Phantom (1998)

     directed by Joe D'Amato

          starring Mike Foster, David Perry, Eva Menger, and Nicol

Before I start telling you all the things that were wrong with this film - and there were several things, all told - I should caveat: this is so much better than the other two adult films I've reviewed for this project so far. Not that that was so difficult (some infomercials are better than the other two films I've reviewed), but it was a somewhat pleasant surprise (tempered, of course, by the fact that it was still pretty terrible).

 

This film, like the Argento films (which were not, technically, adult films), is Italian. In fact, it is very Italian; it does a lot of things I haven't seen in American adult films. This is definitely intriguing, but very often it is overshadowed by production values that make me shriek with schadenfreude glee, starting with the half-assed English subtitles on the credits (which I assume they didn't try very hard for, because - at least in the U.S. - who cares who directed/acted in your dirty movie?) and continuing on through dubbing of such wondrously terrible quality that it's a wonder I managed to breathe at all over the course of the film . There is no way to describe the awfulness of this dubbing in the written word. It must be experienced directly. Nevertheless, as the grade above should tell you, this was quite a bit better than the previous adult films, and had a few interesting facets as I watched it that made all the silliness, if not worthwhile, at least endurable.

 

For one thing, there was copious use of classical music throughout, starting with the credits. While I don't demand this in every adult film (it would certainly be out of place in many), in an ostensibly music-oriented plot it was a very nice touch and really lent something to the atmosphere. The camerawork was also much better than it had been in previous adult films, though it didn't quite come up to snuff for what I would expect from a normal film (in terms of quality, it probably came in somewhere slightly below the Argento/Sands film). But it was still nice to see the camera... you know, doing things. Panning, zooming, unzooming, changing shots.

 

Our Phantom for this version is named Alan Miller (there is no particular reason for this, as far as I can tell) and is a violinist; already, I am paying more attention since it seems that someone involved in this film has said at least a passing hello to Leroux's original text, or at least to one of the subsequent versions that retains the violin element. Already, we've passed clear by the Lloyd Webber-inspired previous adult efforts in terms of creative source material. We discover Alan's tragic fate via a Venetian newspaper that the Christine character is reading, which describes the fact that he was "horribly deformed" while trying to prove that his music had been stolen (though it doesn't elaborate as to how. Who knows?) and was presumed to have died in a fire that consumed a theatre. Oh, Lubin/Rains film, what you have wrought in subsequent versions! Again, D'Amato is clearly drawing either from that early film or from one of the very closely plotted ones that followed it (the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, the 1974 de Palma/Finley film, Danova's Phantom of the Opera on Ice, or any one of several others), making it clear that there must have been some actual research into previous versions of the story prior to the making of this film. Why the story of some guy who was deformed and died in a fire several years ago is in today's paper is entirely beyond me, but at least they're trying.

 

And now, in my first squeal-of-surprised-delight moment, D'Amato actually trots out some footage from the 1925 Julian/Chaney film. I was aghast. The excellent silent film, used here in a modern adult film in a referential form. Glee! It's actually used as a showing device (Christine is imagining what Alan's fate might have resembled, and relating it to the 1925 film, which she has apparently seen), which is pretty lazy - rather than shooting any new footage or providing his own imagination sequence, D'Amato is just scalping from a public domain film - but for me, that was pretty much counterbalanced by the fact that there was proof that he had seen the 1925 film at all (this is another example of my shockingly low standards when it comes to adult films, probably). It was pretty much awesome for the first few seconds, at least until Menger's face started being superimposed on the vast majority of the screen, attempting to look imaginative or thoughtful or wistful, or something. I don't know what, because she is frankly an entirely miserable actress. That, and the weird tiling of the 1925 footage, eventually ruined what could have been a very nice use of a previous film.

