Despite running only 100 minutes, the film seems to have no end of scenes of a character venturing into the opera house’s bowels for no real reason, at which point the Phantom visibly and lugubriously gives pursuit with unhurried poise. Half the time, the soon-to-be victims see this profoundly conspicuous figure plodding toward them, requiring them to largely sit still or to be strung up by an inconvenient catch of clothing on one of the endless stalagmites that can be found approximately 10 yards from the opera’s foundations. In the goofiest scene, two lovers get lost in this subterranean maze, get separated and then spend minutes screaming while barely moving to get to safety as they see the Phantom. The film’s baffling and tonally mismatched gore comes to the fore here as the man is impaled on a rock in a move more hilarious than grisly and his beloved attempts to run and hide before letting the Phantom overtake her and bite out her tongue.

This catastrophically assembled and paced bore oscillates between such moments of cartoonish violence (see also a late bit involving a ratcatcher’s insane street-sweeper modification that makes for a rodent mass-killing machine) and longueurs of the Phantom’s supernatural but reciprocated seduction of Christine. There are also howlingly bad asides like a scene in a bathhouse that Argento films with the gauzy haze of a ‘70s porno or a fantasy sequence in which the Phantom sees Christine appear angelic in the sky looking, for some reason, like she is coated in seaweed. Argento was already on the downward slope of his career by this time, but The Phantom of the Opera’s mixture of the hilarious and turgid made for a sad sight for a man who, in his prime, likely could have done wonders with the material.

  • The Truth

    Kore-eda’s films are often about the gentle yet inevitable confrontation of a family with …
  • Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?

    What’s Your Pleasure? is one of the few albums made since trad-disco’s revival to intimate…
  • Holy Hell! Brave New World Turns 20

    Maiden would have had a coup just coming up with a killer album after a dismal decade of d…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Truth

Kore-eda’s films are often about the gentle yet inevitable confrontation of a family with …