(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.
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.
(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.