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Retro Review: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998) and THE CARD PLAYER (2004)

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
(Italy - 1998; US release 1999)

Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento. Cast: Julian Sands, Asia Argento, Andrea Di Stefano, Nadia Rinaldi, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Istvan Bubik, Lucia Guzzardi, Aldo Massasso, Zoltan Barabas, Gianni Franco, David D'Ingeo, Kitty Keri, John Pedeferri, Leonardo Treviglio, Massimo Sarchielli, Luis Molteni, Enzo Cardogna, Itala Bekes, Ferenc Deak B., Sandor Bese. (Unrated, 104 mins)

Every bad movie has its defenders, and while a few people have gone to bat for Dario Argento's 1998 version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it's almost universally regarded as his worst film, though it later got some stiff competition from 2012's DRACULA. A revisionist take on Gaston Leroux's classic novel, PHANTOM is usually cited as the point of no return in a decline from which Argento has yet to recover. It was recently released on Blu-ray by Scorpion, along with 2004's THE CARD PLAYER, another title from the director's much-maligned modern era, with 2001's SLEEPLESS on the way, because physical media is dead. Unfortunately, the passage of time has not turned THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA into an unjustly neglected gem that was misunderstood in its time. It's still the laughably awful, hopelessly misbegotten train wreck that it's always been, the only differences now being that a) the clarity of HD at least reveals a generally nice-looking film that's well-shot by the great cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, an Oscar-winner for his work on 1982's GANDHI and an Argento collaborator on 1987's OPERA, and along with the appropriately ornate production design by Antonello Geleng, reveal qualities that were significantly diminished when the film went straight-to-video in the US in 1999, courtesy of the lowly T&A and D-grade action purveyors at A-Pix Entertainment (though it must be said that 1080p doesn't do any favors for the primitive CGI and the embarrassing, Tommy Wiseau-esque greenscreen work), and b) Argento repeatedly having his daughter Asia disrobe on screen once she turned 18 for 1993's TRAUMA and then again for some violent rape scenes in 1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME has always been a little, well, weird. 






For instance, here he depicts her, albeit briefly, engaged in a fully-nude, doggy-style, soft-focus sex scene with the title character that's prefaced with a leering, lingering close-up of her ass that takes up nearly the entire screen. This is followed later by the Phantom raping her character as she initially fights him off but eventually gives in and is shown enjoying it. Asia Argento has always cultivated a reputation as an edgy, hell-raising wild child, but these scenes were strange and ill-advised in 1999 and are completely uncomfortable and a little gross two decades later following her involvement in the Harvey Weinstein scandal and then with sexual assault accusations leveled at her by her HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS co-star Jimmy Bennett. Asia worked again with her father on 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS and 2012's DRACULA (his last film to date), and while most fans regard THE STENDHAL SYNDROME as his last front-to-back good movie (some go back as far as 1987's OPERA, but I might even say 1985's PHENOMENA), maybe there's some connection between the beginning of Dario Argento's slow, sad, ongoing decline coinciding with when he started having his daughter get naked in his movies.


Asia Argento is the ingenue Christine Daae, the understudy to obnoxious diva Carlotta Altieri (Nadia Rinaldi) in a production of Faust at the Paris Opera House in 1877. Christine finds an admirer in the Phantom (Julian Sands, in a role Argento initially pitched to John Malkovich), a notorious mystery figure who lives in the catacombs beneath the opera house, where he was abandoned as an infant and raised by rats (!). The Phantom--who isn't disfigured and wears no mask--develops a telepathic communication with Christine and the pair soon fall in love as Christine is powerless against seductive Phantom pick-up lines like "Your perfume...your female smell...it flows through my veins like the melody of the rolling ocean!" The Phantom offs various interlopers who get in the way of his love for Christine, with Argento wasting a ton of screen time on opera house staffers Alfred (David D'Ingeo) and Paulette (Kitty Keri), who are introduced with a sex scene (their copulation gets a reaction shot from a caged bird), then endlessly venturing into the catacombs where it takes forever for the Phantom to kill them. Competition arrives in the form of the lovestruck Baron Raoul de Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano), but Christine keeps their relationship platonic, even as the Phantom becomes possessive and escalates to violence, madness, and murder to keep her close to him.


Argento and co-writer Gerard Brach (a longtime Roman Polanski collaborator going back to REPULSION) opt to make everyone in Paris ugly and grotesque (the monstrous Carlotta's awful treatment of everyone, plus Eurocult stalwart Aldo Massasso as a pedophile arts patron who keeps trying lure little girls with chocolates) while giving the Phantom a relatively handsome visage. This is unlike every other interpretation of the character within the horror genre--most notably Lon Chaney in 1925, Claude Rains in 1943, Herbert Lom in 1962, and Robert Englund in 1989--though with his long blond wig and wailing away on an organ, Sands often resembles an emo Rick Wakeman. It's an approach that just never works, mainly due to the overwrought performance of Sands, who was appropriately menacing in the first two WARLOCK films--which altered the course of his career from Merchant-Ivory regular (A ROOM WITH A VIEW, MAURICE) to cult horror star for several years--but he makes an annoyingly needy, clingy, codependent Phantom here. It's too bad almost nothing works in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, because this is clearly a more prestigious production than what Argento was doing around this time, especially with revered names like Taylor, Brach, and composer Ennio Morricone onboard.


