The Phantom of the Opera (1998)

dario argento’s the phantom of the opera (1998) looked to be tailor-made for my fiancĂ©e and i. the last few weeks i’ve been on an argento kick, but i’ve been watching them by myself since she’s not the biggest fan of horror films to begin with — let alone surreal, incoherent italian ones. she is, however, a huge fan of the phantom of the opera, whether it be the musical or a straight narrative version. so when she mentioned she’d added the argento version to her netflix queue, it seemed almost too perfect to be true — a giallo version of her favorite story; this was going to be great!

and, in a way… it was. but probably not for the reason argento intended. i doubt he hoped his audience would laugh through the whole thing and rewind scenes because they can’t actually believe what they saw is as ridiculous as what they thought they saw. i must admit, the experience of watching the film was largely entertaining — but the film itself is not. this is a bad, bad film and you should stay far, far away from it. argento fans will hate it. phantom fans will hate it. unless your name is asia argento, you will hate it. watching it would only leave you feeling puzzled and that you’d wasted a spot in your netflix queue… but luckily, you don’t need to watch it. i already have.

Netflix Description: Italian horror master Dario Argento puts his macabre stamp on Gaston Leroux’s story of a madman living inside an opera house. Though not physically disfigured this time around, the Phantom (Julian Sands) harbors internal scars, having been raised by telepathic rats in the opera house basement. The musically talented Phantom finds his muse — and object of obsession — in a talented, young singer named Christine (Asia Argento, Dario’s daughter).

if i’d read this description before watching this film, i doubt i’d have been as surprised when things took a turn for the craptastic. there are more than a few red flags contained in this short paragraph. ‘not physically disfigured’ is a pretty big one. what kind of opera phantom isn’t scarred? removing the physical disfigurement removes one of the big reasons for the phantom to need to live in secrecy under an opera house. this quickly moves the phantom from the ‘romantic, tragic hero’ category into the ‘homeless, weirdo stalker’ one.

the biggest red flag, though, is contained in two small words: telepathic rats.

really, dario? that’s the best you could come up with? the phantom was raised by a family of psychic vermin? the film opens with baby-phantom being sailed down the river, moses style. the oh-so-realistic-looking rats drag the baby off. we’re left with no real explanation of what happened between that moment and the phantom’s adult life, but i like to believe the rats stuck him in a johnny jump-up made of dirty rags and fed him nothing but gorgonzola for 35 years.

next we meet christine (asia argento) who, you know, can’t act. or sing. she can, however, show her nipples through her skanky french dress in her daddy’s big movie, so i suppose that will have to do. she does a lot of lip syncing to a real opera singer’s voice… although, to my untrained ears, even the dubbed voice often sounded like a dying cat. i can only imagine what the actual sound coming out of asia’s mouth sounded like on the set.

the phantom (julian sands in full rockstar-desperately-in-need-of-pert-plus mode) instantly falls in love with christine after seeing her dress and hearing her sing scales for 10 seconds. he soon becomes jealous of christine’s other suitor, a character whose name i can’t recall and am not going to bother to look up, but who looks a lot like prince.

soon after that, we get the film’s biggest “wtf!?!” moment. we catch a glimpse inside the phantom’s troubled mind and see two distinct images… the first is fairly predictable and completely solidifies the phantom as a character with pure motives — he imagines christine in an even skankier outfit apparently made out of a ball of tangled yarn (perhaps a rather dumb cat/rat metaphor?) coaxing him towards her. and then comes the shot we rewound quite a few times… we see that the phantom is imagining a bunch of people dressed in pink leotards trapped on a flaming mousetrap. not much else i can add to that visual, so i won’t try.

phantom of the opera gets far more predictable at that point as the phantom starts killing lots and lots of people in really unrealistic and gruesome ways, usually for little to no reason. the film also features a lot of nudity and has at least one really graphic sex scene where julian sands’ creepy buttocks get to do lots of thrusting against asia (a scene which becomes even creepier when you remember the film’s director is her father). there’s also a bizarre scene where the prince guy goes to an orgy and attacks a bowl of fruit with his cane for no discernible reason and another where a rat catcher is compelled to push his own hand down on the spikes of a rat trap (this is the only scene i recall where the rats demonstrated their telepathic skills).

when not looking at herself in the mirror, screeching or taking her clothes off, asia likes to wear hats with different dead animals glued to the front.

there’s also a surreal subplot involving the rat catcher and his midget assistant. they collect the tails of every rat they kill and keep them in formaldehyde. in an effort to boost the production of rodent-tail-filled jars, the rat catcher builds a tiny brass car very reminiscent of gene wilder’s wonkamobile (the one that went through the wonkawash). this car is outfitted with vacuum hoses and spinning blades and seats two comfortably. in the rat catcher’s defense, when they try the car out, it seems to work remarkably well… although i’m not sure what kind of rats simply line up along a path and don’t scamper away when a huge, loud machine to come along and suck them up. all seems well in the rat catcher’s world until the car crashes, decapitating his already vertically challenged assistant by one of the aforementioned spinning blades.

i believe the film ends with the phantom being shot and/or drowned to death while christine escapes with prince. i can’t recall exactly because i was still in shock from a scene late in the film where christine discovers the phantom’s ‘family.’ she peeks into the phantom’s secret lair and sees him covered in rats. the phantom removes his shirt in a rather suggestive way, allowing the rats to crawl all over his chest. in one of the most merciful cuts in cinematic history, we cut to christine’s reaction just as julian starts unbuttoning his pants and a rat begins moving in that direction.

so, that’s it. one of the classic characters of horror reduced to a creepy, oily, long-haired stalker whose interests range from bad opera singing to bestiality.

terrific. way to go, italy. i hope you’re proud of yourself.

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