Dario Argento's Phantom of the Opera
Deep beneath the streets of Paris, in the bowels of the sewers, a long-haired, bare-chested man lies on a couch. Around him swarm the rats that have been his only friends; the animals which rescued him from drowning as an abandoned child, and have raised him in their lightless world as one of their own. The man takes some of the rodents in his hands and places them on his chest. His face is alight with ecstasy as the rats wander across his body. Then, slowly, with a look of ultimate pleasure, he reaches down to unbutton his trousers...

That's the moment, the exact point in time, the very instant that I gave up on Dario Argento. I've had my doubts ever since the last scene of Opera, doubts which deepened after Trauma, but which have now hardened into certainty. Argento is out of ideas.

Argento's earliest thrillers established him as a film-maker with a unique vision. His stories frequently made no sense, but his distinct visual style more than made up for his narrative shortcomings. After his best giallo, Profondo Rosso / Deep Red, he went completely over the top with Suspiria, a cinematic fairy tale gone bad. He followed Suspiria with a sequel of sorts, Inferno... a movie which looked superb, but had little more to add to what Suspiria had already said.

After Inferno, Argento largely abandoned the supernatural and went back to the giallo. The exception is Phenomena / Creepers, about a girl who communicates with insects, a mad killer and a chimp with a razor... a movie that probably got its start when Argento and Daria Nicolodi smoked an awful lot of dope and read Jung together.

Gaston Leroux is not the most obvious source of inspiration for Argento. True, Suspiria and Inferno had been inspired by mid-19th century writer Thomas DeQuincey's hallucinatory essay Levana and Our Lady of Sorrows, but the connection between DeQuincey and the films is tenuous at best. Argento took the most superficial aspects of DeQuincey's Three Mothers and built a mythology around them that was entirely contemporary, and entirely his own.

Leroux's work is much more closely bound to his time than is DeQuincey's Levana. Leroux was usually urbane and dryly humorous, tempering even his most gruesome stories with irony and wit. By contrast, DeQuincey's essay is an intense visionary experience. Even if Argento missed the point of the essay completely (as I believe), it's still easy to see why DeQuincey's writing might have created such a strong response in him: DeQuincey was writing in a fever of inspiration, and no matter how allegorical or fanciful his writing became, it's clear he meant every word of it. That's the sort of attitude we've come to expect from Argento's early work. No matter what his literary source might have been -- DeQuincey, Frederic Brown, or (in the case of Argento's and Franco Ferrini's script for Michele Soavi's La Chiesa / The Church) M.R. James -- Argento would make of his source material something entirely his own, driven by his own personal demons... for better or worse.

The really surprising thing is not so much that Argento would film his own Phantom of the Opera, but rather that Phantom is actually Argento's second recent production based on Leroux. Argento produced Maschera di Cera / Wax Mask in 1998; based on a Leroux short story, the film was to have been directed by the late Lucio Fulci. Argento's backers withdrew support for Fulci, though, a disappointment which some believe to have hastened Fulci's death. A Fulci-Argento co-production could have been a great opportunity for both men, even though Fulci seems like an equally odd choice of director for a fin du siècle costume thriller.

You might think that having produced Wax Mask, Argento would have paid his respects to Leroux. Instead, he went on to film yet another version of the French writer's most famous novel. This is puzzling, but on the surface it seemed no cause for undue alarm. After all, the tortured figure of Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, wasn't really so far removed from the black-gloved madmen of Argento's earlier films. Fans looked forward to the Maestro's unique interpretation of the popular and often over-sentimentalized story.

What the fans got was Dario Argento's worst movie, as well as the worst Phantom adaptation ever (and that includes Andrew Lloyd Webber's awful musical.

Argento's Erik isn't the hideously deformed madman of Leroux's novel. Nor is he the acid-scarred anti-hero of Universal's Phantom, starring Claude Rains; though the Universal version became the template for practically every remake and adaptation that followed it. Instead, Argento gives us Julian Sands, looking as if he'd just stepped off the cover of a romance novel. He's remarkably fit and healthy-looking for a man who was raised by rats in the sodden, lightless Paris sewers. Though he often emerges from his dank tunnels looking soaked from the waste water, no one ever seems to notice the smell he must trail with him.