 

We move on to what will be our first sex scene. As in the 1997 de Longprez/Stone film, there is little to no real motivation or even transition into these scenes, which gets tiresome very quickly but which I suppose plays into the popular male fantasy of women being willing to suddenly leap into action anywhere, anytime. We meet the gentleman who is apparently the manager of the opera house (because, yes, folks - there is an opera house! No joke!), who seems to be something of an asshat in the tradition of the 1962 film's D'Arcy and all of his descendants. While I find it ridiculous, as usual, that in the middle of discussing policy his personal assistant (who has no particular analogue in the traditional Phantom story that I can see; if she's meant to be a new envisioning of Madame Giry or something, she's so far from the original as to be unrecognizable) rip their clothes off and start going at it halfway down the stairs to their office, I have to say that this is definitely an improvement in terms of quality of sex scene. The scene is shot much more artistically and interestingly - the presentation of the female body, in particular, has a very artistic quality, and there's much more cutting and variety to the scene, rather than a lot of static shots which bore easily.

 

That said, I still don't know why this guy is performing cunnilingus on a woman in a stairwell. The world, in fact, may never know. The scene does drag on a bit too long for my taste (even with the improved camerawork, it still gets more than a little bit repetitive by the end), and the classical music of the film's opening has been replaced by standard bow-chicka-wow-wow pornography music, much to my sadness. I suppose it would have been sort of incongruous for Mozart to be tripping along behind the sex, but I hate it when my dreams are flattened. It's worth noting (for those interested, anyway) that this scene, and pretty much every subsequent sex scene in the film, actually, includes anal sex as a sizable portion of the goings-on. This is something that has not appeared in previous Phantom-based adult films, though I'm not sure if that's because they were made earlier and still retained certain taboos or restrictions, or if that sort of thing is just more common in the European market.

 

Then, thank heavens, we're back to Venice and Christine floating around in a boat with some soothing classical music in the background. Christine seems to like floating aimlessly about in boats, though I can hardly argue with her since I probably would, too, if I were in Venice. Speaking of Venice, this appears to have been shot on location (or at least somewhere that does a pretty decent Venice impression), and the architecture and waterways are simply stunning, again really adding a lot of atmosphere to a film that desperately needs it.

 

There's only a little bit of that, however, and then bang, boom, we're in another flashback as Christine recalls her manager (whom we must assume to be the Raoul character the same way the manager in the 1989 Pachard/Gillis film was, despite the fact that I don't think he ever gets a name) convincing her to head to Venice to shore up her career. While, of course, they are going to jump into some raucous dressing-room sex about now, I was unable to focus for a few minutes because of the hilariously overdone hick accent that Raoul's dubber is sporting. Seriously, it's like the dubber was sincerely trying to buzzkill the scene by being SO OVER THE TOP that no one can focus on anything else. I don't know if it's because this is an Italian film and they're trying to show that this particular gent is an American (and, apparently, from rural Alabama) or what, but the bad dubbing is made even more hysterical by this incredibly thick accent, which is even funnier when they dubbed it over the less verbal parts of the scene (that thick accent saying, "Oh, mah LAWUD" and "Ah hayvens ta BETSY" on money shots is absolutely priceless). I find it too funny that they made this guy dub over all the oh-yeahs and right-theres, though I suppose they had to if people were saying Italian things there.

 

The accent and the fact that poor Raoul looks totally ridiculous when he gets naked except for his dress shoes and socks kept me giggling, but there were a few interesting things to be taken away from this scene, the most prominent of which is the fact that Christine has an ambitious understudy against whom she must defend her position. This is in direct opposition to the original story's set-up (and pretty much every following version's, in fact), making Christine the established diva trying to keep the up-and-comer (whom we must assume is Carlotta, though again, I don't think the poor girl ever gets a character name despite a lot of screen time) from stealing the spotlight. It's an interesting reversal because it removes one of the few points that could be construed as a negative to Christine's character (i.e., the fact that she is "stealing" the show from another, established performer). This change allows Carlotta to be much more easily seen as a villain character plotting against a heroine, and removes pretty much every trace of confrontation or conflict from Christine's shoulders; it's a daring and innovative move to change the dynamic that much, and now that I see it, I wonder why on earth it hasn't been done before, especially in versions that did a particularly poor job of trying to mash Carlotta, originally a fairly neutral and sympathetic role, into a villain mold.

