Friday, December 16, 2016

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Phantom of the Opera

Hello again, kiddies. Welcome back to Uncle Neil’s movie club. Now, can anyone tell me the name of Gaston Leroux’s most famous novel?

That’s right, Timmy, it is ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. And does anybody know what the best film version is?

Very good, Cindy, it is the Lon Chaney film directed by Rupert Julian. But that’s not the version we’ll be watching tonight. Guess which version we will be watching, kiddies.

You got it, little Jimmy! The Dario Argento one … What’s that, little Jimmy? Isn’t it time Uncle Neil handed himself in at the police station? Quite possibly, kiddo, quite possibly.

Where do I start with ‘The Phantom of the Opera’? Do I ask Signor Argento to make himself comfortable on the couch and tell me all about his compulsion to alternately fetishize and terrorize his daughter? Do I rigorously question the reimagining of Leroux’s deformed and masked Phantom as a long-haired wannabe rock god in leather trousers without so much as a zit to blemish his face? Do I poke holes in the backstory which has the infant Phantom cast into a stormdrain in a moses basket and subsequent raised by rats in the Parisian sewers? Do I enquire of Argento and co-scriptwriter Gerard Brach whether they’ve even heard of Gaston Leroux, let alone read the book?

Do I talk about the bad acting? Asia Argento, as Christine Daaé, is terrible – particularly when lip synching (or rather, lip mis-timing) to various opera recordings. Julian Sands, as the Phantom, is terrible – the script wants him to project various combinations of moody, sexy, dangerous, tortured, violent and stud muffin at random intervals, and he responds instead with Charles Hawtry playing Jim Morrison by way of a Dirk Bogarde impersonation. Andre de Stefano as Raoul is terrible – he actually makes Charles Hawtry doing a Dirk Bogarde impersonation seem macho. His excruciatingly fey performance reaches its nadir when Raoul’s brother, trying to cure him of his lovesick moonings, drags him to a bathhouse for the worst orgy in the history of cinema, provoking Raoul to an emotional meltdown compared to which a petulant infant’s toy/pram redistribution scenario resembles a masterclass in Strindbergian drama.

Or do I talk about the stable of grotesques with whom Argento populates the film – the opera house’s oleaginous new manager, installed in said position by friends in high places (a fact that is made much of for one protracted scene and then never revisited); the paedophile plying young ballerinas with Swiss chocolate; the corpulent diva whom Christine eventually replaces, but only after she’s been the butt of every fat joke the film manages to throw out in the meantime; the idiot stagehand who goes hunting the catacombs with his girlfriend for the Phantom’s treasure, the pair of them gurning and spouting stilted dialogue as if intent on sweeping the board at the Razzies; or the ratcatcher.

Yes, let’s talk about the ratcatcher. Let’s talk about his demented persona, a sort of compound Igor, Quasimodo and Wurzel Gummidge. Let’s talk about the ride-on ratcatching machine he invents, a combination vacuum cleaner/golf cart designed by someone with a priapic fixation on Stephenson’s Rocket, in Seventeen-fucking-Seventy. A contraption that it would have killed a little something in me, my dad being a mechanic and all, to take a screengrab of. So I’ll give you this screengrab instead and leave you to speculate as to the precise nature of the relationship between the ratcatcher and his dwarf assistant.

And let’s also talk about how nothing in the film makes sense. How an opera house the size of the palace of Versaille can be built over a series of catacombs which lead downwards to an underground lake – and not actually be affected by the slightest bit of subsidence let alone collapse into the fucking lake. How the Phantom brings a chandelier down by hammering on a load-bearing column instead of, I don’t know, just unscrewing the fittings. How a bunch of rats can save a child from being drowned, bring it up to speak English, play the organ, communicate telepathically and be extremely confident in the seduction/kidnapping of women, and yet do absolutely fucking nothing when the militia come stomping down to the Phantom’s lair, guns cocked and ready to rock. Seriously, this is the director who gave us a swarm of rats massacring a cat-killing cripple in ‘Inferno’; why the hell was the-Phantom’s-army-of-rats-vs-militia not even an option?

And let’s talk about how the narrative simply lurches from one disconnected set piece to another. Granted, illogic and anti-narrative are Argento’s stock-in-trade, but where they contributed to the nightmarish weirdness of ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Tenebrae’, here the effect is a sense of bad writing and lazy direction.

I still haven’t seen everything Argento has made: the TV movie ‘Do You Like Hitchcock’ and his recent ‘Dracula 3D’ have yet to grace the Agitation screening room; but it’s hard to imagine anything worse than this on his filmography. Even a three-hour static shot of his big toe scored to a dentist’s drill would have something more to offer the cineaste, the trash fan and the generally comatose alike.


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