Starring Julian Sands as the Phantom
Medusa Films, 1998, Horror/Gore and Romance
directed by Dario Argento, soundtrack by Ennio Morricone
We all have dark corners in our souls, believe me... It's what makes us human.
~Baron Raoul de Chagny
Warning: This is not a family film, to state it mildly. As the following definition of giallo implies, along with the mere mention of "Master of Horror" (and Giallo) director Dario Argento, this movie contains graphic violence, nudity, and adult situations. While I make a reference to a famous Disney film, a Disney film this is definitely not. I have tried to discuss some of it as tactfully as I know how. The movie itself has an "R" rating, but even with my toning it down to discuss it, I consider this a "PG-13" page. Discretion is advised. As a completist, I feel obligated to discuss it, as a warning for those who would be offended by Giallo style images and for those who would be interested in "strictly intellectual" discussions about the relationship of Christine and the Phantom.
Giallo is an Italian 20th century genre of literature and film. It is closely related to the French fantastique genre, crime fiction, horror fiction and eroticism. The term is also used to mean an example of the genre, in which case it can take the Italian plural gialli. The word giallo is Italian for "yellow" and stems from the genre's origin in paperback novels with yellow covers.
~definition per Wikipedia.com
There is a moment near the end of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in which Christine tells the Phantom, "Your face holds no horror for me now. It's in your soul where the true distortion lies." Director Dario Argento must have been listening to those words when he applied his handiwork here. For this Phantom, his handsome face is his mask as he goes about committing nightmarish acts of murder in the Paris Opera House.
The movie starts with a woman walking away in the rain, crying as a man tries to comfort her. In the distance, a basket floats downstream. The basket is holding a baby. Who this woman is, and why she feels the need to abandon the baby like this, is unknown. The basket floats through the catacombs where it is dragged to shore by a rat. The camera shows a closeup of a rat's face as the baby's hand reaches up to affectionately grasp its whiskers. A special bond is formed with the rats and this baby, who of course grows up to become the Phantom of the Opera (Julian Sands).
Like the 1989 movie starring Robert Englund, this Phantom has powers that one could define as paranormal. He can read people's thoughts, he climbs walls and ceilings as easily as a spider can, and he floats down from high places the way I've seen flying squirrels do. His feelings of kinship with the creatures of the night have blessed him with such gifts. It has also cursed him with an ability to almost effortlessly kill intruders in some very gory ways.
Christine Daaé (Asia Argento) makes her first appearance in a beautiful white dress. The Paris Opera house is empty and it is late. She looks around dreamily as she imagines she is in front of a full house and she is the star singer. She begins to sing, and does not realize that she indeed has an audience. The Phantom is watching from the shadows. While Christine is aware of stories about a Phantom, she does not seem to suspect that she has met him when she walks past him in the hallway. She thinks she heard him say something, but he was only thinking it. She can hear his thoughts, which takes the Phantom by suprise. He tells her she will always be able to find him, to just listen to her thoughts. Thus begins their unusual romance.
It's cute the way Christine tries to "converse" with the Phantom later on. It is during rehearsal. The ballerinas are practicing their steps while Buquet looks on, and Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) can be heard singing over everyone. Annoyed at Carlotta's loud mouth, Christine plugs her ears so she can hear the Phantom's thoughts. The Phantom lets Christine in on a secret: Carlotta hates her. Christine smiles and says out loud she knows. Carlotta finally stops singing long enough walk across the room and flip her dress at Christine. Ah, can you feel the love?
This is the only version I know to date in which the Phantom does not provide singing lessons for Christine, neither directly nor indirectly. Her voice is perfect, as far as he is concerned. In fact, during their first conversation, he tells her that her music is a divine light in his dark soul. When Carlotta falls ill, the managers do not hesitate to send out Christine. Carlotta lets out a raspy scream at the thought. Unfortunately, the audience is not interested. The house is practically empty and the few who attend are not paying attention. The only exceptions are the Phantom, watching from Box Five, and the ever-faithful Baron Raoul de Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano). Christine's eyes fill with tears, then she faints on stage.
