The marriage between Italian horror maestro Dario Argento and Gaston Leroux’s classic chiller “The Phantom of the Opera” is a Gothic kitschfest that leaves no excess unexplored. None of your sanitized Andrew Lloyd Webber treatment here, but plenty of bodice-ripping, lush romanticism, gore and gross antics with rats, all of which should tickle the director’s stalwart devotees. But the script’s clumsy plotting, its often unintentionally hilarious dialogue and some howlingly bad acting make the already widely sold pic likely to function best as a campy video entry for irreverent genre fans.
Main difference between the countless previous versions and this one scripted by Roman Polanski’s longtime collaborator Gerard Brach and Argento is the choice of an unmasked phantom without facial disfigurements. Much detail goes into establishing the character’s background: Abandoned as a baby and left to drift in a basket along a murky subterranean river running through the catacombs under the Paris Opera, the child is raised by rats. His bond to the critters becomes both familial and carnal.
Now an adult, the phantom (Julian Sands) mopes unseen in the shadows of the opera looking like part of an unwashed heavy-metal act. In between visiting grisly deaths on all who harm his beloved rodents and any who intrude on his underground grotto, he is smitten by aspiring young singer Christine (Asia Argento), who understudies obese reigning diva Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi). Falling under the phantom’s spell, Christine soon gets lured downstairs to check out his organ.
Most of the action revolves around the phantom’s efforts to sway Christine away from her more courtly suitor, Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), and to eliminate Carlotta and make way for his inamorata to take Paris by storm. But despite a suitably tragic denouement in which the lovers are torn asunder by uncomprehending forces, the failure to stir up real emotional or psychological depth undercuts any sense of passion in the romance.
The vein of grotesque comedy generally works better, such as Carlotta’s tantrums, or exploits involving the opera’s chief exterminator (Istvan Bubik) and his ingenious rat-catching machine. But attempts to incorporate real historical figures — Degas sketching students at a dance class, etc. — are hokey.
Despite stiff competition in the wooden-performance stakes, Sands’ phantom takes the prize, aided by preposterous lines for all occasions. These range from romantic (while seducing Christine: “Your perfume! Your female smell!”) to threatening (to Carlotta: “You will not sing tonight if you value these big breasts!”). The thesp also gets to cozy up with rats for some erotic downtime away from hot-and-cold Christine.
Working with her father for the third time (following “Trauma” and “The Stendhal Syndrome”), Argento brings plenty of pluck and sexy attitude to the role, but her pouting presence is far too contemporary to convince as a 19th century damsel, least of all when warbling arias. Other cast members are mostly at sea, and the assortment of accents on tap is remarkable, not one of them Parisian.
Shot mainly in the Budapest Opera House, the costly production’s major asset is its visuals. Especially notable in the ornate set design is the phantom’s lugubrious underground world, its atmosphere heightened by lenser Ronnie Taylor’s somber lighting and prowling camera. Effects are pro, and the generous gore quota — including stalagmite skewerings, bodies torn in two, decapitations and a tongue ripped from its socket — will keep aficionados happy. Also effective is Ennio Morricone’s score, which is thundering and operatic at times, shrill and unnerving at others.