Phantom of Cyberspace (2007)

     directed by Nicole Marie Taylor

          starring Cole Valenciano, Dream Pretty, and Scott Ford

I'm sure you have a good idea of where this is going, because you have probably noticed the stunning production values, naked women on the cover, and presence of an actress named Dream Pretty in this film. You might be surprised to know that I seriously debated whether or not I needed to warn you about this film's adult nature, because while it's clearly trying to be fetish porn-y, it's actually failing at this most basic job. At no point in this film will you see actual human beings that are not wearing at least underwear, thus neatly avoiding the one desperate hope this movie might have had of being relevant to someone.

Because sweet Christ, it's not like there's anything in the rest of the movie to alleviate your boredom or tickle your eyeballs. It's cardboard porn without the porn.

The main character, if we can call someone such, is Dream Pretty's character, a college psychology major named Nicole (oh, hello, same name as the director - coincidence?) who is cam-dancing her way through her degree to make enough money to avoid having loans to pay off afterward (this is the Christine character, in case it isn't immediately obvious). She is introduced with a nagging best friend, who is unimportant other than representing all harridan-like women everywhere and who might as well be named Jerkface for all the emotional depth and writing flair her role entails.

Jerkface, of course, finds Nicole's after-hours attempts to raise funding abhorrent on a moral level and spends far too much time telling her (and us) so through the tried-and-true methods of wooden, dispirited acting and repetitious, dispirited writing. Dream Pretty, who is a better actress but only in the sense that a shit sandwich is sometimes better than no sandwich at all, insists that it's harmless and that she learns so much about these guys that she could write her thesis on their psychology. In fact, she feels compelled to tell us this several times, which is confusing due to the absolute dearth of any indication whatsoever in her dialogue that she knows jack shit about psychology.

The scene is clumsy, too long, and uninspiringly shot in a poorly-lit apartment, though at least it's not a single-shot event (so be thankful for those sorts of small favors). Jerkface persists in telling Nicole how disgusting her lifestyle is for an inordinate amount of time, including saying "I wish I could just kill them all" of the internet perverts who pay to watch her dance and shrewishly announcing, "I think one of your johns just sent you a message," when the computer pings. I cannot imagine why on earth even someone as uninteresting as Nicole, who is prone to saying boneheadedly heavy-handed foreshadowing things at the drop of a hat ("Thank God they don't know who I am or where I live!" - well, they do now, that's the first rule of clichéd writing), would be friends with her. It would be like being friends with the angriest old fire-and-brimstone granny from your church, except with less believable dialogue. Jerkface, Nicole is just trying to make a living in a way that works for her here, would you chill?

When Nicole, who is still getting dressed to go out, asks Jerkface to reply to her internet suitor and let him know that she has to go out tonight and won't be around to dance for a while, Jerkface instead elects to send an all-caps love letter along the lines of BURN IN HELL YOU PERVERT. This is, of course, a critical error on her part, as even the most naïve bunny rabbit could tell her that this will cause the person on the other end to become a violent stalker in no seconds flat. The real crown of assery, however, of course goes to Nicole, who asked her furiously and confusingly antagonistic friend to send a polite note to someone she just declared she wants to kill.

Then they go out clubbing. Yay!

The rejected guy in question is of course our Phantom figure (who we have seen in short flashes as a gentleman (of color! which we seldom see in a Phantom! too bad we won't be looking at that choice in any depth in this movie!), hunched over a computer in an oddly cave-like room lit only by candles. These trappings are not explained, nor is the reason for his seriously sweat-bath level of perspiration. I will grant that he convincingly looks both disturbed and disturbing - in addition to the flop-sweat, his eyes are half-lidden and unfocused and he seems incapable of sitting up straight, listing to the side and speaking in a strange slur. After his predictable rage at Nicole's heartless rejection, he falls over in an apparent faint and we don't have to worry about him again for a while.

 

It's worth noting that the scene's uncomfortable tension may in part come from the fact that it seems possible, in fact likely, that he's masturbating the entire time; we can't see him from the waist down, but the knowledge that he probably is elevates his creepy falling-apart self to an extra plateau of, well, creepiness.

I would love to note that, especially in light of Nicole's earlier protestations that many of these guys are very sensitive and intelligent and just don't have the social skills to approach women in real life, it never occurs to this dude that the message, which is uncharacteristically full of swears and flailing and comes completely out of left field with no provocation, might not actually be from Nicole. This entire movie could have been solved with a simple follow-up "Hey, was that you earlier?" email. No problem-solving skills here, folks. (To be honest, the entire movie fails to present us with any dudes who watch Nicole's cam channel who are sensitive or intelligent, so she might have just been trying to defend her job to her judgmental jerk friend.)

