Dance Macabre (1992)

     directed by Greydon Clark

          starring Robert Englund, Michelle Zeitlin, and Alexander

            Sergeyev

I thought I was never going to get to watch this movie since it's seriously difficult to find these days - it was a direct-to-video flick back in its day and didn't come out on DVD until 2015 - but thanks to the tender-hearted help of a fellow Phantom enthusiast, I got to enjoy it in all its lurid glory. When Halloween is right around the corner, you really can't do better than Robert Englund, in any of his many terrible forms.

This film has a confusing history and is mysterious all by itself; it has long been rumored to be the "sequel" to the 1989 Little/Englund film, but its plot and characters, though clearly Phantom-based, have nothing whatsoever to do with that version. A magazine in the 90s claimed that the original sequel was rewritten to become Dance Macabre because it was trying to escape the 1989 film's box-office failure, but Englund himself, when asked in interviews, claimed that while he had read the script for the proposed sequel, it was never filmed in any way, much less as this movie. But Dance Macabre was released in foreign markets under the title Phantom of the Opera or Phantom of the Opera II, and it's obviously a second Englund Phantom movie, so many fans still favor the theory that it is, in some distorted, rewritten form, what's left of the originally planned sequel.

Considering this movie's premise, the fact that it suffers from identity issues of its own is actually rather appropriate.

The credits are full of mediocre horror music, which doesn't quite match up to some rather lovely atmospheric shots of St. Petersburg, where the film is set and filmed on location. The film quality's also not great, which is something I kind of expect from late 80s/early 90s films, but St. Petersburg's lovely buildings and coastline still help make up for the intro's otherwise pedestrian pace.

The film proper opens with a pan past a crystal chandelier; there is not actually a chandelier-falling scene in this movie, so it's a nice nod to the original Phantom story for those looking for it. We also open to the lovely strains of Tschaikovsky's Swan Lake, which will be recurring throughout the movie and which never fail to punch up a scene's emotional content (even if it wasn't doing very well on its own, which is sadly sometimes the case).

This movie revolves around ballet as the major artistic endeavor, not opera, which is unusual but not completely without precedent when it comes to Phantom stories; Lloyd Webber's musical makes Christine a ballet dancer before becoming a singer, while the Rosen/Schierhorn production sees the Phantom beginning to offer his tutelage to a ballet dancer after losing Christine, and both the Grell Batman crossover comic and the Ashley novel Embrace the Night revolve entirely around ballet. It's a refreshing change that makes it different enough to absorb a viewer jaded by listening to eighty different singing Christines' performances, but still ties it close to classical music and performance, not to mention to opera itself, which (at least in the time of the Phantom story) often features ballet as an important element of its productions.

Now, I have to level with you guys; this movie depends entirely on a specific plot linchpin, and if you know about it ahead of time, the entire thing falls the hell apart. If you have any interest in seeing this movie without knowing the massive spoiler that ruins its plot, you should stop reading this right now and go watch it first, and then come back and try again (and also avoid any summaries or back-cover blurbs about it, and don't look at the credits on IMDB or anywhere else - I don't know who marketed this thing, but they pretty much torpedoed its Big Secret right on the freaking box, which I'm sure didn't help it any). Interestingly, most reviews I've seen of it shout to the high heavens how terrible it is because they saw this important plot secret coming a mile away; I'm actually very curious to hear if everyone who hasn't been previously spoiled for the reveal really always sees it coming, or if it's just a case of nobody ever picking it up without hearsay or the back-cover blurb having already ruined it. If you manage to see this without coming in with any idea, please tell me if you saw it coming and how obvious you thought it was. For science.

Anyway, back to the beginning plot. An older, obviously infirm woman, dressed in voluminous black clothing that recalls many modern depictions of Madame Giry, attempts to limp over to a bar and perform ballet exercises, but is thwarted by her crippled leg, whereupon she falls into her wheelchair in glassy-eyed despair. She lies there being semi-catatonic for the rest of the introductory scene, which splits time between her and Englund, playing a choreographer and ballet teacher named Anthony Wagner (shoutout right back at you, Clark!), as both relive a past tragedy through flashbacks. While the story is poignant and familiar (a much younger Anthony, an American, is in love with a Russian ballerina named Svetlana, but lashes out and gets thoroughly drunk when she refuses to remain in the States with him indefinitely, wishing to return to her homeland), unfortunately it comes off as a clumsy exposition-dump, and the pacing is slow enough to simultaneously frustrate a viewer who halfway through is pretty sure how this is going to end and choppy enough, jumping between characters and time periods without clear signposts or apparent reason, to give me a minor headache. There are no segues or graceful transitions, and since these people haven't been introduced yet, the viewer is pretty much tossed in to fend for themselves.

Nevertheless, the flashbacks are shot in atmospheric blues and whites, carrying the lighting of Svetlana's performance of Swan Lake over into the real life of the flashback, making the whole thing look like performance art. Whether the suggestion is that this memory isn't entirely accurate, being reconstructed to become more dramatic, or that the device is merely playing up the Wagnerian (hee) tragedy unfolding by lighting it as if it were a drama between dancers is uncertain, but it's effective either way.

Anthony, who is drunkenly upset that Svetlana wants to pursue her career in Russia without him and who has more than a little bit of a proprietary air when dealing with her thanks to being her choreographer as well as lover, recalls previous Phantoms who have strong jealous mentor streaks, particularly Hohner in the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film and Sandor in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell movie. Like Sandor, he has nurtured her talent personally and sees himself as its rightful creator and owner, and like Hohner, he is now seeing that talent take her away from him and reacting violently and emotionally. It's one of those rare but really thought-provoking moments when ideas from Leroux's story somehow manage to survive almost completely intact through several rounds of alternate-version telephony; loud and clear, the message is that this is a concept that stays relevant to audiences almost a century later.

Anthony's heavy drinking right before he and Svetlana get on his motorcycle is a little overdone; I feel like I'm watching a Vampire: the Masquerade Brujah at the height of the game's punk-rock rebellion phase, and it makes it all too obvious to even the slowest viewers that they are about to crash that motorcycle all over the place. But we won't be seeing that right now, because Clark leaves us to imagine it for the time being and moves on to the actual plot, which is probably a good move (the pacing couldn't have handled much more protracted flashbacking at this point, I think).

This movie came out in 1992, and I have to assume that it is indeed set then or in the year or so preceding it, mostly because of the obvious political clues that highlight its time period. Anthony, now a salt-and-pepper adult who teaches ballet at a prestigious academy in St. Petersburg, has finally succeeded in getting the place to allow a new crop of non-Russian students in to study. This is interesting in a number of ways; it pinpoints the time period as around 1991 or so, when the Soviet Union relaxed some of its strictures and subsequently dissolved back into separate states, and the political tensions of the Cold War, just ending, will be strongly felt throughout the film, particularly when it comes to the adults who lived through them. It also gives us interesting food for thought when it comes to the events of the flashback; if Anthony's in his late forties or early fifties, the flashback would have been occuring smack in the late sixties or early seventies, during the height of the Cold War, and Svetlana's insistence on returning to Russia and Anthony's violent reaction to the idea (and apparent refusal or inability to follow her) becomes much more of a tensely fraught situation than a mere question of long-distance relationships. The Iron Curtain is still in full effect at this time, meaning that Svetlana pretty much can't permanently leave her country without being branded a traitor (or, under the terms set out by the Yalta Conference, simply deported back home), and the chances of Anthony being allowed to emigrate are extremely slim. Ballet dancers could (and did) defect from the USSR during this time in order to pursue western careers, but doing so would be an assurance for Svetlana that she might never be able to go home again, and (which she mentions in passing, but it's so quick and thickly accented that a lot of viewers might miss it) it might mean dangerous repercussions for her family still on Soviet soil.

The film itself is, by this point, pretty much a period piece; at the time it came out, adults watching it would have known these things automatically and the movie thus doesn't bother to explain them, but to audiences now, when college-aged viewers may literally not have been born yet when the Soviet Union dissolved, it probably seems somewhat bewildering that this is such a massively dramatic argument for these two. I wonder if the responses to the film would be different from, say, a twenty-five-year-old with no real Cold War memory, versus a fifty-five-year-old who cheered as they watched footage of the Berlin Wall's destruction.

At any rate, the new class is the first to include non-Russian dancers in the academy's history, and Anthony (whose own apparently well-established presence in Russia, considering the political situation, is mysteriously unexplained) is pleased since this is something he's been trying to pull off for quite some time now. Also introduced here are two of the most major characters of the movie: Olga, a no-nonsense black-clad matron who serves as a combination ballet instructor and caretaker/chaperone and who practically screams Giry Analogue, and a young photographer lurking about the premises, who will not really be named or explained for a while but who will eventually turn out to be the movie's Raoul figure.