Leroux's original Erik is a master musician, as well as a sociopath, and he dooms himself by entangling his passion for his art with his passion for a beautiful and talented singer, Christine Daaé. Erik is the ultimate tortured Romantic artist, a creature who can't exist in the real world, and who has devoted himself to his art at any cost. His rival for Christine is his opposite, the mundane socialite Raoul de Chagny. Caught in between, as usual, is the interpreter: Christine, as a performer, stands between the world of ideas and the physical world, and gives expression to the composer's vision with her body. It's no wonder she is unable to decide whether to devote herself to the spiritual discipline of her art, represented by Erik, or to the comforts of the flesh. Ultimately, Erik brings about his own destruction because he is unable to live without desire. He becomes obsessed with the simple human pleasures that are forever denied him. But he refuses to acknowledge his desire for what it is. Instead, he tries to take what he desires and bend it to his own vision... and naturally, he fails.

At least, that's the way I remember the story. I haven't read the book in a good many years, but that was my impression at the time. In any case, it's a story of strong emotions, and it focuses on the inner struggles of three very different people. The trouble is, Argento's version of the story takes the emotional struggle between Erik, Christine and Raoul and recasts it on Junior High School terms. They're more like rivals for a Prom date than participants in a grand, passionate drama.

We first see Christine sneaking onstage after hours at the Paris Opera. She's wearing a thin négligée which seems a little immodest for the time. Thinking herself unobserved, Christine prances around on the stage and vocalizes a little (OK, she pretends to vocalize... it's very clear that Asia Argento is not really singing). Up in the gallery, a caped figure sits enthralled. As Christine skitters offstage, the shape rises from his seat and stalks away...

So. What is it that's fascinated our Phantom? We're supposed to believe it's Christine's radiant voice. That's what we've been conditioned to expect by the novel and every remake we've ever seen; that's the explanation we're force-fed in this version as well. But all he's heard her do is warble a few exercises. That's right: she's singing scales. Yet somehow he's captivated by the purity and spirituality of her voice.

B U L L S H I T.

You know what he's captivated by? Boobies. She comes out on stage flashing her breasts and singing warm-up exercises -- for crying out loud, which do you think is going to hold his attention longer? She's not singing Faust, or Orfeo, or Don Giovanni... she's singing silly little arpeggios. He can talk about the radiance of her voice all he wants: he wants boobies.

As Christine returns to her dressing room, she runs across Erik sitting slumped in a chair. He's wearing a sodden black cape, and looks more than a little bedraggled... and here he is, sitting alone after hours in the ladies' dressing area of the Paris Opera. Is she alarmed? Of course not. As she passes by him, she starts a little. "What did you say?" she asks, though he hasn't said anything.

This is an embarrassing little moment. Argento is trying to introduce the idea that there is a psychic link between Erik and Christine, a connection that allows them to communicate without speaking (everybody: Grooooan.) There are any number of ways that this could have been introduced, without resorting to such a bald, flat statement. As for emotional depth, the whole scene would play equally well (or equally badly) if instead of Asia Argento and Julian Sands in the dimly-lit halls of the Opera House, we had a couple of kids meeting in front of their lockers on the way to English class. As the movie progresses, we get to eavesdrop on several silent "conversations" between Erik and Christine, and they sound just like a couple of kids chatting on their cellphones.

Throughout the movie, we get glimpses of some historical figures who might have been present in Paris society of the time. I'm not sure about the others, such as Degas, but I'll vouch for their Gounod as a pretty good facsimile. The trouble here is that these characters are only props, only part of the background: they don't interact with the principals the way (for instance) Franz Liszt stepped into the action in the Universal Phantom.

Among the several sub-plots Argento throws in, we have an unsavory bit featuring some aristocratic pedophiles, who hover around the prepubescent ballet girls. At one point, the Phantom steps in and carves up one of the perverts as he pursues a child through the scenery vaults under the Opera stage. Erik's rescue of the child seemed out of character to me. In fact, the whole episode seemed trite. Appalling as it may sound, I would have been more convinced by the scene had Erik followed the murder of the pedophile with the slaughter of the child as well (though I think that's something even the earlier Argento would have balked at).

The whole child-molester sub-plot is superfluous, but it becomes even more distasteful considering Argento's evident fascination with his own daughter's nude body. I'll admit that it's easier to watch Asia Argento get naked than watch her act; but even so, there were moments I found myself cringing as I realized Asia's dad was behind the camera somewhere.