This most assuredly is not a junky horror movie, but Argento is having a really off day, even recycling what appear to be some unused steampunk-inspired props from the previous year's THE WAX MASK, which he intended to produce for Lucio Fulci but assigned to Sergio Stivaletti after Fulci died during pre-production. For all of his trailblazing success with his early gialli and his SUSPIRIA supernatural horrors, Argento stumbles badly when he ventures into classic horror: DRACULA, with its crummy digital effects, a whiny title vampire (Thomas Kretschmann) calling himself "an out-of-tune chord in the divine symphony" and transforming into a human-sized mantis while being pursued by a sleepwalking Rutger Hauer as cinema's dullest Van Helsing, is just about as bad as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Argento went on to make some OK-but-not-great films down the road, like SLEEPLESS (a back-to-basics giallo, basically an acceptable mea culpa after PHANTOM was flatly rejected by everyone), THE CARD PLAYER, and 2005's DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?, but he's never totally regained his mojo or been anywhere close to "vintage Argento" strength since. The Blu-ray features a commentary by film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson, where both acknowledge the film's flaws and its extremely low standing among Argentophiles (even referring to it as the director's "folly") while offering a reasoned, rational defense of it that probably won't change your opinion, but refreshingly avoids resorting to desperate, hyperbolic, "Dario can do no wrong!" fanboy apologia.




THE CARD PLAYER
(Italy - 2004)

Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini. Cast: Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Adalberto Maria Merli, Claudio Santamaria, Fiore Argento, Cosimo Fusco, Mia Benedetta, Giovanni Visentin, Claudio Mazzenga, Conchita Puglisi, Micaela Pignatelli, Luis Molteni, Jennifer Poli, Elisabetta Rocchetti, Vera Gemma, Antonio Cantafora, Gualtiero Scola, Robert Madison, Emanuel Bevilacqua. (Unrated, 104 mins)

After his base's talk-to-the-hand rejection of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the giallo throwback SLEEPLESS served as an acquiescing Argento's "give the fans what they want" movie. Continuing in that vein, THE CARD PLAYER is his attempt to bring the giallo into the 21st century. It's second-tier Argento without question, and looking at it again a decade and a half later, the film has taken on an even greater air of familiarity thanks to all the post-CSI police procedurals that your dad watches. From Claudio Simonetti's score that sounds like an alternate version of the NCIS theme to its high-concept plot that incorporates the internet in the most simplistic ways and doesn't really completely understand how computers work, THE CARD PLAYER feels very much like a two-hour pilot episode of a hypothetical CSI: ROME. Probably best known to American moviegoers for her supporting role in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, Stefania Rocca stars as Detective Anna Mari (whose name is similar to Asia Argento's Detective Anna Manni in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME), who's challenged by a killer via e-mail to a game of online poker for the life of an abducted British tourist, seen on a live webcam begging for her life. For every hand the killer wins, he amputates something, his ultimate goal being to murder her on camera. That's exactly what happens when hapless cop Sturni (Claudio Santamaria) volunteers to take him on and loses every hand. Mari eventually teams with John Brennan (Liam Cunningham, several years before playing Davos on GAME OF THRONES), a blustery, alcoholic forensics expert dispatched from the British embassy to assist in the investigation. Their luck doesn't improve when bull-headed police commissioner Marini (Adalberto Maria Merli) orders them to not engage and refuses to allow them to play when the killer abducts another girl, who's soon found floating in a river with a Joker card inserted into her vagina. They eventually resort to bringing in young poker expert Remo (Silvio Muccino), which proves helpful when Marini's daughter Lucia (Fiore Argento, Dario's eldest daughter) is the next woman taken.






There's a noticeable lack of "classic" Argento set pieces in THE CARD PLAYER, as most of the suspense sequences revolve around characters gathered around Mari's desk and grimacing at her computer screen as they wait for the cards to be revealed. It's an unbelievably silly story, and the killer's identity should be obvious to anyone who's seen a murder mystery before. But still, Argento, working with frequent writing partner Franco Ferrini (PHENOMENA, DEMONS, DEMONS 2), manages to squeeze in some inspired moments amidst the SE7EN-meets-ROUNDERS goofiness (we could probably use more of the tap-dancing, opera-singing, comic relief coroner). One vintage giallo bit has something in an ashtray on Mari's coffee table catching her eye, as she quickly realizes that it's a reflection of the masked killer watching her while hiding in the bushes right outside an opened patio door, the proximity very reminiscent of David Hemmings barely having enough time to lock the door into his music room when he realizes the killer is in the apartment with him in DEEP RED. And later, off investigating on his own, Brennan has one of those classic giallo realizations where he accidentally cracks the case after piecing together two seemingly unrelated details involving a mysterious sound in a public place and strange seeds from a rare plant, a stylistic callback to discovering the killer's identity in Argento's 1970 directing debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.


Sure, the filmmaker is repurposing some old ideas, but it's in these moments that THE CARD PLAYER gets some of that distinct Argento momentum going, something that's certainly lacking in the astoundingly dumb climax that literally has the killer securing Mari to the railroad tracks like a silent movie villain, but forcing her to play online poker for her life. THE CARD PLAYER has a great cinematographer in Benoit Debie (IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID, SPRING BREAKERS), but doesn't really take advantage of it, as Argento opts to give the film a generally TV-like look to go along with CSI-ready dialogue like "We're playing by his rules!" It also has some pacing issues in the middle and has another jarringly abrupt final shot like SLEEPLESS, but it gets some much-needed gravitas from Cunningham and Rocca, who make a good team and are about as close as late-period Argento is gonna get to David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in DEEP RED.


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