This film has a bad reputation. It's Dario Argento's big flop, or so I'd been led to believe. It's full of cock-ups and mis-steps, but frustratingly there's a good film in there struggling to get out. If you can see past the flaws, you might even catch a glimpse of it from time to time.
The first thing to realise is that it's a fantasy. One might expect a typical Dario Argento movie or a costume drama set in 19th-century Paris, but the film never appears to be straining for realism (historical or otherwise). Its characters are silly caricatures, and I'm not just talking about the almost universally terrible acting. Look at the Ratcatcher and his dwarf. Look at their Ratmobile. I mean, honestly. My jaw hung slack when that hit the screen; was this a whimsical Jean-Pierre Jeunet fantasy or some Gilliam-written nonsense starring the Muppets? It would be easy just to dismiss the Ratmobile as a hideous mistake, presumably the consequence of Dario taking all the drugs in the world and then letting his trained chimps loose on a million typewriters. However I think it's indicative of a fantastic world that we're supposed to regard as equal parts historical fact and Grimm's fairy tale.
Viewed in this light, all kinds of weird directorial choices fall into place. Why does the Phantom have psychic powers? Because he does! Why has Dario Argento made a Phantom of the Opera movie that feels like Batman Returns? Because Tim Burton is the modern American fantasist supreme, that's why. I'm not kidding about the Batman Returns similarities, by the way. After being abandoned as a baby like the Penguin, this Phantom will swoop on to the stage like Batman and generally act like a superhero. He even has superpowers: Reduce Air Temperature, Commune With Rats and Make Murderous Surprise Attack From A Deep Well While Presumably Standing On Thin Air. Check out the grotesquely fat nudists at the bathhouse, an anti-erotic touch which can only have been inserted for surrealism value. Personally I thought that was cool, actually. Check out the daft characters - the Ratcatcher, or the simpering aide to that fat Italian diva. This is not a film that's aiming for realism.
The Phantom himself looks like a homage to Cocteau's 1946 La Belle et la Bete, which isn't inappropriate since Phantom of the Opera is a variant on the Beauty and the Beast story. We'll overlook the fact that the Phantom's supposed to be hideously disfigured. This one's downright handsome.
I think to enjoy this film, you've got to forgive things like the Phantom's rowboat. This is a boat in which you row while standing up, presumably because the water coming through the bottom of a sewer-boat wouldn't be fun to sit in. It looks good on the screen. However you're looking backwards as you row, and anyone using it for the first time while navigating treacherous underground tunnels would probably end up cracking his head like a walnut. As Dad said when I made this point afterwards: "You're not supposed to think about things like that."
Oh, and surely even the most curmudgeonly fantasy-hater would have to admit that the rats are cool. The Phantom's relationship with them is an interesting addition to the usual story, and I loved their reaction to the Phantom's final fate. Watch this movie and you too can see Asia Argento and Andrea Di Stefano being out-acted by rodents! If you try to see the rats on a realistic level, you'll hate 'em. Seeing rats rescue a little baby instead of eating its eyes out is an "Oh, please!" moment, but in a way that opening sequence nicely mirrors the film's ending. As a fairy tale, I think that works.
I liked the world of this film, which bears no particular resemblance to any Paris that ever existed but looks nifty anyway. I liked the vignettes of Parisian society at the opera. I liked the perversion, such as the nudists' bathhouse and the paedophile chocolate-mongers. (At one point I even wondered if the Phantom was about to have sex with a rat.)
All this is interesting stuff. Maybe 'twas deliberate and maybe not, but I still liked it. However for everything that I thought was cool, along came something dumb and annoying to club me over the head. Where to start, where to start...