In fact, in a turn of phrase so Phantom-esque that I giggled a bit, Anthony grumpily tells Olga, "That photographer from the magazine is back again... I thought I instructed you to get rid of him." The photographer is repeatedly and consistently an intruder into Anthony's domain (the academy), setting up a nice Phantom versus interloping Raoul dynamic.

Incidentally, I have been referring to Anthony as the Phantom figure up to this point for several reasons; he's the dude in the flashback with the violent obsession with his performing girlfriend, he's the owner of an important musical establishment full of new students and an established teacher and artist himself, and he's pissily opposed to the intruding younger man from the get-go. But the movie goes to some pains to make it clear that Anthony isn't necessarily the bad guy here, nor is he the clear-cut, obvious choice for the identity of the soon-to-be-marauding Phantom; Clark is not inspired in a lot of his directing, but he does a decent job of spreading the imagery and suggestion around to everyone.

But, alas, while Clark is trying to be subtle and Englund is busy being delightfully pensive (is it unhealthy that I think Englund is kind of totally hot in this movie? Seriously, if you took this silver fox version of him and put him in the boots from the 1989 movie, I might faint), the actresses playing the dancers are ruining the scene by being terrible. Oh, their dialogue isn't inspired, and someone clearly wrote some stupid bullshit into the scene like one of them putting a rubber creepy crawly on another one's shoulder (seriously? are these girls five years old?), but unfortunately most of these girls, particularly Julene Renee as Angela and Marianna Moen as Ingrid, are kind of stinking up the joint. Renee will actually get a little better as the film progresses (and really, I mostly ended up feeling bad for her, because her lines are seriously terribly written and I don't know if there was a lot more she could have done), but this scene's most immediate effect was to make me want all these girls to mysteriously quit and pursue careers in science so we could continue on with just Englund, Irina Davidoff as Olga, and occasional appearances by Svetlana Nemirovskaya in the flashbacks.

That be much too quick for this film's plan to slowly kill them off one by one, however, so off they go to their dormitories (fun fact: this is a ballet school and thus an appropriate place for ballet dormitories to exist!). In probably the most hilariously bad performance of the film, Clark himself makes a cameo as an unbelievably over-the-top obnoxious American father, openly pulling out bribes and stomping around Anthony's office to force him to take his daughter Jessica as a student. Clark's acting and early directing background is mostly in intentionally terrible exploitation films, so it's not surprising that he plays this with all the unrealistic bombast of a clown, but it is very distracting for the viewer, not to mention irritating. Even Englund looks sort of patiently pained throughout the scene.

It makes no sense that this thoroughly American dude is here physically in Russia to demand his daughter be taken on as a student (Jessica's later assertion that she comes from "everywhere, nowhere" maybe suggests that the family moves around a lot, but it's never explained), nor does it really make any sense that he's making that demand at all since she doesn't want to be a ballet dancer and hasn't had lessons in years. Does he think the ballet academy is like a military academy for girls or something? Anthony is entirely prepared to continue painedly turning down the increasing fistfuls of cash being waved (literally) in his face, but once he sees Jessica, it turns out that she's a dead ringer for Svetlana, and he immediately suffers another flashback as a result. (An aside: these flashbacks also remind me strongly of Karloff's Hohner in the 1944 film, who frequently retraced his steps or fell asleep having flashbacks about the lost Marcellina.)

I have to honest here, by the way: Zeitlin and Nemirovskaya really don't look all that alike to me facially, so it's hard to swallow Anthony's sudden, stunned inability to tell them apart. But Clark's directing, relying heavily on shots of Jessica's face followed by shots of a framed portrait of Svetlana followed by more flashbacks followed by Anthony actually accidentally saying Svetlana's name, makes it abundantly clear that these women are supposed to look like one another, so disbelief must be suspended slightly.

Or maybe not: it's interesting that, of all the promising young ballet stars at his school, Anthony chooses to suddenly fixate on Jessica, the only American like himself among them. It seems possible that it's not her resemblance to Svetlana that's grabbing him (after all, one assumes he's been around many Russian ballet students and never got excited about any of them) but her representation of the homeland he left behind, her mannerisms, accent and origin triggering his memories of that time period spent with Svetlana rather than being the trigger herself.

At any rate, Jessica reminds him so forcefully of Svetlana that we suddenly get to see the rest of that flashback, in which they are drunkenly speeding down the blue-washed nighttime road at unsafe velocities. Poignantly, their last exchange is foreshadowing of the disaster about to occur; Svetlana, clinging to his back, cries, "I love you, Anthony," to which he replies, "Then stay with me!"

Oddly enough, apparently Clark felt the need to inject a little more nineteenth century into this movie to reinforce his subject material, and the motorcycle crashes into a horse and carriage coming down the road in the other direction (what? why? tourists in the middle of the night?). We only see them for a second; Anthony is thrown clear of the well-shot, obviously brutally dangerous crash, but Svetlana is knocked unconscious, bleeding copiously, with one of her famous legs pinned beneath the vehicle. The obvious parallel to be made is to the woman in the introductory sequences who can no longer dance, and whom we have not seen again since.

At any rate, Anthony is all WHY YES I THINK WE CAN MAKE ROOM FOR HER even though Jessica herself keeps saying she doesn't want to study ballet, and she is immediately packed off to her room. Her roommate, it turns out, is a delicate Parisian girl with long, curly brunette hair who is introduced seated in front of a large mirror - why hello, there, do I spy an homage? Her name is Claudine, not Christine, but you've got to admit that the similarity to Lloyd Webber's version of the famous Phantom heroine is striking.

Let's shift focus back to the black-clad woman from the beginning of the film - or Madame, as she is always called, never by any given name. Anthony is a nice figurehead and mentor, but it's really Madame who runs the school and who has the reputation as an incredibly severe but talented teacher of dance. The most jarring thing about her is that, despite her obvious physical disability and close relationship with Anthony, it's pretty obvious to the audience that her face really doesn't resemble Svetlana's in the flashback very much. Considering the brutality of the accident and the great fucked-upness of the rest of her body, not to mention a large fire that was racing toward her from the wreck last time we saw her, it seems possible that there could have been some kind of facial damage/reconstruction that resulted in the visual change; certainly her skin seems overly smooth and waxy in some shots, hallmarks of reconstructed scar tissue. Her voice is also a massively creepy, gurgling whisper that she has to make audible with an amplifier, which suggests that considerable damage to her throat must have occurred. Whatever the reason, the character's presentation, relationships, and physical issues make it very clear that we're looking at what's left of Svetlana after the long-ago accident.

Interestingly, this is a rare case of the Christine character herself becoming a Phantom figure, similar to the Yozaburo graphic novel or the ending of the Pillow book; having been seriously disfigured and shut off from her world (i.e., her career as a prima ballerina), Svetlana has become a possessive mentor of other artists and iron-fisted ruler of her performance space, controlling their ability to progress and audition while tolerating no lip whatsoever. Female Phantoms are rare, but ex-Christine Phantoms are rarer still, and it's interesting, this early in the movie, to speculate about where the plot's going to go considering that the tragic Phantom story has in a sense already happened in these characters' pasts.

There's that darn photographer again, sneaking into the school! He does this a lot, and since the movie itself fails to explain why he's so gung-ho adamant about getting in here and taking pictures of everything (he works for a ballet magazine, but I don't know why they'd be interested in him sneaking into empty spaces in the dead of night to Find Out the Truth), we must assume that he's either suspicious about something we haven't seen yet or some kind of pervert who just really wants to photograph all the young dancers as much as possible. He kind of reminds me of other versions in which Degas keeps turning up to leer at ballerinas, but he technically predates all of them by at least a year.

Jessica and Claudine, listening at doors like the hooligan children they are, overhear Anthony and Madame discussing her; the scene is emotionally frought for the adults even though the listening ballerinas have no idea, as Anthony's rapturous excitement and exclamations of this being "like a second chance!" do not go over well with Madame, his severely injured first chance. Her responses (from offscreen, as we can only see the perspective of the keyhole the girls are looking through and thus only Anthony) are noncommittal and short, difficult to pinpoint in terms of her thoughts on the matter; the most telling part of the conversation is that, cutting through Anthony's excitement about Jessica's looks, her first question is "Yes, but can she dance?" As in most versions of the Phantom story, a Christine just ain't a Christine without talent. Whether Madame also sees Jessica as a chance to live vicariously and right past wrongs or whether she sees her as an interloper or replacement for Anthony's affections remains mysteriously unsaid, since we don't see her and she keeps her responses very short and to the point.