 

My assumption is that there are two factors at work in not wanting to make that switch: the first is that most of the versions I've seen thus far have been American, and Carlotta-as-overblown-villain fits very neatly into a fairly shared cultural perception that we have of the opera singer as an unattractive, temperamental, and often not even talented (to the layperson) figure. This perception is vastly different in Italy, the birthplace of opera, and so the blatant villanization of a mostly innocent singer for purposes of polarization might be less likely to occur to an Italian writer. The second factor here is that Christine's status in the original story as a newcomer was part of her overall aura of innocence and youth, very important parts of her character; in this adult film setting, innocence is not nearly as much a commodity (in fact, possibly a detriment), and Christine has no particular need to be seen as the ingenue, which frees the writers and director up to switch the roles around and give the dynamics a more compelling twist. Goodness knows I'm seldom in favor of odd things being done to the story, but in this case I think that it was both a good decision for the film and an illuminating one for the viewer.

 

I should also note that I sort of got my wish from earlier; this particular sex scene did have an orchestral theme playing in the background (though I have to say that it sounded a lot more like a theme you'd find in a Final Fantasy game than anything else). There is also a good amount of kissing throughout the film, which is something that appeared very rarely in the previous adult films; this, too, seems to be a cultural difference.

 

The next scene abounds with obvious signs of a low budget (and of just not trying very hard); the poster advertising the upcoming performance of Verdi's La Traviata has obviously just had the original singer's name marked out and Christine's scribbled lazily atop it. Ah, the days before widespread Photoshop use. It's not only interesting that D'Amato decided to change the featured opera from Gounod's Faust, but also telling - La Traviata, which literally means "the immoral woman", is an opera about a courtesan's shenanigans as she searches for true love, an eminently appropriate opera to feature in an adult film. Again, D'Amato is clearly paying attention to details here, which again makes this film look better by comparison to its adult film compatriots that I have so far encountered in this project.

 

And speaking of things that make this film look better, there's actually a little snippet of an opera performed! True, the greenscreening that puts Christine on the theatre "set" is awful, and the insipid actress still can't act (or lip-sync) her way out of a paper bag, but there it is, a stolen recording of some opera great (Caballe? Moffo? Sutherland? Alas, the credits do not say) playing blithely along while Menger does a terrible job of trying to pretend she is the one singing it. Like so much else in this film, it's done pretty laughably... but it is done at all, which is a big step up for adult film versions of this story. To date, this is the first one not only to bite the bullet and include opera, but to actually perform a bit of one, too. There is also live footage of an opera audience, presumably from some actual performance at La Fenice (since this is set in Venice).

 

However, since nobody is really watching this all that much for the plot except for me, there is also another sex scene now, this time between Carlotta, who is ostensibly trying to sleep her way to the top, and... a guy she meets backstage, whom I guess she's hoping has some influence over something? The dubbing continues to reach new heights of hilarious badness. Voice acting? Fuck this, they said! And then they did!

 

At any rate, Carlotta is not very subtle at this sleeping her way to the top thing, since her jump from "I hate that bitch, I think she sucks" to "Hey, wanna do it while I'm in costume?" is abrupt, to say the least. This guy might be a stage manager or someone else in a position of power in the theatre, though hell if I know because nobody ever says. As far as I can tell, he's just some guy, which begs the question of why she's sleeping with him out of the blue. Maybe failed ambition makes her horny. Anyway, there is an ominous pseudo-orchestral moan playing under this particular sex scene, presumably to emphasize the evil of Carlotta's underhanded plan to steal the spotlight. The positions employed by our intrepid backstage boinkers are again more varied and artistic in display than I'm used to seeing; they do display the bodies of the actors more interestingly, but this scene in particular pushes my suspension of disbelief, since they also look really, really uncomfortable. I envision D'Amato with a little director's hat and bullhorn, coaxing people into yoga positions: "You, balance on one foot and use those beams to suspend yourself from the ceiling... now you, tense every muscle in your body and elevate your spine halfway off this log. Now, make love!"

