Of course, the downside to that is I don’t much remember it very distinctly. It was the 1990’s, and I was on a tear reading classics as part of an annual challenge. The book had been recommended to me by someone whom I worked with (I honestly don’t recall that, either, at this juncture), so I picked it up at the local bookstore and waded through it. (FYI: I’m a slow reader.) I do remember liking it quite a bit, and my initial impressions were that it wasn’t at all what I expected. The novel has a more classical structure – if I remember correctly, it may even have been told through a series of correspondences between multiple characters – and the much lauded ‘phantom’ is really only what I thought to be a supporting player. Now that I’ve seen this theatrical version, I’m inclined to pull the book out and read it again at some later date; if I do, perhaps I’ll even do one of those book-to-screen comparison bits should I find it a worthy exercise.
As a film nut, I have seen a good handful of Dario Argento’s works. While I wouldn’t claim to be a huge fan, I’d agree that he has a unique style that deserves greater study. I’ve also read that the films of his later years – late 1980’s and beyond – are not regarded as highly as what came before. Though I’ve not performed any kind of comparative assessment of precisely why this is, I’d honestly chalk some of that up to the fact that when you’re regarding as a master of Horror (as he is) it grows increasingly difficult to raise the bar, especially when you started out in fairly good territory. Perhaps Phantom was a bit too high brow for Argento’s stylistic sensibilities, but far be it from me to pass judgment on one of Italy’s more influential storytellers.
Instead, I’ll stick to what I made of this melodrama.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“Gory remake of the Gaston Leroux classic story, only this time, the phantom is not disfigured, but a man who was raised by rats deep under the Paris Opera House.”
Well, we’re never told enough about these rodents, but we are shown in the film’s opening sequence an abandoned infant in a basket floating down the sewers only to be saved from drowning by one particular strong swimming rat. The child is taken from the water and – ahem – I guess raised. By rats. A whole colony of them. From a child into adulthood. Somewhere along the way, the boy grew into a young man with exceptional hygiene, even learned to play the pipe organ from … well … someone … maybe the rats. The particulars are never clear.
Like all of the other silver screen Phantoms, this one has a grand subterranean lair, complete with some reasonably extravagant furnishings (especially for being just to the left of the sewers). And apparently those rats have taught him to use his powers of persuasion to woo and seduce the lovely Christine (played by Asia Argento, the auteur’s equally lovely daughter). There are hints that the Phantom has some otherworldly gifts – the power of mental suggestion, the ability to send a chill into a particular space – but none of that really does much more than add a bit of Gothic mystery to this otherwise slow chiller. (Did the rats buy all that furniture, his clothes, and the organ? Did they teach him how to project his thoughts mentally? I’m really struggling with the rat storyline …)
I’m not one to grouse on screen talent – it’s a tough life, they say – but Asia never quite fit the role so far as this reviewer is concerned.
Perhaps having seen her work in more intense stories, her take on Christine vacillates between ‘dreamy’ and ‘confused’ a bit too often. (As could also be the case, some of the nuance may be lost in translation as this is an Italian-language piece.) Torn between two lovers, Asia comes off as a bit too easily smitten than to be believed, at first relegating her less rat-centric suitor Baron Raoul De Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano) to the ‘friends only’ moniker though she very easily upgrades him to the ‘friends with benefits’ column with little narrative blowback … nor any real cause. He’s not what she wants, then he is, then he’s not, and then it’s as if she wants both men … and they seemingly agree. I suppose it’s the setting and circumstance that has her all a bit woozy (women do so love the opera, I’m told).
Still, because it’s all left up to me to figure out, I’m a bit at a loss regarding what to make of it.
And what’s gonna happen with all of those rats?
The Phantom Of The Opera (1998) was produced by Medusa Film, Reteitalia, Cine 2000, and La Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated via Scorpion Releasing. As for the technical specifications? It all looks and sounds quite good, though there was one brief sequence (relating to the structural tragedy in the opera itself) that’s loaded with grain; I suspect whatever source was used was equally poor to begin with. As for the special features? There are a handful of interviews – along with a commentary track from critics Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – for those looking for extras: a good assortment that’ll keep you busy for awhile.
Mildly recommended. It’s safe to say that this incarnation of the Gaston Leroux isn’t entirely awful, though I’d be hard pressed to present a complete list of why it deserves to be widely seen. It’s faithful to the novel in ways other features haven’t been, but it likely diverges from what viewers expect when they show up at the door. There’s no singular breakout performance in here; and even the ensemble doesn’t quite come together as strongly as they could have. I suspect it’s perhaps best left to Argento purists – they might find some of the mildly gratuitous violence and blood squeezed in here a bit more necessary than I did – but I’d question just how interested in this loose bodice-ripping romance might be for them. (Honestly, even that’s fairly tame … as bodice-ripping goes.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Scorpion Releasing provided me with a Blu-ray of The Phantom Of The Opera (1998) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.