When the ballet girls flee back to their rooms, they are shot for the beginning of the scene in the reflection of the mirror in their room rather than head-on, another nice callback to the original story. There is no two-way mirror in this film to speak of, but Clark seems to be occasionally determined to let us know that he hasn't forgotten about the concept.

In case anyone in the audience hadn't figured out who Madame is supposed to be yet, Claudine confirms it by gossiping to Jessica that she and Anthony were once lovers long ago and that it is rumored that he forced her to defect to the United States before returning to Russia years later after an accident. Nina Goldman's French accent is a little over the top but also refreshingly accurate, and she's probably my favorite, both in terms of actress and character, of all the school's mostly-obnoxious complement of students. (Incidentally, Goldman is currently dancing professionally at the Royal Opera House in London - her awesomeness extends far above and beyond being a bright spot in this movie.)

And speaking of Claudine, if Jessica is the Christine figure here (which seems obvious), then Claudine, as her best friend and confidante, appears to be filling a role similar to Meg from the Lloyd Webber musical. But Claudine is also an obvious homage to Webber's Christine, which means we're looking at a weird case in which Christine is really Meg because of the presence of another Christine of greater symbolic value. Or, to really blend our brains a bit, should we consider that, since this film is concerned with dance instead of voice, that Jessica is actually Meg (who in Lloyd Webber-inspired versions is usually blonde thanks to Devenish's famous locks) and that this is therefore just a story in which the Phantom is obsessed with Meg, the dancer, instead of with Christine, who fades quietly into the background?

John accused me of thinking too much during this movie.

When a black-gloved figure sneaks into Claudine's and Jessica's room to stare at them while they're sleeping the scene is shot entirely from the perspective of the intruder, making it impossible to identify them. One has to wonder if it might be Anthony, obsessing over Jessica like a champion, or perhaps Madame, considering her younger doppelgänger. Either option is creepy, but whoever it is is content merely to look and then leave.

The next day's ballet class scene is Jessica's pièce de résistance in terms of being an obnoxious little ass; she's listening to loud rock music through headphones while everyone else is working to a pianist, and following the exercises along with only the poorest and most grudging of participation. This is not really a shock, since she made it clear when she was dumped here that she didn't want to actually study ballet, but I have to wonder why she's even here - if her father's paid the academy enough to take her even though they were full, couldn't she just sit in her room and sulk for the rest of the semester and avoid going to class at all? She spends a lot of this movie complaining about not wanting to be a ballet dancer but needing to get through class, and I find myself confused about why. I somehow doubt that super-rich daddy is going to yank her tuition and leave her stranded in Russia if she doesn't do it.

At any rate, she's being such an obnoxious little snot that the viewer gets to enjoy her triple comeuppance in this scene, first when she loudly declares to Claudine that "I haven't done this in four years!" to which her roommate only replies serenely, "I did this yesterday," second when Madame, not having any of this bullshit tomfoolery, has Olga wheel her over to yank the headphones off her head and tell her no, and third when she's called upon to dance in front of the class and falls (not surprising for someone who hasn't danced in four years), much to the shock and consternation of the other ballerinas in training. I suspect that this film was trying to target a teen audience of rebels against authority and that we're all supposed to sympathize with Jessica and her desire to be a fiery, no-rules pop dancer, but she's so huffy and whiny about the whole thing and Zeitlin fails so consistently to give it any deeper layers of presentation that I have trouble doing anything but rolling my eyes and waiting for it to stop whenever she goes into a tantrum.

Gah, these graceless scene segues are seriously choppy. This film does have virtues, but unfortunately its directing really isn't one of them most of the time.

Poor Claudine, who should probably be nominated for sainthood if she manages to maintain this altruistic even temper her entire life, attempts to help Jessica by offering to coach her in extra dance lessons on her own time (and by pointing out that she's the one being rude to Madame, not the other way around - I cheered a little bit). She just gets a face full of lip from Jessica, of course, but apparently the strength of her niceness is too much to resist for long. I'd like to put the responsibility for making Jessica more likeable in this movie almost squarely on Claudine, because before she starts working with her and becoming tolerable I was ready to see her fall out a window and move on to a more interesting protagonist.

In a cool aside, Claudine explains the White Nights of St. Petersburg, the period of time in the summer when the sun sets for only about half an hour and everything is bathed in daylight most of the year. This is a normal phenomenon that has to do with the earth's axial tilt and the far north location of the city; it's also a very interesting approach to take, considering that Phantom stories often tend to be all about darkness and shadow, and this movie is making its setting the exact opposite. (I don't know if this might also have had something to do with budgetary constraints when it came to lighting, but if it is a decision made to avoid having to shoot non-daytime scenes, then kudos to Clark for giving it a cool reason within the movie itself.)

Unfortunately, Anthony is already not good at avoiding being a total creeper around Jessica, and the next time they meet, having a drink at his house (which is on the premises and usually behind a locked gate), he fondles her hair and tries to convince her to dye it brunette because "all the great ballerinas were brunettes". Leaving aside the fact that this is bullshit (what, no love for famously blonde Galina Ulinova?), it's way too much way too fast, and illustrates Anthony's mental instability around Jessica quite well as she speeds off and leaves him sitting around looking vaguely catatonic.

The political and social implications of admitting foreign dancers - and, in a much larger view, admitting foreigners at all - into a Russian dance school is examined briefly in a conversation between Olga and Madame; Olga is afraid of the changes to their traditions and heritage it may bring, echoing strong nationalistic rhetoric of the time, while Madame is optimistic that it will bring about a more global kind of prestige for the school. They make a pretty perfect microcosm of the dramatic social upheavals and issues at work in the current return of the formely Soviet countries to contact and cooperation with the West in this immediately post-Cold War setting, one representing the ties of history and culture and the fear of pollution by outside sources, the other representing the hope for a better future, both culturally and economically.

Man, Claudine is way too awesome to be Jessica's friend. It was announced at the beginning of classes that whichever student is deemed the most talented will be given the chance to audition for the world-famous St. Petersburg Ballet Russe (which, in all technicality, does not exist, but it is the name of an incredibly influential Russian ballet company of the 1910s and 1920s and certainly beats the pants off the "Opera Populaire", so I think we can all forgive this little foray into fiction); Claudine ceaselessly toiling to make Jessica a better dancer is actually injurious to her own chances of winning, but there she is, laboring away anyways. Either she truly believes in the most even playing field possible, or she doesn't think Jessica can possibly beat her (which, I guess, is legit, since Jessica is at a serious four-year disadvantage here).

+1 realism in acting points for the sweat-stained leotards of the dancers, though. That shit is hard work, and all too often ballet movies portray their ladies as daisy-fresh porcelain dolls who have never even heard of perspiration. Give them some props - as Madame says, they have to be in the shape of Olympic athletes to be great dancers.

Oh, god, the photographer's back, and now he's just breaking the fuck into the school because no one is there to stop him. Ballet journalism is seriously some kind of crime sport in Russia, I guess.

This scene is actually very carefully set up to keep the viewer guessing as to what's about to happen and who's going to cause it, and it does a pretty excellent job of succeeding; Claudine has gone to the spa to soak, Jessica is dancing to loud rock music in a practice ballroom, the photographer is sneaking through the house alone, Olga is wandering down dark hallways by herself, and even Madame gets up and starts lurching about somewhere. The score, which (when not dominated by Jessica's seriously dated rock music) is clearly of the heightened-anticipation horror variety, makes it clear that we're about to hit something and that something unpleasant is about to happen to someone, but it's not immediately obvious who or why. Just don't let it be...

NO CLAUDINE WHY. The only character making scenes with Zeitlin bearable and she's already getting murdered for no apparent reason! God damn it, I liked her. I was even cherishing hopes that she and Jessica would fall in love and run away to be dancers in Paris together or something.  Not since I thought Sally had been offed in the 1988 Plone/Sussman film have I been so sad over a horror film character being killed. This is a testament to the fact that I care about any characters at all, however, so it's a good sign that, despite its technical problems, this movie is doing something right somewhere.

Claudine is strangled and then drowned in the spa's large bath (more like a hot tub for several dancers to use at once); the scene is a direct inheritor of the Phantom's attack on the reviewer in the public baths in the 1989 film also starring Englund, which in turn took it from the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film's Phantom's attack on Michael in the bathhouse, and it'll be repeated yet again in the 1998 Argento/Sands movie a few years down the road. It's neat to see something progress like that through multiple versions; the repeated idea of the Phantom attacking bathers is a strong play to the idea of nudity as helplessness and of the horrific intruding on the everyday. (Also, for Clark, it enabled him to show some boobies.)