 

I did enjoy noting, however, that the majority of the ladies in this film have gloriously natural breasts at their disposal. Those are real. Give it up for real breasts, ladies and gents! They are lovely. Again, I wonder if it's more of a characteristic of American adult film stars to go for the enhanced breasts, or for American audiences to prefer them. Not being a professional student of the pornographic arts, I wouldn't know.

 

We finally get our first glimpse of the Phantom the next day, when a figure cloaked entirely in black - no visible flesh here, folks - begins following Christine around Venice. He does this several times over the course of the film, which really leads me to think of him more as the Phantom of Venice than of the Opera. This is actually seldom employed; Leroux's novel saw Erik venture out of his domain now and then, especially when visiting the graveyard at Perros-Guirec or trying to put the fear of God into Raoul, but subsequent versions have very, very seldom, if ever, removed him from the opera house that he haunts. This particular Phantom spends at least as much time wandering the streets and canals of Venice as he does at the opera house itself, which reminds me of the Phantom in the Meyer novel, who had (and used) access to all of Paris via the sewer system. This particular Phantom has almost none of the "master of his domain" archetype that we are used to seeing in Phantom literature, instead resembling more of an unfortunate denizen of the place instead of its owner, much as in the 1989 Pachard/Gillis film or the Ransom short story. His plain white mask also deviates slightly from the basic variations we're used to seeing, and it's actually quite creepy in its blankness. This musing is a little bit spoiled by Christine's continual waltzing half-naked down dark alleys (I heard that that was a bad idea in Venice - maybe I'm misinformed?), making me want to smack her forehead right between her vapid eyes, but there's food for thought nonetheless.

 

And then it's off to the next sex scene, tra la la. Even I'm getting kind of exhausted here, and all I'm doing is taking notes. In this scene, the Raoul character, complete with hilarious accent, is discussing business with the opera house's manager, but is sidetracked by the charms of his secretary, and begins feeling her up and breathing heavily in her ear during what is apparently supposed to be a business meeting. I was not convinced that people attempt to sex up one anothers' secretaries mid-meeting like this, nor was I convinced that the manager would not only not object, but would later say, "What the hell, I'll join in!" and make it a threesome. It is interesting to note, however, that this is a two-man, one-woman threesome; the American adult films I've seen on this subject to date have only employed the two-woman, one-man threesome, and again I wonder if this is a European thing. Aside from the accent, which continues to provide hours of mockable fun, I found most of this scene to be more of the same. Again, it's much better than the previous adult films I've reviewed for this project, but it's not really earth-shattering.

 

We move on to Christine, who is wandering aimlessly about again, this time looking for the source of the ghostly violin playing she keeps hearing. It's a nice touch that they show the Phantom playing the violin (an aspect of Leroux's novel that is often ignored, with a few notable exceptions like the 1943 film) several times, even though the sound is obviously MIDI-generated and I would really have avoided getting his fingers on camera since Perry clearly has no earthly idea how to convincingly pretend to play his prop instrument. Still, the Venetian sets are lovely and evocative, even where they look a bit inexpensive, and the use of light is even to be applauded in this scene. One particularly suspenseful shot actually had me thinking that Christine might hurl herself down the stairs in response to the music that was clearly affecting her so strongly, though of course she didn't. Instead, she ran off in the most half-assed portrayal of fear I've ever seen. It was less "fleeing in distress" and more "moseying in vague annoyance".

 

That's okay, though. She just headed off to fall asleep and have a dream about the Phantom - or rather, about Alan (snerk) prior to his scarring and disappearance (apparently, she really liked his picture in that paper, or else she has some kind of a Lon Chaney fetish). The pantomime violin-playing is still terrible, though in an ironic twist, it turns out that the Phantom's the handsomest guy we've got in the entire cast. Who knew, right? Of course, this is a dream sequence, so all can be forgiven... except for the fact that, in another display of unwitting irony, the orchestral music we've had underlying the previous several sex scenes gives way to pretty standard porn music here when the Phantom shows up to get his groove on. Alas. Aside from noting that Christine's makeup artist really needs to stop overdoing the lipliner, the only other thing I wondered about was the presence of plenty of backdoor sex and money shot to the face in this sequence. Isn't this Christine's dream? Not that women can't or don't like those things sometimes, but it looks like a pretty obvious case of the movie catering to what dudes would like to think women fantasize about.

