You Dirty Rat

Directed by Dario Argento

Starring Asia Argento, Julian Sands, Andrea Di Stefano

Released November 20th, 1998

Rated R

Gérard Brach wrote many fine screenplays in his career, but this adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s seminal The Phantom of the Opera is not one of them. Co-written by the film’s director, giallo legend Dario Argento, this version of the oft-told tale is a strange mess. 

The opening scene is promising, as we see an abandoned baby floating in a basket down a river through a cave who is rescued by rats. Argento’s visual flair is on full display, and one must imagine he was influenced by the origin of The Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. As the titular Phantom, Julian Sands isn’t sporting any kind of mask, but he does have a cape Batman would kill for. This Phantom isn’t disfigured, which leads one to ask why he’s spent his life hiding out in these caves living with his rat family. He’s got a bed, he’s got an organ, he’s got a rowboat. I guess he never wanted to join the rat race. 

By 1877, an opera house has been built above the Phantom’s cavernous abode in Paris, and he makes enough appearances in the shadows over time that the staff begin to whisper about a phantom. A reporter is investigating strange occurrences taking place at the opera, though we never get any payoff from that angle of the story. One guy who works at the opera tells his girlfriend that there must be a treasure that the Phantom is guarding down there in the catacombs and convinces her to help him steal it. The Phantom, looking like a derelict Lucious Malfoy, uses all his rat family have taught him to fend off these intruders, scratching and tearing and biting them until blood fills the screen. 

The opera house has employed a ratcatcher (István Bubik) who creates a crazy vehicle that zooms through caves slicing and sucking up rats. And he cuts off and saves all the tails of the rats he kills! This guy is a good example of the saying “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Of course, this makes him an enemy of the Phantom, who self-identifies as a rat. The Phantom is also a great lover of opera. He’s awfully well spoken and cultured for a man raised by rodents. Maybe all rats love opera. I don’t know. The Phantom wants the lead in the next opera to go to Christine (Asia Argento) instead of Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) and threatens the opera with violence if this doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen, and he makes good on his threat. 

Despite Argento’s many stylistic flourishes, the film is a drab affair with precious little suspense. The pacing is sluggish, devoid of tension or frights. Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous score is the highlight of this weaker effort from the horror legend. Asia Argento is beautiful and has decent acting chops, but isn’t convincing as an opera singer. Julian Sands brings intensity with his steely gaze, but his Phantom would have been greatly improved had he worn some sort of rat mask. 

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray allows for English or Italian audio tracks, and the fantastic transfer makes the fake red blood really pop. The audio commentary from film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson is too forgiving of the film, but I recommend watching the interviews with director Dario Argento and producer Giuseppe Colombo. Colombo’s is a fascinating interview, as he details his rocky working relationship with Argento, how he wanted Anthony Hopkins for the Phantom and Julie Delpy for Christine, and how Julian Sands, who refused to wear a mask as the Phantom, used yoga to get over his phobia of rats. Argento’s interview is not as insightful, though he does note that he offered to use a body double for Christina’s nude scenes, but his daughter Asia, after crying, performed them.