As in the scene featuring the unknown lurker looking down on the sleeping girls, we see none of the murderer except for a pair of black-gloved hands; combined with the multiple moving people shown right before the attack, all busily heading to unknown destinations, the identity of the killer is pretty effectively obscured. Surprisingly, so is the murder itself, despite Jessica heading for the baths in classic reveal scene form; Claudine's body is gone when she gets there, and she has no idea anything has even happened.

Unfortunately, another body is still there when she gets there, and its the moving, breathing, overly obnoxious body of the photographer, who accosts her as she prepares to get her bath on herself. He's incredibly creepy, refusing to give her his name and asking if she wants to "get wet with him" repeatedly, and he's also wearing black gloves (but then again, everybody wears black gloves at various points in this movie). It turns out that his name is Alexander Petrov, and for some reason Jessica is charmed by his incredibly creepy and suspect behavior and goes out with him for a drink instead of calling the police or Olga or somebody. Good decisions are apparently not in Jessica's skillset.

As the two young lovebirds jet off on Alex's motorcycle, we see a flash of Madame, smoking as she watches them disappear into the distance. As in most of Madame's scenes, nothing is said and the audience has to come up with their own idea of what lurks beneath the surface there, but if nothing else, seeing someone with her own younger face riding off with a jerk on a motorcycle has to be a shocking flashback for her. In a movie where the Phantom story has in a sense already happened once, the cyclical nature of events only helps play up the sensation of inevitable, doomed repetition.

When it turns out that Claudine's things have all disappeared from her room and ticket stubs for a flight to Paris are found, it's obvious to the audience that someone has falsified her disappearance; unfortunately, this is not obvious to Jessica, who insists that Claudine wouldn't leave but doesn't have any particularly good reason why except that she left her music box (which, incidentally, plays music from Swan Lake!) behind. Olga starts behaving extraordinarily fishily at this point in the movie and won't stop until the final verse has been sung; she shuts down all of Jessica's questions, refuses to investigate Claudine's disappearance further, and is obviously surprised that the music box belonged to Claudine and not Jessica, suggesting that she might have gotten rid of it with the rest of Claudine's things if she'd known. Of course, this movie is absolutely riddled with red herrings so it's not necessarily stunning proof of Olga's murderousness, but man, she is way not convincing.

The pacing of the film overall is still dragging a lot, but if you like ballet, the class scenes are a real treat to watch. The dancers are obviously professionally trained and capable, and those who have solo performances - Goldman, Zeitlin, Renee and Fesson - are given time to really show off their excellent chops. If, on the other hand, you're not very interested in watching ballet... you are probably not helping yourself out by watching a movie about it.

Anthony begins at this point to give Jessica private lessons in lieu of Claudine's previous help, thus finally fulfilling the mentor-student relationship so central to so many Phantom stories. It's a role he was obviously dying to fill and he does it capably, and again, the repeated ideas of his lost chance with Svetlana and the echo of Leroux's Phantom's shaping of Christine help make the entire exercise resonant, even when it's occasionally distracted by Jessica's increasingly irritating exclamations about not wanting to be a ballerina.

I totally get the excitement of the class being given the special treat of getting to practice on the stage of the Petersburg Ballet and dance with the male members of the corps... but seriously, are the hen-like, over-excited cries of "Men!" really necessary? These are ballet dancers, not nuns, and they're teenaged ones from the West to boot. I feel like they've seen men before.

Renee's character Angela, who is a stunning enough dancer that even I can't fail to be impressed but whose character and lines are incredibly annoying, has been being praised to the skies for her talent lately and still causing shenanigans with her "little jokes", the most offensive of which was, after the class was given this awesome opportunity at the professional ballet, totally grabbing one of the male dancers' balls because she "wanted to see if it was real". Ugh. If this scene was timed to make sure we didn't like her too much because she's about to get killed, it definitely worked. (Madame's shocked giggles at the grab, however, are pretty adorable - not because some dude just got molested, because that's horrible, but because we so seldom see her surprised into genuine emotion of any kind.)

Angela's murder happens backstage, where she has been banished after her foray into sexual assault, and it's a classic Phantom death, in which she is strangled into submission with a rope and then hung, Buquet-like, from the flies above. It's a surprisingly effective scene, especially in that we actually see her being dragged up into the rafters by the neck while still writhing and kicking - most film hangings either cause instant death or involve very little movement from the victim, but Angela goes out with disturbingly realistic flailing. As in the previous murder, various people are lurking about to prevent us from getting a good idea who might have done it; both Olga and Madame disappear backstage at various points, and Alex (the reason Madame is fleeing backstage in the first place, to avoid her photo being taken) also disappears before the event only to reappear backstage after. We get a little bit more of a visual flash of the murderer this time, and the shoulder that checks Angela to the ground looks broad in shape and size, but that's the only additional clue; Clark's not ready to let the audience in on his secrets yet (assuming he has any audience that hasn't been totally spoiled for them by his terrible marketing team).

Continuing her solid plan to be as incredibly suspicious as possible, Olga immediately declares that Angela must have also just gone home without warning, even though they're still at the ballet theater and she's only been missing for like ten minutes. Somehow nobody within the movie finds this suspicious, while in front of a television screen I was frowning like an angry gargoyle. Olga's either the murderer, an accomplice, or the worst chaperone in all of history, and this film's plot isn't quite solid enough for us to know which.

Jessica's poor decisions know few bounds, so, upon discovering that her new photographer boyfriend Alex has yet again turned up at the scene of one of her friends' disappearances and won't explain what he's doing there, she figures now is the perfect time to enlist him to help investigate the missing girls. Clearly, he is a dude to be trusted in all things.

 

It's very much worth noticing here that the three important ballerinas by this point in the story are each representatives of one of the non-Russian Allied Powers of the second World War. Claudine was from France, Angela from England, and Jessica herself from the United States. The three countries were the Soviet Union's allies during the war but became its opposition in the ensuing Cold War, and one can't help but wonder if the lashing out against them is an intentional representation of the East lashing out against the West. It seems too intentional that Clark has so assiduously made sure that we know their nationalities, having Claudine declare her Parisian origin or having other characters refer to Angela as the "lady from London", to be mere coincidence (and note that, while Jessica's city of origin isn't mentioned, both the French and English girls are from the capitals, the very symbolic hearts of their countries). The subtext is charged already from the film's premise and time period, but this seems like a very blatant move on Clark's part to add a layer of political horror to the slightly pedestrian visceral horror already at work - that is, the subconscious fear from western countries that Russia was not truly an ally but still an enemy in disguise, just as the Russian fears of western encroachment were examined earlier through Olga and Madame.

Anthony says the same line to Jessica that he once used on Svetlana, suggesting that together they can "revolutionize dance" (and ooh, isn't "revolutionize" a nicely politically-charged word with all this subtext already going on?). It's an especially good acting moment for Englund when Jessica characteristically reminds him that she doesn't care about revolutionizing anything, just in being good enough to keep Madame from being upset with her; the subtle tic in his facial expression and his suddenly withdrawn body language communicate his distress well enough for an audience to pick up on the idea that, even though he's the one working with and helping her, Jessica is not worried about doing what he wants, only what Madame wants. Jessica's a Christine who, bizarrely, cares more about the previous Christine than about the mentor they share - or perhaps this is another intentional signpost pointing to Madame as more of a fitting Phantom character than Anthony himself.

Other socially charged moments continue to abound in the film; in particular, when the ballerinas are taken to a nightclub by Olga as a reward for doing well, a young man performs an intenionally insulting and offensive "Russky dance" in front of Olga, parodying traditional Russian dance moves in the nightclub setting in order to portray them as stodgy, old-fashioned, and foolish. He does it seemingly as a direct attack on Olga, who merely stands there and watches him, the combination of hurt and disdain boiling off her almost palpable; there is also a divide her between a younger generation who have not suffered as much under the tribulations of the Soviet regime and Cold War and think of their elders as wet blankets and needless pessimists, and an older generation who knows the political tensions of the world all too well and fears the damage they may cause. A few minutes later, the same boy's girlfriend, one of the ballerinas named Natasha, scornfully refers to Olga as "the Gestapo" to her friends, characterizing her as part of an oppressive old political regime (but ironically one that the Soviets themselves opposed).

 

And, in a further level of clustered tension, Olga's attempts to put the kibosh on Alex and Jessica making out bring a further level of representative issues into the mix: Jessica is an American dating a native Russian, the only one of the foreign ballerinas we've seen do so, and it's Not Okay with capital letters with basically everyone else. They all have plot reasons - Anthony's upset it's distracting her and probably jealous, Olga finds the boy offensive and considers it her duty to chaperone, Ingrid is angry with Jessica and being spiteful about it - but it still comes down to a picture of a great deal of frowning disapproval at these illicit East-West relations.

