Argento conducts the cellar dweller
Like Moses, a babe is left in a basket to float down a river — but instead of being found by the wife of Pharaoh in the bullrushes to be raised a prince of Egypt, this baby is raised by rats in the Paris sewers to be an opera ghost.
Fast forward to 1877 (this is director Dario Argento’s first period film). Workers in the tunnels beneath the Paris opera house are torn to shreds by an unknown being. Later, singer Christine Daae (Asia Argento) practices in the empty opera, watched by a man of mystery. Mutually entranced, the two meet and form a strange bond.
This Phantom is not the scarred and disfigured horror of past productions, but only as horrifying as Julian Sands. However, he does have psychic powers, including telepathy, tele-hypnosis, and control of his brother rats. The script combines Phantom elements with those of Willard and television’s Beauty & the Beast. This supernatural Phantom is a fascinating idea, but I missed the tragic element of the masked grotesque. With his cloak and long blonde hair, Sands looks more like he just stepped off the set of Warlock.
Rumors grow amongst the company and get into the newspapers: there’s a ghost in Box 13, watching the performances from the darkness. The same Phantom is preying on all those who dare trespass into the depths below.
The legend of the Phantom also says that he guards a treasure, so characters continue to poke around his subterranean lair, waiting to be gobbled by the rats or impaled on stalagmites.
Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, the feisty seamstress from Argento’s Opera (a superior first stab at the material) and the unlucky birthday girl in Demons 2, again stands out as Christine’s maid Honorine. The actress once told me that when she’s on stage, she throws herself totally into a part, affecting a sort of split personality, and she doesn’t even remember her lines off stage. If this is true, it works as well for her in comedy as in drama, as she steals scenes even from the radiant Asia Argento.
Another scene-stealing character is the filthy rat catcher. Surprisingly, the Phantom lets him off with a relatively mild warning early on — an oversight that returns to haunt him. Later, he invents an amazing steam-powered rat-catcher-mobile, like a crazy little street sweeper in which he zips through the catacombs scooping up rodents.
The Phantom works behind the scenes to promote Christine from understudy to star (with Argento lip-synched as well as any music video pop idol), while attacking their rivals. Christine begins to fear the Phantom, who takes away her will on stage, playing her like his pipe organ to force a better performance. Desperately, she tries to escape from his control.
Argento’s direction is appropriately operatic, taking little advantage of the techniques that made him famous, but rather adopting a more classical style. But it’s also quite unlike any previous production, mixing romanticism, shocking gore and the dirt of urban industrialism. Argento’s chandelier sequence is spectacular, with a fittingly gruesome finale.
However, the film suffers from a lack of momentum and focus. Its lead characters are carelessly defined, and are easily lost in the tunnels and corridors. Filmed in Budapest’s opera house, Argento lets the camera pan around within it behind the end credit scroll, taking it all in for posterity.
Ennio Morricone provides another fine score, also more traditional than the distinctive work he’s better known for.
As is fitting for a film set in an opera house, the audio design is fantastic, with directional effects that are noticeable even in simple systems. When the Phantom whispers his commands, one can hear them echoing behind the walls.
A-Pix’s menus are nicely designed, but their video component delays access to the navigation elements. In a three-minute video interview, Julian Sands gives a standard explanation of why he accepted the role of the Phantom. Images in the still gallery are presented within a thick frame and partially obscured by a logo. There are short bio/filmographies for the Argentos and Sands. The type is small, so if you don’t have a huge TV you’d best read them on your computer. Martin Coxhead’s article “Brother of Horror” from Fangoria magazine, included here, is much easier to read, and is about Claudio Argento (who produced many of his brother’s movies).
Ten minutes of rare video footage show Argento directing several scenes from the picture. One has Argento amusingly demonstrating for Sands how he should bring down the chandelier. Though withdrawn and lethargic in interviews, one can see in this footage how dynamic he is in his work, as if only coming alive when he’s directing.