 

Off to the next scene, where Carlotta and the unnamed but widely-traveled secretary are doing that softcore girl-on-girl thing to try to attract the attention of a nearby male, who... is, again, nobody in particular. I have no idea who he is (John's input, as I was complaining about this in front of the television: "Random passersby need sex, too!"). It has a very desperate-drunken-sorority-sisters vibe to it, but it still works fine on Random Guy, who jumps right into this second threesome of the film with wild abandon (so wild, in fact, that he forgets to remove his socks despite getting fully naked otherwise... oh boys). Since there was no particularly noteworthy variation here, I spent the rest of the scene theorizing: who is this guy? Why are these people having sex? Is the secretary in league with Carlotta? Is Carlotta confused about who's in charge, and that's why she keeps sleeping with people to advance her career even though the people she sleeps with have nothing to do with her career? Why is that guy still wearing his gray woolen socks? Doesn't this secretary ever get tired? These, and other burning questions, went unanswered.

 

There is almost no pause before the next sex scene, so we jump straight from the threesome of confusion and unanswered questions to Christine having "Thanks for kickstarting my career, dude!" sex with the opera house's manager. The orchestral background music is back, bafflingly, though it really isn't nearly as jarring to the scene as you might think it could be. The Phantom, disconcertingly, watches this entire encounter from the other side of a slightly cracked door; it is extremely creepy, especially since D'Amato does a good job of letting the action build up in the scene for quite some time before suddenly cutting to the scary mask and reminding the audience that there's somebody watching. Of course, he's masked, and not really knocking himself out with the acting, so I have no idea if he's attempting to convey disappointment, jealousy, or if he's just enjoying the scene with Little Phantom in hand. Thankfully for my nerves, which found him pretty disturbing over there in his corner, this scene isn't all that long.

 

But the weirdness just keeps getting weirder. Now that Christine is sailing along down a canal again, as she is wont to do when not sleeping with people in the opera house or lip-synching badly in an imitation of singing, she has enough leisure time to fantasize. And what does she fantasize about? Why, the Phantom (in his sexy, non-scarified Alan form) having sex with Carlotta, of course. That makes perfect sense. In fact, Alan's terrible approximation of violin-playing is apparently so sexy that it can make Carlotta go into paroxysms of delight and begin groping herself uncontrollably in front of a stranger. This could be done without making me snort in disbelief - after all, one of the prime staples of the Phantom story is the sensual quality attributed to the Phantom and to his musical prowess - but this was not the way to do it. I really don't get the Carlotta and Phantom sex here, as it makes no sense whatsoever, but Christine isn't about to let that stop her from fantasizing away about it. Hot.

 

That fantasy ain't got nothin' on the next fantasy, however. Upon becoming bored with Carlotta, Christine decides that a much hotter thing to fantasize about (still serenely gliding down a canal in a revealing dress, gazing vapidly at the scenery) would be - yes! A SIX-PHANTOM GANG BANG! Why didn't anyone think of this before? Six dudes in black cloaks and masks, all on Christine! The more penises the better! Bring it on. And, of course, they do.

 

This scene goes on much, much longer than it needs to, because D'Amato felt that we needed to see ALL SIX money shots in excruciating detail. Did we? Really? Seriously? And if we absolutely did, couldn't you have done some fancy cutting so we didn't have to sit through the ramp-up every time? I mean, Christ. Every time I thought we could move on, the next Phantom stepped up to the plate. It was tiring and more than a little bit boring.

 

And then, without much lead-in, another sex scene, this time between Carlotta (finally getting the right target for her ambitions) and the opera house's manager. Frankly, I am tired by this point. I have no idea why they aren't.