Let's be real here: I don't think that Clark is actually some kind of secret maverick political genius director who is bent on making an art film about the culture clash between the former Soviet Union and western Europe/the Americas. I actually think that a lot of this is unintentional; just as the movie doesn't bother explaining things like the Cold War or Russian defectors, so it doesn't intentionally bring in a lot of this tension. It's just that it was created and set in a time when these tensions were a commonplace part of the world, sort of like setting a movie in the 1960s American South will always involve some portrayal of racism even if it's not the focus of the story. These are tensions of the world, not only that the characters live in but also that the actors and director lived in at the time; as a result, they're visible and identifiable for those watching lo these decades later, making the movie a cultural artifact for its setting more than for its content.

Which is really pretty cool, when you think about it. We're watching social history, y'all!

But anyway, back to said content, which involves another murder, this time of ballet student Natasha. Her murder reinforces current patterns in some ways and destroys them in others; her nationality is never addressed, and that fact combined with her name and accent suggest that she's Russian rather than a foreigner, making her death break the pattern of the previously all-Western victims. But then again, adding Russia to Britain, France and America gives us all of the Allies in one place, which is again mighty coincidental, and the established pattern of Best Ballerina at the School Dies lives on as she has been the most recently praised. She also dies in a much less traditionally Phantomy manner; where the others were strangled and personally killed by the stalking murderer (again, seen only as gloved hands), Natasha is hit over the head and then thrown onto the subway tracks, where she is run over and thoroughly dismembered by a train. The much more impersonal killing and the use of a third party (the train) is out of character both for most Phantoms and for this movie's antagonist. Unless you consider the train to be a stand-in for the chandelier the original Phantom drops, I guess, but that seems like more than a little bit of a stretch (plus, that would make Natasha the new boxkeeper? Not seeing it). More noteworthy is that she repeats what Claudine said before dying as well: "Why are you doing this?", implying that the girls know the murderer and are perplexed as to why that person would want to strangle/drown/hang/trainpush them. It's not really a surprise that they do, since all the suspects are pretty much people we know they know, but the repetition is a good moment nevertheless.

Oh, and as always, everyone takes a mysterious powder right before this happens - Anthony peaces out of the club, Olga is gone when the students turn around to look for her, and Alex suddenly remembers pressing business and runs off after pledging to come back for Jessica later. Natasha's culturally offensive boyfriend also leaves right before she dies, but since we see him moving away on a subway train himself, he'd have to have supernatural powers indeed to come back and kill her seconds later.

I think it's worth noting that there is very little gore in this movie; for an Englund flick, it's incredibly low-key. It often feels like the horror aspect of the film is sort of tacked-on, as if Clark wanted to focus more on the plot and felt he had to include horror movie tropes because murders were occurring, which is probably part of the reason that horror film buffs seem to hate it so much. It's trying to straddle drama and horror and shortchanging both in the process, something that I think may be at least partly due to genre restrictions of the time.

Man, it's really jarring to see the students walk out of a dark, strobe-lit nightclub into the glaring light of midday. Those White Nights really throw off your sense of time - I was disoriented and I was only watching a movie about them.

The movie chooses at this point to take an awkward run at touting an anti-drug message through the vehicle of Ingrid, who pops speed and washes it down with vodka, saying it helps give her an edge when dancing. While the idea is laudable, Ingrid's pill abuse is presented as very over the top and caricaturish (not entirely Moen's fault, because the lines are pretty bad, but she's also not helping out much), and Jessica's preachy sermons to her to cut it out seem very out of character after her wild-child behavior in every other arena. It also tends to emerge at odd times in the film, which makes it impossible to think of it as an integrated element of the plot and instead makes the audience sigh and say, "Oh, look, here comes Ingrid with her pills again," at random intervals.

Preachiness aside, though, I have to admit that by this point Jessica has actually grown on me some as a character. Oh, she's still a bratty little snot a lot of the time, but she does have genuine friendliness and kindness behind her smokescreen of douchebaggery, and her progress makes her look a lot less like she disdains ballet and a lot more like she didn't have instructors that made it interesting before or lacked someone to give her disciplined focus. She blossoms a little bit, at least in terms of professional behavior, for which I thank everyone involved.

Anthony and Alex continue to display pretty classic Phantom and Raoul behavior; someone sneaks into Jessica's room to watch her sleeping again, but this time it's revealed to be Anthony, creeping out with his Phantomy self, while shortly thereafter Alex sneaks onto the grounds and climbs up to her window, a picture-perfect lovelorn swain. The climb up the drainpipe to her room, in particular, is both hilariously awkward to watch (fact: adult men in late 80s pants look comedic trying to climb masonry) and, with Anthony watching from across the courtyard, very reminiscent of the scene at Apollo's Lyre in the original novel, with Raoul and Christine climbing to the roof to talk while the Phantom watches unbenknownst to them.

Obligatory horror movie sex scene time! If you're into boobs, this is your shining moment. The scene itself is shot in pseudo-artistic style, with lots of fadeins and images of people grabbing at one anothers' non-X-rated bodyparts, but it's definitely not shy about showing off Zeitlin's body. It reminds me a lot of the sex scene in the 1988 Friedman/Rydall film - not really helpful to the plot and mostly there to titillate viewers who may have already checked out of the movie - except less awful.

An obvious but cute homage to Hitchcock's Psycho occurs here when, post-sexytimes, Alex sneaks up on Jessica in the shower and frightens her into screaming (but then it's just time for more sexing, folks, it's okay!). At this point in the movie, it's recognizable but not really important, but we'll come back to it!

Anthony and Olga are surprisingly friendly and into casually touching one another in the latter half of this movie; there's more than a little bit of romantic subtext there, though neither one of them ever does or says anything to outright confirm or deny this. I'm always on the alert for possible Phantom and Giry romance, considering that I've seen it pop up a couple of times now; while this isn't really played up until the very end of the movie, it's definitely present and Olga's romantic involvement definitely plays a part in the complicated dynamics at work here.

Ingrid, by the way, is from Germany, and she seeks Jessica out to apologize for her rudeness and let her know that she's struggling to get clean with her help. Yeah, you help poor, struggling Germany, America! It's like freaking Hetalia up in here.

Alas, it's obvious that Ingrid is next on the block, and I don't really want to stick around for it. Not because I'm dreading the horror of it all or anything the way I was in the first Englund movie, just because I'm kind of tired of it all at this point. Not a great sign for a horror film - again, this movie is trying to do too much and it's suffering as a result. I'm interested in what's going on, but I'm not interested enough to want to sit through Ingrid's demise when I've already sat through Natasha's, Angela's, and (sob) Claudine's.

Bizarrely, while Ingrid is being borne down upon by the black-gloved killer (dancing by herself to, again, Tschaikovsky's Swan Lake - my word, friends, do you sense a theme?), Jessica is tossing and turning and having apparently terrible dreams, which culminate in her waking up screaming at the moment Ingrid is assaulted. I have no idea why - did Jessica become some kind of oneiromancer psychic at some point in this movie? It's meant to play up the tension, but mostly was just so weird that I didn't understand it and was annoyed by the constant cutaways to it.

It's become obvious by now that the best dancers at the school are the ones being killed off, which brings up an interesting point: Jessica isn't one of them. Unlike Leroux's Christine, she's a talent that isn't as great as others, or rather a talent that the Phantom's shepherding of hasn't supernaturally augmented above all challengers. If, as seems entirely obvious (even Olga, sounding confused herself, notices and comments on it), all the better dancers are being killed to ensure that Jessica gets the St. Petersburg Ballet Russe audition by default, this is a Phantom that behaves in a fundamentally opposed manner to the original, fudging and creating opportunities for mediocrity instead of creating transcendent greatness. The unfortunately deceased ballerinas are all filling the role of unwilling Carlottas, except that the horror is heightened by the fact that most of them are nice people and friendly girls, and everyone is severely upset that they're gone.

Alas, Ingrid... your time has come, and with it comes revelation. The murderer is finally revealed, coming up behind Ingrid where she dances in front of a mirror, as Madame herself; she bludgeons Ingrid unconscious with her cane and then wheels her down the hall (surprisingly spryly, but then I guess she is probably running on adrenaline) to throw her out a nearby window. There are several interesting things going on here, starting with Madame shutting off the recording of Swan Lake before attacking Ingrid - you'd think the noise would be a helpful smokescreen to keep anyone from hearing, but it was Swan Lake that Svetlana danced last before the motorcycle crash, and one must assume she is not willing to have it be a backdrop to her current efforts. Ingrid repeats a similar line to those uttered by the other girls, wondering why the Madame is menacing her, and Madame also intentionally destroys the mirror after knocking Ingrid out, a very pointed comment that she isn't fond of seeing her own image, or that of what she's become since losing her career.