Then, some astonishingly long credits for what is essentially a terrible pseudo-porn. Not only are they very lengthy, they also appear over a background of nothing but leaping flames, which makes me wonder if Taylor is paying some kind of misguided homage to the 1988 trainwreck that was the Friedman/Rydall film.

But now Raoul's about to make his entrance - our dashing knight in shining armor, right? Actually, this film's Raoul is named William and he is, to put it delicately, a sad sack. He's a middle-aged guy, probably in his forties somewhere, who spends all his time watching exotic dancers on the internet and can't pay his rent because his porn bills are too high. He's also a big fan of Nicole's, though like everyone else he knows her by her internet nom de plume of Blue Bambi, and spends large periods of his day stalking her website. Not that he doesn't watch other girls - he totally does - but she's the one that really speaks to his soul, you know?

If you were hoping to have any luck trying to root for William, you should probably give up now and maybe go cry in the corner. There's almost literally nothing to like about him; in addition to his general creepiness, he also nurses a persecution complex the size of Texas and is never seen at any point in the film trying to do anything to better his lot in life or even be nice to the only human contact he has, a ludicrously obnoxious roommate who for some reason pays his half of the rent and puts up with him despite ostensibly hating him. He and his roommate have the weirdest fucking relationshop you have ever seen; they clearly hate each other to a bizarre degree and show no instances of liking or ever having liked one another, yet seem completely incapable of ending the situation. The roommate is prone to walking in on William watching live naked dancing and hanging out talking to him instead of leaving like a normal person with boundaries (though, to be fair, he might have been confused since the closest to masturbation we ever see from William is a distracted patting of his balls through his shorts, as if making sure they're still there). Roommate constantly mocks William's extensive porn and cam habit, while William makes fun of his burger-joint job (hilariously, roommate not only apparently pays the entire rent for two people alone on a burger-joint job, he also wears button-down shirts and khakis to work. Must be a manager). They both make me want to strangle them with a sock.

At any rate, now that William is present in front of his computer screen to give Taylor an excuse, the much-vaunted exotic dancing promised by the film's case begins. While the women are certainly pretty, unfortunately there isn't much to call exotic going on here at all; it's pretty standard amateur titillation dance, without much artistry or actual titillation (in my opinion as an amateur watcher of exotic dance, anyway). As the real selling point for this film, I was hoping it would be really good, especially since, as noted before, there's no true nudity and therefore I feel like it needs to up the ante to hang onto its target audience. Suddenly, the promised however-many minutes of exotic dancing looks like an endless desert stretching before you. I fell asleep twice.

I will note, however, that the cinematography (such as it is, anyway) is much better than I've seen in other Phantom-based erotic films. There are shots from different angles, few static shots to complain about, and whomever was behind the camera had a decent idea how to follow a human body and highlight enticing parts of it. There were a few particularly hilarious misfires, including a few seconds spent staring at a blank wall with only a sliver of ass peeking into the frame on the left and several more seconds devoted to literally gazing into the dancer's navel, but on the whole there was a better quality of production in that particular area than I expected there to be.

We will, by the way, be seeing Dream Pretty perform for William in here, after a hilarious makeup montage in which she puts mascara in her eyebrows (is that a thing? I don't wear makeup and I'm suddenly unsure if maybe I just don't know about this); unfortunately (for us especially, as it prolongs the movie to no end), this is interrupted when she suddenly hears someone at the door, throws her clothes on and then gets jumped by some intruder. William sees a confused jumble of her being grabbed, but can't identify what's happening and instead spends a few delightful scenes wandering angrily around his house, repeatedly calling her a bitch for not following his typed commands and daring to leave while he was still watching her.

I know I just praised the camerawork in the dancing scenes, but someone clearly does not give nearly as much of a shit during the boring rest of the movie, where static shots and bad lighting continue to abound. In particular, all scenes shot in William's kitchen seem to have bizarrely blurred edges around the frame, as if the lens weren't quite secured on the camera properly.

Back with Nicole, the Phantom has turned up now and has acquired a dribbling, melted facial distortion on one side since the last time we saw him. It's actually fairly convincing for a burn wound, though far too healed to be as recent as it should be. Unless the wax is actually still on his face, which it kind of looks like and which would be pretty horrifying. His hand on that side appears to also be injured in some way, and he occasionally moves with an awkward, halting motion on that side when Valenciano remembers that he's in character. He does not wear a mask and instead elects to use the elegant solution of a hoodie that doesn't hide much, because this Phantom is of the people. I actually tried to make a connenction to Ye bang ge shen based on the hood, but I'm getting pretty good at identifying my own pathetic and desperation-fueled gropes.