1. The acting! Dear God alive, the acting! Julian Sands is good as the mysteriously handsome Phantom (he'd make a good Dracula), but everyone else goes from poor to dreadful to so unspeakably dreadful that even Dario "I like shite actors" Argento realised it couldn't stay in the film and had the scene dubbed. Asia Argento is poor, but given the material she had to work with that's a minor triumph. Even Dame Judi Dench might have staggered away from this looking like a raw rookie. Asia's character is awfully written, lurching from one emotional state to another with so little warning that the Phantom must have been manipulating her with his psychic powers. I see no other explanation. Unfortunately the love scenes with Asia's second romantic interest are just as bad.
The first scene between Asia Argento and Julian Sands is unbelievable. They bump into each other in the corridor and suddenly the Phantom is expressing his undying love and Asia isn't running like hell to call the cops. Five minutes of character establishment would have helped here.
But I haven't finished with the acting. Even if we overlook monstrosities like that loon's performance as the Ratcatcher (hard, I know) there's still the problem of the accents. Every conceivable accent is on display: cut-glass English, Standard American, French, Italian and more. Even the individual actors aren't necessarily consistent in their choices. Hearing someone switch from UK English to American is kinda jarring. And then, just when you've made yourself accept characters so broadly played that they're unbelievable, it gets worse! Yes, there are child actors. They try to laugh. I screamed.
2. Then there's the singing. This is where a modern filmmaker could never compete with Lon Chaney's classic adaptation - the silent era was best suited to portraying opera. Dario Argento decided to dub the actors. This dubbing is very, very bad.
3. The gore! Surely even a shite Argento movie will at least have cool gore scenes, right? Wrongo. There's a CGI death which beats off fierce competition to be the dumbest-looking thing in the movie. A chandelier falls and crushes obvious dummy heads. However even without these production problems, Argento's trademark directorial sadism is absent. There's a mousetrap scene and a tongue-biting, but for the most part this film is tame.
4. One girl gets a protracted death scene which might have been scary... had the silly bitch not been so magnificently stupid that she loses all audience sympathy. Ironically the film's only scene of true tension revolves around the fat Italian diva, who's well acted and a good character.
5. The script sucks the farts from dead donkeys. Quite apart from being the root cause of many of the aforementioned problems, it wastes far too much time on scenes of irrelevant side-characters who are neither interesting nor believable. Oh, and Argento's best slashers were all anonymous. The moment you see their faces, they stop being scary... but this shows us the Phantom's face right from the beginning. And hot damn, I wanted him to kill that little girl.
And I haven't yet slagged off the mega-suckage ending. The Phantom causes a disaster that would have finished the Opera House, then mysteriously expects business to continue as usual. Phantom: "The role is yours!" Audience: "No mate, the show's closed." When there's another full house for the second night with no explanation, audience disbelief rolls over and dies. Soon afterwards the Phantom becomes a complete pussy, accepts the True Feelings of Asia Argento's Heart (pass the sick bucket) and tells her that "if they catch you, they'll kill you." Why? God knows. The Ratcatcher turns up just when we'd dared to hope he was dead, and all around it's complete bollocks. Except for the rats, which were cool.
At least there was plenty of nudity, though I'm worried about that huge close-up of Asia Argento's bare bottom. Normally when a father takes nudie photos of his little girl, we call the police. Dario, stop it. You'll go blind. However I'll forgive him, if only because of Asia's opening scene in that dress with a translucent top and no bra. This is a good film for the Dirty Mac Brigade.
There were a few inspired touches. I liked the throwaway of the opera in rehearsal being Faust, and that yucky shot of a desperate drink from a rancid underground puddle. I chuckled at: "You laugh badly and you don't lie any better." It was also amusing to see Dario work through his checklist of Creepy-Crawlies And Other Ickies (rats, bugs, bats, spiders, worms, lizards, etc.) If you can get behind the central love triangle of Asia Argento, Andrea Di Stefano and the Phantom, you might well find this movie to be an enjoyable piece of overblown fantasy. My Dad did. On the other hand, if you can't get past its many flaws then you might decide that it's a nonsense of cock-ups and missed opportunities.
More interesting than its reputation might suggest, but it might drive you crazy.