After seeing one of their fellow students' brains splattered all over the courtyard, it's understandable that the other students pretty much bail en masse (the police do in fact turn up, but Ingrid's body being full of drugs is not helping them not think this was a suicide, and I guess they're not good at things like forensics or angle of fall). Anthony puts the heaviest pressure in the universe on Jessica to stay and continue her training, stressing that someone has to represent them at the audition; we would expect a normal Jessica to wave both middle fingers high, but one must assume that either her asshole father is refusing to bring her home or she's too shellshocked by all this to argue anymore, because she pretty much just puts up with him. It's depressing to see her lose her spunk, but not entirely unbelievable, given that all her friends just died.

Dude, I just realized that Englund totally looks like Liam Neeson to me in this movie. Guys, would Liam Neeson not make an awesome Phantom? Can someone get on making that movie?

Anthony is obviously falling apart by this point in the movie; not only is his obsession with Jessica getting to the more rareified levels of uncomfortable, but the school falling apart appears to be taking him with it somewhat. Olga is oddly protective of him, tenderly comforting and taking care of him, even calling him "my dear"; and what do I spy on her right hand but a wedding ring? Stop the presses, everyone - is this just a case of an actress not removing her wedding ring, or is there a suggestion here that these two crazy kids are actually married? Anthony and Olga. I'm digging it.

Olga, however, is one sharp cookie, and she is not stupid enough to think all these deaths and disappearances are random. She obviously knows something about Madame and her possible instability, as she mentions to Anthony that she's "helped him with Madame" for a very long time, and she puts two and two together enough to realize that someone has obviously maneuvered Jessica into position to audition for the Ballet Russe by bumping off the competition. (By the way, this begs the question: is Madame going to go around bumping off all the actual competition at the audition itself, or is just getting there good enough?) She points it out to Anthony, who freaks out at the idea that she might think he was killing girls to further Jessica's career, and he sounds genuinely upset and innocent when he does.

Ah, that depressing moment for a Christine character when you hear someone outside, run to the window to see your lover... and discover that your Raoul is not actually under your window at all but across the courtyard trying to break into someone else's house. Alex's Quest for Truth apparently continues as he manages to break into Anthony's house while no one is around for purposes of super snooping, but he is thwarted by Olga coming home and, like the awesomely no-nonsense lady she is, threatening to call the police. At least Alex now has better reasons for his snoopery, what with Jessica constantly confiding in him and asking him to find out what happened to her friends, but it's still pretty ridiculous-looking (people are getting murdered around here, dude! you should probably stop sneaking around uninvited!).

But we've finally hit the point of no return (hee!) in this film, and Olga stops because she notices Angela's fake gag-knife on Anthony's mantel, something that definitely shouldn't be in his possession. Her realization that some shit is not okay with her boss reminds me a lot of the epiphany of the housekeeper in the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film, and when she agrees to use her master keys to open things for Alex, we've finally fallen into the good old familiar role of the Lloyd Webber-style relationship between Giry, mostly loyal to the Phantom but afraid of what he might do, and Raoul, who needs her help to uncover his secrets. It's interesting that there's so much apparent Lloyd Webber influence in this movie, considering that the first Englund Phantom film had almost none, but different writers and a modern spin no doubt made a major difference.

This is my favorite scene for Davidoff, by the way; she plays suspicious and savvy with a quintessentially Russian flair, and I particularly enjoy her, "Crazy? Yes, I probably am. It doesn't matter," line, which is delivered thoughtfully and really punches up the idea of her romantic involvement with Anthony and her realization that something must not be quite right with him. (And, for those who haven't sussed out the Big Secret yet, it'll be illuminating in retrospect later.)

Using a master key she apparently has for the locks in Anthony's house (man, that boxkeeper role always seems to reassert itself at the oddest times!), Olga opens his large closet and she and Alex are shocked to discover Claudine's luggage in it, another nasty clue that Anthony has been Up to No Good. Olga's genuine shock is pretty surprising for the viewer, considering how incredibly suspicious she was acting about the whole affair when Claudine actually disappeared, so we must assume that either she was just trying to keep students from panicking needlessly or being sidetracked then, or that she is actually some kind of Moriarty-level mastermind who has been playing all angles of this situation from the beginning. The second would be pretty awesome - I mean, Davidoff's pretty rad - but alas, it's apparent that it's really the first.

Unfortunately, Clark totally loses my suspension of disbelief when they lift a curtain hanging down in the closet and discover, to their horror, that the bodies of Angela and Claudine are also lying there. While the makeup on them is reasonably nasty (but only sort of - other than the open eyes, they look like maybe they just have a really nasty illness) and I get the horror of the idea that Anthony's been having tea with people mere feet from the corpses of their classmates, it's too ridiculous to be borne. Both girls are also obviously given a generic corpse-makeup treatment that makes them look exactly the same, which doesn't really jibe with their methods of death (one drowned, the other hung), and there's no real skin-color change or marked degradation. The timespan's a bit difficult to tell, particularly with the White Nights in play, but it's been at least several days if not several weeks since Claudine died, and since no preservation we can see has taken place, that closet's got to stink to high heaven by now. Everyone who came in the house should have smelled it, and it's even more ludicrous that Alex and Olga could have been unaware of the reek the second they opened the closet. Also, there's a mad genius murderer on the loose, but yet he's keeping bodies in his closet instead of, you know, burying them or something? What is he, sentimental?

By the way, it's interesting to ponder why these girls are in Anthony's closet and not Madame's. Certainly we know it was Madame who killed Olga because we saw her do it, and Anthony seemed genuinely unsure what was going on when talking to Olga earlier. The plot's really getting down to the wire, but there's still room to wonder whether both Madame and Anthony are murderers, whether they're doing so separately or in cahoots, or whether Madame has merely been somehow shuffling dead girls into Anthony's house when he's not looking (not the most plausible idea, since she's physically disabled and I don't know how she'd even have gotten Angela's body out of the flies without anyone noticing, but you know, whatever, apparently corpses don't smell in this universe, too).

At this point, Alex suddenly and mysteriously dies. Seriously, one minute he is standing there with Olga being all ohgoddeadpeople, and the next he's bleeding out on the floor from a stab wound. I stopped and rewound to watch it again three times, but it didn't get any clearer; somebody apparently sneaks up behind him and stabs him in the stomach, but neither he nor Olga nor the audience sees who or where they went a second later. It's a sudden, magical fiat death that makes no sense; you can try to stretch to use old Phantom story concepts like trap doors or optical illusions to try to explain where this stabber came from and then disappeared to with no one noticing, but frankly you'd just be making excuses for the laziness of Clark's directing.

 

But, at any rate, Alex gets stabbed, falls over and dies on the floor beside Olga (who is doing an awesomely creepy freakout where she keeps staring at the fake knife she's holding, because her brain keeps skipping over the fact that it's fake and she didn't do it yet someone clearly stabbed him and no one else is here). Just as in the previous Englund film, the Raoul character actually dies, murdered by the Phantom, something that I still have not seen repeated in any other version of the story. It's interesting to ponder why, especially with versions of the story that really want the Phantom to be the "winner", that never happens, while in these horrific ones where the Phantom is definitely not meant to get the girl it's now happened twice. I have to assume that most retellings that want to view the Phantom as a romantic option for Christine also want to make him sympathetic, meaning that murdering the competition is a no-no, while horror versions are hampered by no such concerns.

Jessica, the world's slowest dancer-trained athlete, finally makes it down here despite having seen Alex breaking in from her window what feels like half an hour ago, and flips out because she automatically assumes that Olga must have stabbed her boyfriend to death (and the dead girls in the closet aren't helping matters any). The fight scene that ensues, which is basically Jessica wrestling with Olga because she thinks she's going to attack her, is unfortunately poorly shot, badly scripted, and mostly ridiculous, and sadly I spent most of it being sad because it was clear that Olga was about to get the shit end of the stick thanks, once again, to Jessica's lack of information. And this is indeed what happened; Olga falls to the floor and onto the knife herself, and with her departs the last non-Englund actor in this movie that I wanted to spend any time watching.

Olga does get a nicely touching farewell, however; Anthony, returning home from who knows where, comes in at this point to what is a seriously horrifying-looking scene and goes to hold her, whereupon she tells him she loves him and that "our secret is safe" before expiring. The mention of a secret is intriguing for an audience who now knows Olga had nothing to do with the murders; she must be talking about something else, and it seems likely that she might be referring to a secret affair between herself and Anthony, one that had to be hidden from Madame. But then again, Anthony, while fairly shocked-looking, doesn't seem to be freaking out nearly hard enough about this whole situation, so no further clues are forthcoming.

