- The Music of lí Fantasma dell'Opera by Dario Argento
In the long history of cinematic remakes of The Phantom of the Opera, Argento's film is, contrary to the considered opinions of critics and even his own fans, not a "wrong turn" in the trajectory of one of the horror genre's most disconcerting masters, but merely the next leg of a continual journey of exploration. Central to this exploration is music. There is no Don Juan Triumphant, but the gap left by the Phantom's grand composition is filled by a heterogeneous medley of operatic extracts (diegetic and otherwise), noise (diegetic and, as it were, enhanced-diegetic), and underscore (sometimes conventionally thematic, sometimes, as we will see, deliberately disorientating). I will argue that the discontinuities of this medley contribute to a sense of unease in the cinemagoer more powerful than that produced by the clichés of horror music—even those clichés that were originally Argento's own innovations.
In a number of key plot situations, some part of that long tradition of remakes and others not, Argento succeeds in giving life to an original drama in which Ennio Morricone's music and the many operatic moments of the narrative frame combine with the director's individual approach to soundtrack noise. Far from a wrong turn, then, it is a milestone—not least in the development of Argento's relationship with opera, of whose various secret guises he shows a deep appreciation and understanding. Argento includes the kind of uninhibited cinematic gestures that distinguish "his" Phantom from those of directors such as Terence Fisher, Robert Markowitz, or Dwight H. Little, but at the same time—in some cases and to very different ends—bring it closer to that of Brian De Palma. Both their adaptations have the same visionary baroque quality, and both take full advantage of the privileged site of experimentation that Leroux's novel offers to cinema in particular. Making use of the operatic repertory, as well as quotations from the world of cinema and indeed painting, and benefiting from one of Morricone's finest scores, which maintains an artful dialogue with the story through a sequence of multivalent musical motifs, Argento's Fantasma dell'Opera may be regarded as a convincing response to Leroux's challenge to represent the power of music. Anomalous in his filmography though it may be, [End Page 221] in this respect it can be regarded as one of his most successful cinematic realizations.
A Regrettable Episode in Argento's Filmography?
Il Fantasma dell'Opera was not very successful when it was released in cinemas in 1998. Both audiences and critics had difficulty locating the characteristic elements of the director's style in this lavish costume-drama, with one writer even calling it a "regrettable episode" after years of successive triumphs.1 On the subject of the film's supposed infidelities to the literary source—that familiar refrain of critics unsure of how to categorize an adaptation—much was made of its narrative looseness, with events willfully moved around in the timeline and Christine Daaé's love story with Eric and Raoul substantially altered.2 Critics highlighted certain passages lifted from Argento's usual horror vocabulary, and in no uncertain terms declared Argento unable to deal with the complicated rules of the theatrical world. Many felt the "splatter" effects had little to do with the plot: the washerwoman Paulette's tongue ripped out before she is killed, the stagehand Alfred's body impaled on a stalagmite, the unlucky workmen dismembered with an axe, the wholesale butchery of the film's finale. The same went for all Argento's stylistic traits, in fact: the frequent murderous deeds, the claustrophobic night-time setting punctuated by the gusts of wind that announce the Phantom's presence, the alternating montage, and the abrupt contrast between juxtaposed close-ups and long shots. These traits had immortalized Argento's name in the annals of horror as a true innovator, but seemed distinctly out of place in an adaptation of Leroux. In his Fantasma, what is more, it seemed as if the screenplay had slipped into...