Phantom of the Opera (1998)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Phantom of Death

Seven Dwarfs to the Rescue


Eaten Alive

Phantom of the Opera

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

"I was in a Merchant-Ivory film, you know.
I'm sure they'll call me back for
another one any minute!"
Dario Argento has a rabid fan base among horror fans, which is part of the reason why we've never reviewed any of his films. He presents a big, tempting target, but how much angry e-mail from Argento fans are we prepared to delete from our in-boxes? Even many of those enthusiastic for Argento's work, however, had a hard time swallowing his 1998 version of Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera. The reason we don't like most Argento films is that he rarely gives any thought to realistic plot or character motivations. His fans point to his bravura camera work, pounding musical scores, and copious gore scenes. Phantom of the Opera, which looks like it was shot on video, has none of that. Okay, it has some of the gore. But besides that it strips Argento down to his basic story-telling skills, and the results are anything but pretty. On one hand, most of the plot points are overly familiar to anyone who has read or watched any version of this story. The parts that come as a surprise to those viewers, however, are going to make them laugh and laugh and laugh.

Apparently it's cold in that opera house.
In this version of the story, the Phantom came to live in the sewers under the Paris Opera House because he was abandoned as a baby and raised by rats. Yes, rats. The opening sequence even depicts a rat rescuing the floating baby basket from tumbling down a sewer waterfall. The Phantom even goes so far as to call himself a rat, though for a rat he has pretty good command of the English (er... French?) language, not to mention immaculate grooming habits. No explanation is given for how he got an organ into his lair, or where he learned to play. Maybe he went to the top Rat Music Conservatory.

This is the most ludicrous premise for a movie since Twins or Billy Madison, and those were supposed to be comedies.

Somehow Argento convinced Julian Sands to play the role of the delusional Phantom. Is it just us or has it been a long, long time since Room with a View? There was a sequel to Warlock filming about the same time. If Julian needed money to support his crack habit that badly, why didn't he just sign up for that?

Do you suffer from the pain of... heartburn?
The aboveground plot is pretty much as seen in most other versions of Phantom. Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) is the diva at the Paris Opera, and Christine Daae (Asia Argento) is her understudy. The opera house is being haunted by the Phantom, who wishes Christine to sing lead, and Christine is also wooed by Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), a rich baron who would probably sweep the young girl off her feet, were she not so entranced by the Phantom.

In order to provide a steady stream of victims -- or more to the point, provide a steady stream of their blood -- a number of implausible plot devices are employed. An laborer at the opera house convinces his lover that the Phantom is hiding a treasure in the catacombs. They go on a little expedition and meet bad ends. Very bad ends. The Phantom impales the man on a stalagmite and bites the woman's tongue out.

Providing Odious Comic Relief are the rat catcher Ignace and his midget assistant. Tired of the way that the local telekinetic rats (don't ask) always get the best of him, Ignace has built a rat-catching bumper car that he scoots around the catacombs in for a little while, vacuuming and carving up rats. But then he crashes for no reason, and one of blades sticks in the ceiling, then falls, decapitating the cackling midget. Ignace then wanders around the catacombs until the film's climax.

The Ratmobile!
The Phantom uses his psychic powers (taught to him by his rat parents no doubt) to lure Christine to his underground lair, and they have sex on occasion. The Phantom also cheats on her at least once, but it's with a rat, so maybe it doesn't count. But it will turn your stomach.

The obligatory chandelier-dropping scene is here, but it barely registers because it doesn't seem to disrupt operations at the Opera House at all, other than to give Carlotta a sore throat. Almost immediately Christine replaces her, which leads to the film's climactic scene. Christine is on stage when Ignace bursts into the opera house and declares that he saw Christine sleeping with the Phantom. Then the Phantom swoops in Batman (Ratman?) style and spirits his lover into the catacombs.

For some reason the audience at the performance takes the unsubstantiated statement by a filthy stranger seriously enough to turn into a lynch mob, because the Phantom and Raoul (who just happened to be wandering the catacombs at this exact time) seem to think it's Christine who is in danger. Christine unwillingly escapes the sewers by boat with Raoul while the Phantom delays pursuing soldiers by hitting their bullets with his torso.

"So... do you come here often?"
Because it was shot on video Phantom of the Opera lacks any of Dario Argento's trademark atmosphere. The catacombs are surprisingly well lit in nearly every scene and remarkably clean as well. The scene where the rat catcher's car zooms around the tunnels, with its bad blue screen effects, couldn't help but remind us of Doctor Who. Apparently this film was made on a $10 million budget, but you'd have a tough time proving it us. Maybe they blew their wad on the red-eyed animatronic rat featured in the prologue.

The dialogue doesn't offer any help. Some of the actors are obviously dubbed into English, so acting is hard to judge. Like many Italian horror films this was obviously shot in English, but the script wasn't written by people who speak English natively. So we get lines like, "It's just a bout of malaria. He'll be all right in a minute." A couple of other groaners:

Phantom: I'm not a phantom, I'm a rat.
Laborer: I'm sorry, I love animals.

Phantom: They will get such a surprise
Christine: A surprise?
Phantom: It has something to do with the law of gravity.

But most puzzling is trying to figure out why Argento ditched the single most recognizable features of the Phantom: his mask and deformities. It would be one thing if Argento had some way of making him scarier without them, but as it is it looks like a member of rock band Nelson is wandering around killing people.

Separated at birth?

Eerily, the connections between Nelson's After the Rain video and Phantom of the Opera don't stop there:

Features an ugly chunky guy
Features an ugly chunky guy
5 5
Set in a rocky grotto
Set in a rocky grotto
5 5
Has a person floating in the clouds via a bad video effect
Has a person floating in the clouds via a bad video effect
5 5
Inspired by something allegedly musical, namely Andrew Lloyd Weber's The Phantom of the Opera
Sired by something allegedly musical, namely Ricky Nelson
5 5
Ends with a bloodbath in a sewer
Should have ended with bloodbath in a sewer.

Review date: 11/24/2001

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