Olga is naturally blamed for all the murders and the academy is officially closed (whether for the year or forever is not addressed, but an instructor on a murderous spree through the student body is a pretty hard thing for an educational institution to come back from). Madame, who has been intermittently ill throughout the film, becomes bedridden from the stress, and Anthony puts some seriously creepy pressuring on Jessica to convince her to be the Last Ballerina Standing and stay on alone so that at least someone will audition on the school's behalf for the Ballet Russe. It's interesting that he gets her to do so by finally appealing to the idea that Madame would be so proud; it obviously hurt him earlier in the film to recall that she cares more aboud Madame's opinion than his, but that doesn't mean he's above using the fact to manipulate her.

Perhaps the best line of the movie is Anthony's ironic assertion that, "Tortured people in this world do things we may never understand." He's talking about Olga, who he apparently now believes was the murderer (or is not actively disagreeing to Jessica's face, anyway), but the line is of course much more applicable to himself and Madame.

Then, a long learning from the Phantom montage, in which Anthony tutors Jessica nonstop in dance until she becomes talented enough to compete at the audition. The roses he scatters at her feet are a visual echo of Svetlana's roses scattered across the pavement after the motorcycle crash, and Anthony's campaign to turn her into the second coming of his lover are much more successful now that she's shell-shocked by her friends' murders and determined to do whatever it takes to make Madame proud of her. He even gets her to wear a brunette wig when she refuses to dye her hair, which is both another nice echo of Svetlana and an ironic highlighting of the fact that Jessica, who even with similar hair doesn't actually look much like the Russian ballerina, is unequivocally not the same person.

We have finally arrived at the movie's moment of truth, when Jessica convinces an obviously reluctant Anthony to let her see the ailing Madame before the next day's audition. Madame is in seriously bad shape, wheezing and coughing like a consumption patient and obviously a far cry from her normal, put-together self; she's whispering Anthony's name over and over again when Jessica arrives, and then switches to hissing, "Two of us!" and grabbing at Jessica in a frenzy. The jealousy is obviously apparent even without much dialogue - Anthony is replacing Svetlana with Jessica, and she knows it. Jessica runs around freaking out for a while, unable to find Anthony to manage this, but when she returns to Madame's room, the reveal that we've all been waiting for finally occurs.

This is the plot linchpin I was talking about earlier, and the other reviewers of this film I've read are unvaryingly angry about it: Madame, it turns out, actually is Anthony, wearing heavy makeup, prosthetic facial features like high cheekbones, wigs, and traditionally feminine clothing. Svetlana, we discover in an additional flashback that tacks on the gruesome ending that we didn't quite get to earlier, actually died in the motorcycle crash, and Anthony's psyche fractured from the stress, giving him a true split personality in a subconscious attempt to bring her back. He has therefore been both Anthony and Madame the entire time, one of them his "normal" self, concerned with tutoring Jessica and running the academy, and the other his tortured vision of what Svetlana would have been like if she had survived the accident. It puts a lot of the movie into instant retroactive perspective; it's now obvious why evidence often seemed to point to him but he himself seemed convincingly innocent, why he and Madame were often in the same room talking but never seen face to face, and what the secret that Olga mentioned in her dying breath must have been (she clearly knew about this and helped take care of him, probably easing his transition between personalities out of love for his "normal" side; does that slot her into that Phantom-helper role with the likes of the Ivans and Lajos of earlier film tradition?).

It's not hard to see why people hate this so much; it was obvious from the beginning that Madame's face didn't look like Svetlana's and astute observers who realized that they didn't appear side by side at any point could easily have put two and two together. When you know that secret for the entire movie, there's no mystery to who the killer is and the long scenes leading up to each murder that carefully set up different people as possibilities are just annoying red herrings. People within the movie itself look even more ridiculous than before for not noticing what the forewarned audience already knows, and the movie drags on into infinity as nobody figures it out for what feels like eons.

 

As I said before, the marketing for this movie absolutely ruins it; while the cover of the VHS above (hilariously, that image is one that appears nowhere in the movie and seems to actually be Englund in some other film) just promises misbehavior out of Englund, a reasonable assumption considering that he's made his career being a horror actor, the back cover copy in various releases gives the whole game away out of the gate. Amazon's summary states, "A dance instructor brings his dance troupe to Russia for training. What his dancers don't know, however, is that he has a dual personality - and his hidden personality is a serial killer," thus ruining any chance for those who haven't even bought the darn thing yet to have any chance of not being spoiled for it, and as it's now available almost entirely secondhand, purveyors of it have a tendency to trumpet things like "A split-personality killer is on the loose in the ballet - will the students discover the truth before it's too late?" or even "In this hilarious B-grade horror flick, ballet dancers drop like flies while the audience enjoys a rare treat: seeing Robert Englund in drag." I was spoiled for this film well in advance; it was almost totally unavoidable in the process of learning that it even existed, much less getting a copy.

And you know, I had a hard time, as a result, with being entirely fair to this movie. While other reviewers are flippantly crying that only a child or an idiot could not see through the device or that anyone who didn't figure out the secret instantly was obviously bad at life, my self esteem and I were having a hard time figuring out whether or not I would have figured this out by watching the movie itself and how it would have changed the viewing experience one way or the other. I actually suffer from mild face-blindness, which means that I'm not in the same league as most other people when it comes to recognizing faces of people I don't know, and as a consequence I was seriously unsure whether or not it was just my own admittedly poor perception in this area that made me think that this could have worked. While I could definitely see how it would be obvious if you already knew about it, I also thought it was done decently enough that innocent audiences might actually have been surprised.

Because there are really, genuinely also things to love here. Englund, who I have said before is pretty much a constant serving of pancakes made of awesome, does an excellent job with his physical acting in the two roles, playing Madame's movements as not only halting and crippled but also softer and more traditionally feminine, a great contrast to his upright, forthright strides as Anthony; in particular, this penultimate scene, in which Madame leaps out of her chair and throws Jessica across the room, is electrifying because he actually stands up straight and squares his shoulders in a way Madame has never done before, and the sudden contrast is shocking for the audience, and the very beginning scene of the movie in which he attempts to perform ballet moves at the bar is a rather perfect image of feminine grace. The makeup and costuming departments deserve props here, too; they were almost certainly working on a shoestring budget given this film's obvious low standards, and they were working with only the special effects available to early nineties rubber-and-greasepaint artists, but the facial transformation from Anthony to Madame is still impressive, especially in the use of prosthetics to give him higher, sharper cheekbones and a less prominent chin, not to mention some great makeup on eyebrows and skin tone, and combined with voluminous skirts and shawls the image of a dowdy but still dignified older woman is accomplished surprisingly well.

 

As a matter of fact, this scene, in which most of his disguise is falling off and Anthony is screaming at Jessica, is much more chilling because of that effective transformation - when he has only one of Madame's cheekbones and slenderly penciled in eyebrows and smoothly filed-away facial hair but is still obviously the same person as the male-presenting Anthony, the effect is of confusing androgyny - the audience no longer knows which version of Anthony is which or where the line between him and Madame is, and since both present as different genders, the viewer is forced to think outside the normal idea of a two-gender duality. And, of course, the psychology behind the idea is endlessly facinating; we have a character who has fractured into two out of guilt, who is both himself and his dead lover, both the destroyed and the destroyer, both his own beloved and the object of his own loathing, and there are endless places to plumb the motivations and divide between the two once it's been revealed.

So really, it was hard to know what to think. In my quest for academic fairness, I recruited John, who wasn't home when I watched this the first time, and made him sit through it to see if he picked up on the Big Secret before the end of the movie (he is a champion of dealing with my constant idiosyncracies for this project). While he did note early on that he didn't see why Svetlana being in an accident would have made her entire facial structure different, he also noted that he didn't get why Jessica was supposed to look like Svetlana, either, and wrote both off as flaws in finding sufficiently similar-looking actresses. He found a lot to dislike throughout the movie, mostly the facts that he hated both Jessica and Alex, that Madame's gurgly voice irritated him whenever she spoke and that the pacing made him want to fall asleep, but he actually did not twig to the fact that Anthony and Madame were the same person until it was revealed (though he did say afterward that he could definitely see how someone who already knew that would find it blindingly obvious). And then he demanded homemade pasta and video game time for being forced to watch bad Phantom movies, but that's a small price to pay for an unsullied test audience.

