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Phantom Of The Opera (1998)
Director: Dario Argento

review by Denise Wayne

I have enjoyed some of Argento's earlier horror films, so I'm very disappointed to report that this reworking of Leroux's classic is pretty dire throughout. The sad fact is, even when we accept that narrative coherence and logic are not this director's forte, his version of Phantom Of The Opera is still disastrously farcical, absurdly pompous, and staggers drunkenly along under the weight of so many genre clichés that it makes for depressing viewing.
   Soprano understudy, Christine (Asia Argento), is a hopeless Parisian romantic who practices alone, hoping for a break. After one solo show for an empty theatre, she meets a mysterious stranger who leads her into shadowy catacombs beneath the opera house. Julian Sands is mind-numbingly bad as the villain of the title. Driven by lust not by love for the young diva, he makes sure that she gets her big chance to shine in the spotlight by sabotaging the archetypal fat lady Carlotta's star performance. Sands' peculiarly passionless Phantom has no mask, and no hideous scars to hide. He does, however, possess black magic powers and was - according to the entirely ridiculous prologue - raised from birth by sewer rats, so he retains a playfully familial rapport with hordes of these vile rodents in later scenes.
   Being an Argento film, there's lots of OTT gore (the Phantom bites out a poor woman's tongue in loving close-up). There's also sleaze at an opium den, and a few disquieting moments with a paedophile chasing after a little ballerina. But overall, this is frightfully pedestrian stuff, with a rat-catcher cast as comic relief, and Christine's constantly heaving bosom the main feminine spectacle, whether she's rehearsing Faust or Romeo And Juliet, or trying to escape from the Phantom's subterranean lair. This unlikely love nest prison only seeks to remind us of much better things: Vincent Price's sanctuary in The Abominable Dr Phibes, or even the creature's hideaway in fantasy TV series Beauty & The Beast.
   Argento's utter failure is compounded by his fans' knowledge that he can do so much better. Here, the director's usually mobile camera lurches and meanders around the dreary badly lit sets to charmless effect. I was reminded of Michael Winner's dumb filmmaking style at times, as Argento's celebrated techniques are reduced to the audience insulting level of Ken Russell having a very bad day. Argento's Terror At The Opera was much more fun than this. This is one to avoid unless you're an Argento completist. Just watch Suspiria again, and search out the DVD release of the director's Sleepless.
previously published online, VideoVista #30
Phantom of the Opera
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