And to add a further disquieting note: aside from the camera's unhealthy fixation on the director's daughter, there is absolutely nothing distinctive about the film's visual style. Most of it could have been filmed by anybody. Several entire sections, including the bizarre rat hunt, are so thoroughly unlike Argento in every respect that it's impossible to believe he was responsible for them.

On top of everything else, we've got the usual inanities -- like underground caves with perfectly flat floors, which remain brilliantly lit even when there are no lanterns or candles around. We have characters that get naked and die, simply because it's expected that such things will happen in movies like this. We have a mess of confused motivations. We have a Phantom whose blissful relationship with the abducted Christine falls apart in a ludicrous spat. And we have a climax that makes absolutley no sense, as Raoul, Christine and the Phantom all end up being pursued by an angry mob. Raoul shoots the Phantom, but the Phantom suddenly forgives him, and sends him off in a boat with the terrified Christine. Off they row, as the dying Phantom holds off the crowd with a few more bloody murders. The end.

It's a bad sign when Dario Argento is outclassed by Dwight Little, whose late-eighties Phantom was also shot in Budapest. Come to think of it, it's a little unnerving to see producer Claudio Argento outclassed by Harry Allen Towers. At least Little and Towers had the benefit of Robert Englund as a suitably loony, Freddy-esque Phantom. Even Hammer Studio's version from the 60's, which wasted Herbert Lom as a scare-free and misunderstood Erik, is preferable to Argento's. And all of them, every retread ever made, pales by comparison to the 1925 original. True, the scenes without Lon Chaney are pretty dull going, but every moment that Chaney is on-screen is a miracle. The famous unmasking scene is still powerful, but there are other equally telling moments. One of my favorites comes before the unmasking, before we've ever really even seen the Phantom at all. As Christine stands in the darkness, looking for her mysterious "angel", Chaney's long, fluid hand reaches out behind her. Before he can touch her, he stops: his fingers hesitate and draw back just over her shoulder. It's heartbreaking: you can feel his terror at actually being seen by the object of his desire. He knows how hard it will be for her to accept him, even with his mask... and Chaney communicates all this emotion with only the tips of his fingers.

Another great, understated moment comes as the terrified Christine shrinks from the Phantom's coffin. As the girl backs away, horrified, Chaney stands motionless, slumped against the wall. Since his face his still hidden by the horrible "smiley-face" mask, he does all his acting with the attitude of his body, and a languid gesture of his hand: "That," says the title card, "is where I sleep." And very best of all is Chaney's final standoff with the angry mob. As they crowd in on him, he takes something from his coat and holds it menacingly above his head. Such is the force of his personality that the crowd draws back in terror. Then Chaney begins to laugh, as he unclenches his fist to reveal... nothing. His silent laughter continues as the mob moves in to kill him.

Julian Sands is no Lon Chaney. I could understand a thoughful director wanting to de-emphasize the Phantom's external hideousness to concentrate on his internal agony. But to make him a pretty boy with no inner life at all? What was Argento thinking?

We're used to a lack of emotional depth in Argento's films, and a Phantom without emotional resonance is bound to be a poor enough show. But the problems with Phantom go far beyond the shallowness of its characters. The whole movie is so unbelievably childish that it calls Argento's whole body of work into question. Argento's supposedly a huge admirer of Ingmar Bergman... he's claimed that his camera movements are determined by the psychological state he's trying to build, as was the case with Pasolini. But how could anyone even watch a Bergman film once in his life, then turn around and make a movie like this? What psychological state can he hope to express with the movements of his camera, when he's confessing with every frame that he has no understanding of real psychology?!

Argento has already made the best adaptation of the Phantom story we could have expected from him: Opera. There again we had a monster whose disfigurement was on the inside (until the end, that is), who pursued and tormented a young singer. There it didn't matter that the characters were one-dimensional and the emotions shallow: in the cruel and ugly world of Opera, anyone displaying recognizeably human characteristics was certain to end up dead. Most telling of all, the monster's motivation had nothing to do with grand passion or an obsession with artistic perfection... it was a squalid matter of kinky sex. In Opera, we could at least pretend that there was something going on beneath the shiny surface. We also had Maria Callas singing Verdi's Macbeth on the soundtrack, instead of empty vocalises.

But Argento went ahead and made Phantom anyway. As a result, those of us who were vocal in support of Argento in better times -- those of us who were counting on him to help bring some credibility to a much-maligned genre -- are starting to feel our Phantom has torn his own mask off. And behind that mask, there is the most horrifying sight of all: absolutely nothing.

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