Color, 1998, 100m. / Directed by Dario Argento / Starring Starring Julian Sands, Asia Argento, Andrea di Stefano, Nadia Rinaldi
A-Pix (US R1 NTSC), Medusa (Italy R2 PAL), TFI (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

The first Italian adaptation of the familiar Gaston Leroux story, The Phantom of the Opera marked a deliberately calculated attempt to break into the international horror market with what seemed to be a "sure thing." Unfortunately a chilly critical reception overseas prevented it from finding an audience, leaving director Dario Argento to turn back to his familiar giallo formula. While the film's less than stellar reception is understandable, it does offer mild rewards for seasoned Italian cinema fans and isn't quite the shambling debacle one might be led to fear. After a brief prologue in which a rejected infant is dumped into a Parisian river and saved inside the sewers by hordes of rats (shades of Batman Returns), the film begins in 1877 at the Paris Opera House, where young Christine (Asia Argento) works as a chorus girl in the latest production. When he's not busy killing nosy construction workers and treasure seeking interlopers, the mysterious phantom (Sands), infatuated with Christine's voice, uses his telepathic powers to seduce the willing ingenue and allow her to supplant the tempestuous diva, Carlotta (Rinaldi). Meanwhile the exotic Count Raoul de Chagney (di Stefano) reveals his own designs on Christine and takes it up himself to free her from the romantic but irretrievably psychopathic phantom.

Like most of Argento's films, Phantom is first and foremost a feast for the eyes. Packed with luscious scenery and ominous caverns, the film is primarily a work of scenic stylization, though the bland cinematography by Ronnie Taylor (Tommy and Argento's Opera) avoids the expected Argento camera gymnastics. Ennio Morricone provides an elegant, subdued score, and Sergio Stivaletti's gore effects by and large get the job done, including a nasty stalagmite impaling and a Fulciesque tongue-ripping. In many respects Phantom marks a progression of ideas Argento introduced with The Stendhal Syndrome; most obviously, his murderer is unmasked right from the beginning and is far more sexualized than the usual black-gloved serial killer. Once again he utilizes odd bursts of CGI, represented here by a floating Christine in the clouds(?) and the bizarre image of naked childish bodies transfixed in a giant rat trap. Unlike Stendhal, this film benefits greatly from the presence of the actors' original voices, making it far more accessible and easy on the ears. Roman Polanski's favourite screenwriter, Gérard Brach, collaborated with Argento on the screenplay, imbuing it with the same delirious, overripe exchanges which characterized Bitter Moon. The unusual locales are generally interesting and well handled, making this a more successful and interesting foray into Parisian period horror than Argento's last effort, the unbearable Wax Mask (which he mercifully only produced).

The trouble with Phantom lies mostly with its context in the entire Argento canon. While Argento has often cited the Claude Rains version as one of his earliest and most influential movie memories, he already covered most of this ground quite thoroughly in the excellent 1989 film Opera, essentially a modern day updating of the Leroux story. From an artistic standpoint, there was really no reason for this film to be made in the first place. However, a poll with the Italian moviegoing public decreed that they wanted him to do a straight version of the familiar story, and he complied. In essence, the film is a commercial enterprise at heart rather than the anguished, stylish exorcism of internal demons Argento followers have come to expect. Saddled with such familiar material, he apparently decided to have fun and injected the film with far more humour than one expects. The Leroux novel is indeed surprisingly witty, but horror fans are understandably confused by this approach. With its emphasis of bizarre gimmickry (the ratcatching machine), grotesque faces, and weird non sequitor humor, Phantom more often resembles a Jeunet and Caro film, sort of a gory City of Lost Children. The film abounds with bizarre, potentially laughable moments: an unexpected visit by Raoul to an Eastern bathhouse (complete with unpleasant frontal nudity), in which he envisions Christine as a wine-dribbling whore; the phantom obtaining sexual communion with the rats whom he regards as his family; and the graphic chandelier dropping, a scene reminiscent of the Opera raven attack. The actors themselves are largely ineffectual, with Sands in his moping Boxing Helena mode and lovely Asia serving more as window dressing through most of the running time. (Also, look for Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, the ill-fated wardrobe mistress from Opera, reprising her role here.) Acting quibbles aside, the romantic and sexualized elements provide some points of interest, with Christine experiencing a similar personality dualism as Stendhal's Anna, represented here by the temptations of two very different men ("I may have fallen in love with them both"). Once again Argento provides a wistful, sad, but ultimately merciful coda for his daughter, complete with her literally running towards the light. Ultimately, this is the most positive and heartfelt rendition of the tale since Terence Fisher's underrated Hammer version back in 1962.

A-Pix's DVD release of Phantom is a moderately successful presentation. Attractively letterboxed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the image quality is velvety and looks colorful and finely detailed throughout. Nothing notable appears to be missing from this "unrated director's cut," though it has reportedly been time-compressed down from 103 minutes with few detrimental effects on the film. Also, some of the gore footage was apparently reinstated after being trimmed for an R rating, so there's an odd jump cut now and then where it was digitally spliced back into the master. The 5.1 sound mix suffers somewhat from some artificial post-production canned sound and ambient effects (typical of recent Italian productions for some reason) but at least isn't a wretched padded-down mono mix like Trauma; unfortunately the music of the 5.1 track slips out of synch several times, while the 2.0 track remains consistent. The disc includes both the original theatrical trailer and the far less impressive video preview, as well as a "making of" featurette consisting of camcorder footage during the shooting of several sequences such as the finale. A brief Julian Sands interview and a reprint of the first Fangoria article on the film round out the package. The Italian DVD features a darker, even richer transfer, with both the English track and the more elegant Italian track with optional English or Italian subtitles, while also porting over most of the extras from the US disc as well. Also, the jump cuts are thankfully absent. On the other hand, the censored French disc omits the bathhouse footage and, despite an attractive transfer, is best avoided.

More Argento reviews can be found here.

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