 

But now, finally, we have reached the final scene, which is naturally taking place between the Phantom and Christine (Raoul? Fuck Raoul [wait, some people already did]. Plot? Fuck that, too. We're rewriting this one, plebes!). There is yet another extended sequence of Christine musing on borrowed footage from the 1925 Julian/Chaney film; just as at the beginning of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by its presence, though again I wanted to punt Christine's vapid, tired-of-acting face out of the middle of the frame so I could watch a much better movie instead of her plastic-eyed attempt to look wistful. D'Amato has a plan in showing us some 1925 footage again here, you see, because Christine is about to meet and unmask the Phantom (for reals this time, no fantasies!). And when she does... oh, man. I'd almost tell people to buy this film just for the pure entertainment of this scene.

 

When she unmasks the fellow, underneath is the hideous countenance of... Lon Chaney! That's right! D'Amato's clever cinematography team has cut and pasted a static (and badly washed out, I might add) image of Chaney's face in its famous makeup OVER Perry's actual face, giving him a glowing, spectral paper visage that in no way meshes with anything else in the frame. It is beyond funny. It is funny in the same way that an earthquake registering 9.5 on the Richter scale is inconvenient. It is amazing.

 

But, once I got done rolling around on the floor and wheezing, I had to also note that this was kind of a valid artistic choice (although it was executed about as well as you might expect from a fifth-grade video project). Chaney's face is only visible for a couple of seconds, whereupon it fades and is replaced by Perry's face - unblemished in any way. The intended effect, I believe, is that despite the Phantom's hideous ugliness, Christine sees him as the handsome man he was before the accident; that is, she sees him as he once was, and therefore nobody on D'Amato's staff had to shell out for expensive makeup or prosthetics. Yeah, it's a little bit of a cop-out, but it's not a bad choice for this particular film; it certainly beats the 1989 Pachard/Gillis film, which attempted to convince its audience that a deformity the size of a mosquito bite was horrifying and society-estranging, or the 1997 de Longprez/Stone film, which just blithely removed the deformity entirely. All three films are addressing the fact that an adult film would have a hard time appealing to a mainstream audience with a seriously ugly male lead; this is, in my opinion, the best compromise to deal with that factor that I've yet seen.

 

Why, exactly, Christine is shagging the Phantom (socks and all) is quite beyond me in this scene... she's never actually met him except for that one time she ran away from him in terror and nobody spoke any words to one another. He doesn't even have the violin that made Carlotta tear off all her clothes with such fervor. But she apparently DOES have a Lon Chaney fetish, so shag him she does, and then the film ends with her floating off down a canal again, meditating on the 1925 film again (this time, the footage is from the end of the film, including the infamous carriage scene and culminating in the Phantom's murder at the hands of the mob). Again, her face really didn't need to be present, mooning about the screen with absolutely no inkling of emotive ability. The fact that she has simply had sex with him and apparently wandered off is interesting, as it leaves one to conjecture whether she was providing this service out of pity for his desolate state; in fact, I'm inclined to think that the footage from the end of the 1925 film suggests that he may have expired shortly after the proceedings (one hopes it was after, and not during). Which, in an adult film context, is not a bad ending to the story at all.

 

This was a mess, yes. It was not a good film. But, I have to say, it was not nearly as bad as it could have been, or as bad as I was expecting it to be. D'Amato is clearly well-versed in previous versions of the story, from the Leroux novel to at least four identifiable film versions stemming from it, and the fact that some attention was paid to detail and some real effort was put into the trappings of the story really elevated it for me (again, probably somewhat because of my very low expectations when it comes to adult films). The overall effect was that D'Amato seems to have a real interest in or fondness for the story, and has used it as the basis for one of his adult films because of that, rather than just trying to make a quick buck off a cheap adult imitation of a cultural phenomenon (unlike the other two adult films we've seen so far, which were exclusively based on the Webber musical, this one doesn't have even a sliver of identifiable influence from it).

 

It's pretty terrible, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it as anything other than what it's intended for - adult entertainment - but I confess to a certain wistful desire to see what D'Amato might have produced had he had a large budget, some decent actors, and free reign. There were signs in this film of what could have been a really interesting erotic interpretation of the story, and it's a pity that that didn't actually come to pass.

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