Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera
Well, just watched The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and felt I really needed to post something before I cooled off and lost the motivation. As any regular readers will be aware, I’ve been on a bit of an Argento kick recently, working my way through his full directorial back catalogue (or as much of it as I can get my hands on) and I’ve read a few reviews here or there too. Everything I’ve read has implied that his films became pretty weak after Phenomena (1985) and every review I’ve interpreted to say that The Phantom of the Opera is one of the weakest.
Having watched both Trauma (1993) and Sleepless (2001) this week I can say with all my heart that The Phantom of the Opera is certainly not is worst film – by a long way. Within the first 20 minutes (during minute 18, to be exact) I was hooked, it was clear that Argento had made something genuinely special. However, I’ll issue one warning, don’t watch The Phantom of the Opera if you’re expecting a straight horror/slasher/giallo. It’s none of these. Much like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) this is a romantic tragedy with a gothic horror flavour.
The Phantom of the Opera has some beautifully comic moments – the chief rat catcher serves as fantastic comic relief (a scene in which the rat catcher has a wounded thumb dressed had me actually laughing). The films also beautifully shot and designed – one of Argento’s strong suits. Also, this is possibly the only Argento film in which the dubbing isn’t horribly obvious (and no one’s performance is outright ruined by it). This is probably the only Argento film I can think of that everyone’s vocals were actually in sync. And in terms of acting, I feel I should give a nod to Asia Argento, who genuinely gave a good performance. Nothing spectacular perhaps, but certainly better than Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
However, the really big thing for me is that The Phantom of the Opera really managed to show off what Argento is still capable when not limiting himself to operating within a certain style or handful of conventions. When Argento started out with films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) he was making thrillers – sure these thrillers contained horror elements (and some pretty scary murders) but they were all primarily thrillers. Yes, these thrillers contained some wonderfully stylish sets and set pieces but at the end of the day they were just thrillers – which became progressively more gruesome.
At some point after Profondo Rosso (1975) someone convinced Argento that he was a horror director and he seems to have decided that that is where he should concentrate his efforts. The Phantom of the Opera is a film in which he was willing to back off from that role and allow himself to make a film that tells a story. The narrative is supported by some pretty creepy (and gory) murders but all of these just help to highten (or release) the tension. Argento seems to have gone back to using horror style gore and murder as support for the film (as opposed to the point of it).
And finally (I’m getting tired and sick of typing), I’d just like to say that if someone tells you that The Phantom of the Opera is rubbish, it’s just because they didn’t understand it.