Raoul de Chagny is not the most handsome aristocrat in any version of a Phantom story, but he is extremely patient, wise, and good-hearted. He loves her, but respects her wishes just to be friends. Secretly Christine is beside herself, torn between two lovers. She openly admits to herself that she is in love with both Raoul and the Phantom. She confides in Raoul that she fears her mind is going, that she needs help because she has dark corners in her soul. Raoul does his best to comfort her, telling her that everyone has dark corners in their souls and to not be afraid.
Later, Raoul follows the poor advice of his older brother and goes to a spa. A young woman makes advances at him while he hallucinates that she is Christine. As soon as he realizes what is going on, he shouts, "Get thee behind me Satan" and, after knocking over some furniture and spitting in his brother's face, he falls to his knees and weeps.
Christine never needs the Phantom to physically take her to his lair. She listens for him as The Voice. She finds the secret pathway behind her dressing room mirror and goes down to the catacombs by herself. He is playing a pipe organ when she gets to his lair and sings for him, the same aria she sang when he first heard her in the empty auditorium. Later, they make love. He talks to her about his kinship with the creatures of the night and how it lead to his dual nature. He places a ring on her finger as a token of their love. He has work to do, however, and leaves her alone to venture back up into the opera house.
Meanwhile, very bizarre and violent events are happening in the Paris Opera house. A trio of blue-collar workers are slaughtered while trying to work in a tunnel under the opera house (one of them is severed right in half). The rat catcher's hand is mangled after a voice in his head commands him to place it in a rat trap while rats gather to nibble at the bleeding flesh. Joseph Buquet chases a little ballerina down into the catacombs, and gets his heart ripped right out of his chest. A young stage hand and his girlfriend, convinced the Phantom has a hidden treasure in the catacombs, are brutally murdered when they venture down. (The young man is impaled on a stalagmite, and the young woman's tongue is bitten and pulled out of her throat.)
It does seem a bit odd that the ratcatcher consistently survives his trips down below for most of the movie. With the rare exception of Christine, whom the Phantom loves, the ratcatcher seems able to get away a lot. The rats are the Phantom's friends and brothers, so there would be motive. I suppose that this could have something to do with his equally "special" relationship with rats. While his mangled hand is getting medical treatment, he boasts of the thousands of rats he has killed and of the collection of tails he keeps as souvenirs. With a dwarf assistant, he later designs a machine that is able to kill dozens of rats at a time. (That pesky dwarf is at it again! Bad dwarf!) They are in an accident while driving this machine through the catacombs. The dwarf is killed by this accident but the ratcatcher, while badly wounded, survives.
Meanwhile, Carlotta is now hearing voices. While the manager tries to negotiate a contract with her, the Phantom threatens her not to sing that night and calls her a fat cow. Her assistant, a skinny, almost hyperactive young man with frizzy hair and a perpetual smile, is attacked in the costume room. When Carlotta goes to help him, she herself is physically attacked by the Phantom as he threatens her with further harm if she sings that night. Never one to be intimidated, she sings that night. During a love duet, the chandelier falls on the audience and a prop falls over on Carlotta's head. It must be the most violent, graphic chandelier incident in any version of the phantom story, with closeups of bodies being crushed under its heavy weight. As the panicked crowd runs, Carlotta is left sitting on the stage and coughs out a large mouthful of dust.
The Phantom tells Christine she is ready to be the Prima Donna. Strangely enough, Christine insists she is not ready. This outrages the Phantom and physically attacks her, followed by an intimate moment that is not mutually consentual. While this is going on, the wounded ratcatcher sees them through a crack in the wall. Christine returns to the world above and seeks Raoul's comfort. She tells him everything up at Apollo's Lyre, where the eavesdropping Phantom overhears everthing. Raoul is certain that their love will weaken the Phantom's powers over her mind. The managers find her and update her on what happened with Carlotta's performance.
