“When you hear my thoughts, you’ll know where to go.”
Oh. Oh my.
I was looking forward to Dario Argento’s 1998 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera with something like macabre excitement. After all, it was identified by TV Tropes, among others, as being widely regarded as the worst adaptation of that source material, in any media form, ever. Still, I expected that there would be something noteworthy or praiseworthy about it. After all, Phantom is a work with a huge body of reimaginings and revisions; Wikipedia lists twenty-eight different film adaptations (although some of these are homages rather than direct translations of the source), thirty stage versions, forty-six literary retellings, and an additional fourteen literary versions made for children. That doesn’t even include the radio plays, television shows, and comic books that retell or revisit the story. That’s no small feat, considering that the original novel was published barely over a century ago. Personally, I don’t quite understand the story’s enduring appeal, although that may simply be because I’ve never read the original novel, although I know the plot largely as the result of cultural osmosis through the various homages to the narrative that show up in other media from time to time. Such a large body of adaptations bespeaks a kind of fanaticism that made me question whether or not the “worst adaptation” moniker applied to Argento’s version was accurate or should be interpreted as a criticism on par with one made by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. I expected that this might be the case, but I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.
Il fantasma dell’opera may very well be the worst Phantom adaptation of all time; I have not seen or read enough versions to say this definitively. I can say, however, it is the worst film of Argento’s that I have seen as part of this project, and is without question one of the worst movies I have ever seen, if not one of the worst movies of all time. I would dare venture to say it is one of the worst adaptations with regards to conceptualization as well, foregoing some of the most basic elements of the narrative for no identifiable reason (the Phantom isn’t even disfigured!). The acting is atrocious across the board, the overwrought dialogue is like something written by an overzealous student with delusions of grandeur (“Your perfume, your female smell–it pulses through me like the rolling ocean!”), and the direction so uninspired that I was shocked to learn that the stagey sets on which the film was shot weren’t sets at all, but the interiors of a real Victorian opera house in Budapest. It took me four attempts to make it through this movie without either falling asleep or losing interest completely. I have stared deep into the abyss of bad movies, and it gazed deeply into me also. Hell is this movie, and this movie is hell.
The film opens as a baby is placed in a basket and floats down the river, like a late-Nineteenth Century Moses. The basket washes up in some catacombs, where the infant is rescued by rats before the bassinet is able to flow over a waterfall. Some years later, three construction workers are dabbling in a well (I think?) when one smashes through the wall and accidentally discovers the series of catacombs. Christine Daaé (Asia Argento, in her third collaboration with her father) is a young ingénue opera performer who sneaks onto the deserted stage one night and sings; her impromptu performance is overheard by the Phantom (Julian Sands), who is immediately smitten with her, and she with him. Meanwhile, a character known only as The Rat Catcher (István Bubik) continues his crusade to rid the Opéra de Paris of all the rats hiding under its foundations. The Phantom, who was raised by the rats that saved him (and who taught him perfect English diction, apparently), takes offense at this and psychically forces the man to shove his hand into one of his own traps. A police inspector begins to investigate the strange occurrences that are credited to the Phantom, and is told that the specter is often accompanied by a cold wind and that he can compel people to perform actions against their will. (This features an interaction in which the investigator is informed of the temperature phenomenon by a seamstress, and then both of them rub their folded arms in the stagiest way possible while he asks “Did you just feel a sudden chill in the air?”)
Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), the brother of a minor duke of some kind, is also infatuated with Christine, who has begun to fall in love with the Phantom. Their communiques take the form of telepathic conversations, meaning that most of this romance consists of Asia Argento staring into space and verbally responding to unheard directives, which somehow still sounds more engaging than it actually is. She is torn between her two unremarkable suitors, however, wondering if “Knowing nothing of love, [she has] fallen in love with both men at once.” Various minor characters make their way into the catacombs only to be dispatched by the Phantom, and there is meant to be some symmetry between the people who go below the opera house and the rats who ascend into it and how both are killed, but it’s not very important, considering that this would make the Phantom and the Rat Catcher mirrors of each other, and that’s not relevant in any other sense. There’s also a subplot about Degas and his fondness for underage dancing girls who take classes at the opera house; another man who is also obsessed with the young girls is killed by the Phantom when he chases a girl (who looks about ten) into the catacombs in an attempt to molest her. This, too, is completely irrelevant to the plot save that it shows one of the Phantom’s victims is deserving of his fate.
Christine eventually accompanies the Phantom to his lair, where the two sleep together. It’s not sexy; the tableaux in the scene where the Phantom bends over Christine with his long, greasy hair calls to mind the Peter Paul Rubens painting of Cronus devouring one of his children more than anything else. Despite her reasonable wishes not to be left alone in his rat-infested cave while he returns to the opera house, he leaves her so that he can frighten and injure the diva Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) so that Christine can take her place. Throughout these scenes, a subplot involving the Rat Catcher building a small vehicle (it looks like a steampunk Wacky Racer) that will increase his rat killing productivity. He and his heretofore unseen little person assistant take the rat-killer into the catacombs and do significant damage to the rat population before crashing accidentally; the Rat Catcher then climbs his way out of the catacombs, but not before witnessing Christine and the Phantom together. The Phantom returns to Christine, who wants nothing more to do with him, so he rapes her; while he thinks she is sleeping, she spies him cuddling with his rat buddies and escapes back to the opera house, where she takes the stage in Carlotta’s place. During the performance, the Rat Catcher finally reappears and makes his way onstage, where he interrupts the performance to accuse Christine of cavorting with the monster. Amidst the ensuing chaos, the Phantom abducts/rescues her, before he is mortally wounded by Raoul. The police arrive as he is dying, and he tells Raoul and Christine to abscond, fearing that Christine will also be killed. Looking back as he dies, she begs him not to leave her and… roll credits.
This movie is awful. Just terrible. The Phantom story is, in its way, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, filtered through some Beauty and the Beast archetypes and updated to what was a contemporary setting at the time of the novel’s composition. More than either of those, however, the narrative turns the heroine into a Bella Swann, eternally enraptured by a man who is creepy and possessive in addition to being a beast. At least in the novel and in other adaptations, the relationship between the two is founded on the Phantom’s instruction in the musical arts from which Christine benefits; here, he’s just a stalker who can communicate with her telepathically. There’s no reason for Christine to find him so appealing, even if this version foregoes the very important plot element that the Phantom is disfigured; here, he’s just Julian Sands with gross hair, psychic powers, and an affinity for rats. In the original novel, the affection between Christine and the Phantom never transcends to become physical; here, the two have consensual sex and then he rapes her (which makes her later declaration of love for him all the more disgusting). And the unnecessary subplots about Degas et al. and the Rat Catcher serve only to distract. There’s some decent gore, but there’s also some very bad CGI work (the scene where the Phantom sits on the rooftop and daydreams about a rat trap full of humans in particular) and much of the violence is irrelevant to the plot. There is nothing here to redeem this movie. Nothing. Avoid at all costs.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond