Submitted for cult classic consideration: the best non-Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera adaptation on the market.
While Andrew Lloyd Weber made the Phantom character famous, he appeared to have single-handedly flipped through Gaston Leroux’s rather intriguing novel and used a box cutter to remove anything remotely interesting. Backstory? Gone. The Phantom went from being a freak with abandonment issues who had honed his craft in the darkest corners of India to simply misunderstood.
Having thrown Leroux’s formula out the window, Italian horror king Dario Argento no doubt felt free to continue what was considered his own downward spiral into mediocrity in the ’90s with Il Fantasma dell’opera. If you simply refer to this flick by its Italian title, you’ll be in a much better frame of mind to appreciate its B-movie genius, and to note how well Argento handled the story of psychotic-hermit-meets-girl, brings-down-entire-opera-house.
Argento answers the question that was on all of our minds. What if, instead of physical disfigurement, the Phantom was ruggedly handsome (à la Julian Sands) with profound psychological issues? What if these issues were caused not by social rejection due to his scarred face, but by a bizarre upbringing? By, say, rodents?
And what if Raoul (who resembles not so much the dashing, virtuous French aristocrat Leroux suggested, but more of a high school goth who refuses to cut his hair) expressed his romantic angst for our heroine by beating down prostitutes in a Turkish bath?
The film is imbued with a sense of intense articulation that can only come from a foreign director scripting everything in English. While there is the sense that what we are watching is dubbed, the master of the Italian slasher (or giallo) is making the extra effort to bring us something eloquent, something hyper-pronounced.
Perhaps it’s an Italian potshot at the French, but in this world there is only glitz and vulgarity. While Weber’s (and, later, Joel Schumacher’s) Phantom is populated by elegantly romantic characters who just want a good night out, Argento gives us a high society that is too excessive — anyone deserves to be picked off by a disgruntled basement-dwelling creeper.
The film’s primary strength is excess. Fantasma is low-budget, but it appears that Argento scrimped on film, preferring to record onto video a production with lush set pieces, primo costumes and recognizable cast members (well, two). And where the story might be enhanced by a little gore or excessive nudity, Argento takes it to the hilt. The Phantom doesn’t just coerce bitchy diva Carlotta — he threatens to rip out her breasts. The theater’s proprietor was not in Leroux’s view a pedophile, but Argento’s decision to cast him as such allows the Phantom his rare display of morality — albeit murderous morality. And Argento also uses the landscape of the Phantom’s underworld to his advantage. Why should those rocky crags exist, if not to impale the odd intruder?
Also to the average viewer’s advantage, Argento seems to be a student of the John Boorman school of casting your daughter in wholly inappropriate scenes of a sexual nature. Argento can be forgiven: His daughter Asia is arguably the coolest working actress out there, and her Christine Daae is perhaps the sole entry into the Phantom franchise genre that actually sounds off like she has a pair.
Asia’s Christine gets a raw deal, for sure — who doesn’t wince when poor Christine realizes her new bit of action has a rat fetish? It’s like that Sex and the City episode where Miranda realizes she’s dating a guy who shits with the door open. But she’s hardly a blushing flower. From her first appearance, running scales on an empty stage, her façade as virginal victim-to-be is about as flimsy as the dressing gown she’s wearing.
Asia’s Christine seems less propelled by the promise of greatness, or of furthering her career, as by a morbid fascination with a damaged man — and a strong drive to bed him. Ultimately, what in other adaptations might be Christine’s martyr-like sacrifice of one lover for the other is in Asia’s hands a shrieking mess. Moments of straight-to-video melodrama are redeemed by Italian verve (nobody does pissy histrionics like Asia pushed a note too far).
Argento does not overly romanticize the Christine/Phantom throw-down. Erotic lingering shots of the couple establish an idyllic image of their fling; an hour later, the Phantom’s deep-seated emotional issues give the relationship just a tinge of the abusive. And Christine fires back. It’s a vicious cycle. And rightly so. Why wouldn’t their affair be cause to call the cops?
Domestic disputes notwithstanding, this might be the only entry into the heavily saturated Phantom genre that leaves the viewer without a doubt that Christine and her horribly damaged mentor belong together.