Christine takes the lead role and happily sings in front of an interested full house. In the middle of her performance, the bloodied ratcatcher limps on to the stage. He points to Christine and calls her the Phantom's whore, revealing to the crowd what he witnessed down below. The Phantom flies out of nowhere and kidnaps Christine. Raoul is able to track them down and fatally wounds the Phantom. They hear the police, lead by the half-crazed ranting ratcatcher. The Phantom tells Raoul to help her. Raoul takes her to a boat much to Christine's protests. She is out of her mind now, screaming with outstretched arms, "Why? Why? Why?" The Phantom tells her to go, that his world is over. He is able to kill the ratcatcher at long last, but is shot to death by the police. As Raoul takes Christine away on the boat, a closeup of her hand shows the ring the Phantom gave her fall off her finger into the water.
The song Christine is singing to what she thinks is an empty auditorium is "Air des clochettes" (The Bell Song) from Lakmé by Delibes. She sings it again later in the film, when she first visits the Phantom's lair.
The aria Carlotta is rehearsing during her first appearance in the film is "Habanera" from Carmen by Bizet.
Carlotta and another singer are in the middle of a love duet from Gonoud's Romeo and Juliet when the chandelier comes crashing down.
The aria Christine is singing on stage in front of a full house when the Phantom kidnaps her is "Juliet's Waltz" from Romeo and Juliet by Gounod.
I will admit that when I first saw this film years ago, I was so put off by the gore that I could not pay much attention to anything else. I missed out on a few things. It is not a family movie, that is for sure. Like the 1989 movie starring Robert Englund, this one has too much gore although it is not as gorey as other movies Argento has directed. Unlike the Robert Englund film, my issues with this one go beyond the gore. Christine has sex with the Phantom twice, one is consentual and the other is not. Buquet has issues regarding little girls. There is a disturbing scene with the Phantom pleasuring himself by allowing rats to crawl on his chest and in his pants. I'd say that if you are a Phantom fan, I'd reserve this one for "strictly intellectual" talk and for those hypothetical questions that get asked on phorums. After all, Argento is considered by many as a Grand Master of Giallo, but this one is mild in comparison to others he has done.
For many years, I searched for a Christine that fully satisfied me. It proved difficult. Something was always missing. I did not know exactly what was missing until now. What gave it away is the scene fairly early in the movie, in which Christine "converses" with the Phantom via the Voice inside her head. It made me think of the Disney production of Beauty and the Beast, in which the villagers sing about Belle with lyrics such as "Behind that fair facade, I'm afraid she's rather odd. No denying she's a funny girl at best." Christine had always been portrayed perhaps from the Phantom's point of view? She's always too perfect, too good to be true. This time, Christine is a bit eccentric and I LOVE IT! Why not a Christine with eccentricities and personality quirks? I mean that in the best possible way; it makes her as interesting as the Phantom! Thank you Ms. Argento!
I make jokes about a Fabio Fantôme but this film does bring up some interesting points that deserve serious discussion. For years, I have seen discussion after discussion about what the Phantom may have been like had he been born with a normal face. I have also seen countless discussions on Christine's choosing Raoul over the Phantom just because Raoul is the younger one with the pretty face. It almost seems here that, in the opinions of the writers, the Phantom's deformity could have ironically been his salvation. This Phantom's very soul is twisted and he struggles with a dual nature. Christine is now in love with them both; she cannot choose. She has witnessed him pleasuring himself with rats and later he practically rapes her; yet she loves him and cannot choose? In fact, Raoul has to literally drag her away from him. It seems the writers do not think very highly of Christine. It is as though they listened to those lyrics in the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and said, "Liar!" or worse.
Carlotta can be intimidating, arrogant, hostile, and a host of other things, but she is comical. She is a stereotype a lot of common schmoes like me have of Opera House Prima Donnas. Her assistant is as skinny as she is large, adding to their comical nature. At least, as far as I can tell, she is "clean" for the first time since the 1943 film. She is a career woman because she is a singer who knows how to negotiate contracts; she does not get or keep a career by sleeping with the boss.
Raoul is not the most handsome Raoul of all the versions I've seen. Yet he is heroic this time. He is strong, wise, and experienced. He is able to find and wound the Phantom on his own. I like this Raoul. He is still a beautiful person on the inside. Usually I get weepy for the Phantom because the whole situation is so ridiculously unfair to him. This time I find myself getting weepy for Raoul, because the situation is so ridiculously unfair to him.
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