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  Phantom of the Opera, The Off Key Travesty
Year: 1998
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Julian Sands, Asia Argento, Andrea Di Stefano, Nadia Rinaldi, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, István Bubik, Lucia Guzzardi, Aldo Massasso, Zoltan Barabas, Gianni Franco, David D'Ingeo, Kitty Kéri, John Pedeferri, Leonardo Treviglio, Massimo Sarchielli
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Some years ago, a baby was abandoned in a crib, as his mother was forced to set it in the River Seine which led the infant into the Paris sewers. The baby would surely have died, but it had a saviour in the rat population who noticed it sailing by and rescued it; the years passed and the boy was brought up by the rats, making his home in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. He began to be obsessed with the artform, and when one ingénue Christine Daaé (Asia Argento) made her tentative steps towards a career as a performer, the Phantom (Julian Sands) was there to watch, connecting himself to her psychically...

Right, first things first, this may feature a character who has been brought up by rats, but you don't actually see the details, so there were no scenes of the baby suckling from a rodent, being taught to talk by his little friends, or otherwise behaving like Tarzan with his apes. Yet that's not to say what was offered up during the rest of the movie wasn't any the less daft in Dario Argento's take on Gaston Leroux's classic horror novel, something it's safe to say was a loose adaptation. Even with Gérard Brach, no slouch when it came to screenplays, co-writing with Argento the results were frankly ridiculous.

The approach appeared to be to contrast the class of the opera setting with the down and dirty horror elements, except Argento didn't appear to have any sympathy for opera at all, and indeed seized every opportunity he could to do the style down in a near-parodic fashion. Thus the singer Christine is an understudy for is grotesque, corpulent and arrogant, yet when our heroine tries to trill she is constantly distracted either by circumstances not conducive to her performance or some other interruption. When Argento had tackled a Phantom type of yarn with his eighties shocker Opera, the music had leaned on heavy metal as its recurring themes; here he had Ennio Morricone.

The odd thing being that the director came across as happier with the metal than he did a proper orchestral score from one of Italy's greatest film composers. Mind you, this was not the sort of work to catch if you were a fan of opera anyway, but even Argento's diehard fans had their reservations about this effort's constant lapses into ludicrousness. Certainly we had the chandelier scene where it drops on the audience, but this was shown with the Phantom (who didn't wear a mask this time) smashing away with a sledgehammer at a pillar, quite how that would release the chandelier wasn't clear, though as expected with this filmmaker we did get to see bodies crushed and mangled when the lights fell down.

But you could spend ages noting the silliness here, far from Leroux and straying into the realms of farce. Did Argento intend this to be serious and was drifting way out of touch, or was he having a laugh? There were scenes which appeared to be intentionally funny, such as the infamous part where the resident ratcatcher (István Bubik) and his dwarf assistant drive a small car decked out with a rat-killing device through the catacombs - this is set in 1877, incidentally - absolutely preposterous, but entertaining for its wrongheadedness, especially the punchline. When the Phantom gets Christine alone he's more interested in shagging her brains out (from behind, if need be) than anything romantic, and if he can't get her he's happy to be serviced by his rat buddies, more instances of the what the hell were they thinking? plotting that goes on here. In comparison to Argento's masterful capabilities of the seventies, the eighties even, this would be embarrassing if it wasn't so perversely watchable just to see what lunacy would be next.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Dario Argento  (1940 - )

Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.

Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.

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