So seriously, if anybody out there ever saw this without being alerted ahead of time, please share your feedback with me. I'm really curious to know how this holds up when it hasn't already been blown by irresponsible advertising.

But hey, remember that Psycho homage earlier? Hot damn, the whole movie has turned out to be a sort of homage to Hitchcock's famous slasher, or at least could be viewed that way, given the striking similarity between Anthony/Madame and Norman Bates/his mother.

So, yeah, here we are, and Anthony, Madame's costume falling off him every which way, is ranting at Jessica, calling her Svetlana, and has obviously lost even his most tenuous previous grip on normalcy. Englund plays his psychotic break masterfully, which is no surprise to anyone who saw him as Erik in the 1989 film, and him peeling the latex of Madame's skin off his own is a direct callback to that movie and its masks of skin and flesh. He also hits several of the high notes of traditional Phantoms, especially the idea of proprietary control of her talent, with his cries of, "You'll dance for me - my choreography!", bringing to mind previous incarnations' ranting about Christine singing only for them.

There's something I'd like to note here, and it's weird to even be saying this as a kind of aside, but Anthony actually has a facial deformity. It's scarring from the motorcycle crash, and I haven't even mentioned it up until now for a very simple reason: it's unimportant. It's so subtle that you barely notice it unless you're looking for it (despite some reviewers and releases of the film bewilderingly harping upon how he's "horrifically scarred"), and it has no bearing whatsoever on Anthony's character, being an unfortunate reminder of the accident but in no way defining or limiting to his personality. The scarring seems to be there to directly reference the Phantom story, but Anthony himself doesn't seem to care about it even slightly; it's the loss of Svetlana and his own guilt that are the real "scars" that make him go bad. Of all Phantom versions, I think this may be the only one in which a deformity of his face is so totally and completely unimportant - not only to the plot in general, but so inconsequential that nobody even notices or comments on it, either in the movie or in the audience.

Anthony ends up having to drug Jessica and threaten her with a gun to get her to agree to audition tomorrow, now that she's figured out how terrifying he is (though, interesting note: she probably never realizes that he's the murderer, since he doesn't admit to it outright and she definitely thinks she caught Olga in the act, so she's responding to his obsession with her, not his murderous tendencies). For a moment after waking up she thinks it was a nightmare, something the audience is not remotely prepared to believe (but luckily Clark doesn't try to make the idea stick), but Anthony's flowers on her dresser, addressed to Svetlana, kill that ray of hope very quickly. She throws them on the floor in a fit of impotent rage at her captivity, echoing the flowers thrown at Svetlana's feet after her performance and the ones scattered after the accident again. The roses are pink, incidentally; a color that in traditional rose symbolism denotes affection and admiration, appropriate for this fixated but also not traditionally "in love" Phantom.

In a moment of excellently creepy awareness, when Jessica angrily asks Anthony if Madame will be at the audition tonight, he point-blank tells her that Madame hates her and would kill her if she were there, letting us know that he has at least enough awareness of his other personality to understand that she wants to destroy her competition.

The final scene of the movie is the audition itself, shot in the stunning Maryinsky theatre and another example of Clark's routine directing being saved only by the excellence of its location, and features another pan over the gigantic chandelier above the seats; there still isn't a chandelier drop in this movie, but it's another cute homage and definitely makes a Phantom-story-conscious audience nervous for the judges sitting beneath it. Jessica's choreography is obviously similar to the Swan Lake choreography of Svetlana's final performance, which could be either a deliberate or subconscious choice on Anthony's part.

As expected by this point (alas, Clark... if only you were not so predictable as a director!), Anthony's personality separation begins to crumble at these visual reinforcements of his memories, and Madame tries to assert her dominance in order to kill Jessica with a small pistol. It's interesting to speculate about whether Madame is still operating entirely on jealousy at the idea of being literally replaced, or if she's also an example of the personality itself fighting to survive; it seems possible that if Anthony succeeded in creating a new Svetlana, he would no longer have any need of his old Svetlana personality and might permanently revert to being just Anthony. Englund's great body-work acting - half the time limping and shuffling, the other half standing up straight, physically representing the mental conflict occuring - is mostly wasted on poorly-lit shots of him trying to control himself backstage, but at least he's not giving up on being awesome just because someone's bad at filming him doing it. He finally solves his dilemma by throwing himself from the balcony, thus preventing his alter ego from doing anything to Jessica, and this is in a way the final action he always wanted anyway - to be able to save Svetlana from himself, as he failed to do so long ago.

His final words, that she danced again for him, again strongly recall the 1944 film's Hohner and his inability to not see Marcellina behind Angela's voice, and his crumpled death by falling is strongly visually reminiscent of the 1962 Fischer/Lom film's abrupt ending. Jessica running offstage to be beside him when he dies is a little baffling due to how justifiably cranky she's been about the whole thing, but it's also a nice visual representation of the fact that she did have some fond feelings toward him prior to his descent into insanity.

The entire ending scene is oddly silent; Jessica's dancing up a magnificent storm, but there's no hint of music, not even the recurring Swan Lake (though is that a choice meant to illustrate how Jessica is refusing to be Svetlana?). Clark for some reason decided it would be better to subject us occasionally to the same uninspired horror score we've been listening to for the entire movie, probably to try to play up the tension of Anthony's final confrontation with Madame, but the effect would have been a lot more interesting if we hadn't heard the same thing a thousand times already. Speaking of refusing to be Svetlana, though, Jessica does rip off the brunette wig halfway through her routine and throw it at Anthony, going defiantly blonde and making me cheer as she stands up for blonde, Lerouxian Christines everywhere.

We don't really get any falling action to tell us what happens after this, but that's perfectly all right, because frankly I have no interest in where Jessica goes after this and I doubt too many other viewers do, either. It's much more interesting to ponder the movie's unanswered questions: for example, "who" actually killed all the ballerinas? Sure, we saw Madame take out Ingrid, but the other three we only saw black-clad gloves, and while Anthony seemed legitimately shocked by the idea that he might be a murderer, he's the one with the motive to kill those specific girls (i.e., the ones better than Jessica). If Madame is murdering students out of jealousy that they retain talent and futures that she lost forever, why is she only starting to do this now, when presumably she's been teaching at this school for many years and has never gone on a rampage through the students before? If Madame is the killer for all the girls and she's not doing it for Jessica's benefit, it seems that the attendance of non-Russian students must be the trigger for her to have started lashing out - but is that because they don't respect her properly and are throwing away her tutelage, because they represent the West that was the scene of her destruction, or because Anthony's obsession with Jessica made both of them that much less stable? Is Madame killing the girls because, in her own way, she at least in part wants Jessica to succeed, and see herself succeed by proxy in the artform that was taken from her? I suspect that the line between the two psyches may not be that clearly defined; they may share more thoughts and motivations than they think they do, despite being apparently unaware of one anothers' behavior for the most part.

The repeated motif of Swan Lake, by the way, is also an effective metaphorical device, as the ballet's story of a swan maiden and her dark twin is very applicable to the relationships in this movie. Is Svetlana Odette, the white and innocent swan, and Madame therefore her dark mirror Odile? Or is it Jessica who is now Odette to Madame's Odile, taking over the role that was once (literally) hers? Or in another direction, is Madame herself a better Odette, the original swan, watching Jessica as Odile attempt to seduce her lover and life away from her? The movie doesn't make any calls and the audience is left to their own conclusions.

Obviously, I was pretty fascinated by this movie, but unfortunately I couldn't grade it any higher than a C. There are good actors here, but they're surrounded by foils and bad performers; there is good plotting, but it's hampered by boring directing and poor technical quality; there's some great writing and symbolism, but it's buried beneath uninspired interpretation. The big "bad guy" is a genderfluid character whose status as breaking gender norms is used as something for the audience to be frightened or disgusted by, as if trans and non-binary people didn't already have enough problems without this film adding to the stigma against them. This movie is a nugget of incredible potential sunk in a sea of depressing mediocrity and failure, and it could have been something absolutely incredible with a more solid cast, less offensive script, and less pedestrian director. I can't help but love it for all the things it wants to be, but it never lived up to its ambitious possibilities. It's a lost chance of a film, which is semi-appropriate considering its subject matter.

I would dearly love to see this remade now with a good director and a cast that could really make it tick; in particular, the advances in computer graphics and makeup technology could make it completely badass in a lot of the ways this early, pitiful vision couldn't be in its time, and now is a great time to address related issues such as trans folk being kept in the closet and the kind of damage that presenting as a gender other than the one assigned you at birth could do to peoples' perceptions of "heroes" and "villains". There's so much good stuff in it that the uninspired grey stew of it left after Clark was through is a crying shame.

I think I've gone and depressed myself. Time for Halloween candy.

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