After a very weird interlude in which the Phantom knocks Nicole out and then hides in a closet so he can jump out at her when she wakes back up (wuh?), he ties her up spread-eagled to her furniture and commences shooting pool balls at her vulva. It's supposed to be suspenseful and disturbing because of the sexual imagery (and yeah, what a skin-crawling creeper), but instead it's just kind of pathetic and silly. I mean... where did he even get pool gear? Did he bring it with him specifically for this kidnapping? And seriously, gleefully making puns about balls and pockets? It's like something a thirteen-year-old would fantasize about.

The Phantom (who will never get a name other than his internet handle, LonelyBoy), turns out to have history with Nicole; through stilted dialogue and lackadaisical acting that makes me wonder if Nicole is in any way concerned about this situation at all, it is revealed that apparently they were internet breaking up. For some unexplained reason (probably, she realized he was getting creepy and potentially dangerous and wanted to avoid this exact thing), Nicole decided that he needed to find a new "internet muse" (a phrase that, sadly, will be repeated several more times, as if the scriptwriter knew that this was one of the few connections to the original story they had to offer) and gave him a free last dance to send him on his way, but his final message to her was the one that was unfortunately intercepted by Jerkface. Being obsessed, he appears to have somehow gotten the idea that if he did what she told him to, she would stop dancing on the internet, and is very upset that she hasn't done so.

Which brings us to the most interesting thing about this movie: I believe this is the first time a Phantom has turned up with an intentionally self-inflicted disfigurement. Having taken the directive to "burn in hell" literally, this Phantom went off and set himself on fire in an attempt to obey her directive, resulting in his current horrifying state. It's a very interesting reversal of the normal state of affairs, with his obvious mental instability causing his physical devastation instead of vice versa, and in another film this might have led somewhere intriguing. Unfortunately, Taylor just lets the idea fall to the dust and be trampled by the dancing feet of her many pointless extra scenes, but oh, what might have been.

The Phantom's major issue is that Nicole has not ceased dancing for the internet at large, and he wants her to be his own private show and dance for no other. The parallel to Leroux's work is clear there, and I'm also reminded of the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film and that Phantom's inability to handle his leading lady performing for others (albeit in a less overtly sexual manner); like Karloff's Hohner, LonelyBoy plans to kill Nicole to prevent anyone else from seeing her dance, and also turns it into a crusade to punish her as a proxy for all internet sex workers who have "lied to" and "led on" the men that give them money, all the while not actually caring about them. All of this had the potential to be kind of interesting, but since we're getting it in tell-mode, with the characters just informing us of it instead of us ever seeing any active presentation of their previous relationship, it's mostly just boring. Very, very boring.

During the several hours (or is it days? I can't really tell due to terrible pacing and nonsensical breaks the Phantom takes to wander off, but Nicole apparently never has to go to the bathroom so it can't be too long) that she's tied to her computer desk, Nicole comes up with a pretty ingenious plan when she manages to hook a scrap of paper and a pencil and scribble her address down to hold up in front of the webcam, which the Phantom has neglected to turn off because apparently he has forgotten what she does for a living or something. Of course, since it's a live feed, nobody will see it unless they happen to be looking at that particular moment, which is where William comes in.

Well, eventually. First, while spending a lot of time charmingly cursing at Blue Bambi for not being around when he wants to watch her take her clothes off, William spends several hours watching other cam dancers instead, all the while complaining about how they aren't as good as Blue Bambi and where the hell is she. This means that we, the viewers, get to watch several more protracted dance routines, which are sadly just as uninspiring as the previous ones; in some cases, the dancers just give up and sit around massaging their genitals through their underwear, as if it would just require too much energy to vaguely shake their butts around in front of the camera. William doesn't get the message for quite some time, as Nicole can only hold it up when the Phantom is conveniently out of the room (where does he keep going? Is he getting takeout or something?) and William is usually watching other dancers or passed out in his chair at these times. I think the device might actually have been suspensful in more skilled hands, but unfortunately, after the third time he missed it, I was pretty much just left hating him and everyone else involved.

He does eventually get the address and, in his only redeeming act of the entire movie, jumps in his car to go look for it, since it turns out to conveniently not be very far away from where he lives (calling the police might be more redeeming... but then again, considering police treatment of sex workers is usually not inspiringly even-handed, maybe not). During this time, the Phantom has been taking such exciting steps as throwing darts at Nicole and carving up her calf in an attempt to mutilate her so that no one else will want to watch her dance anyway (though, of course, he is not very good at it, because she looks fine and artfully bloody). There's also a suggestion that killing Nicole will symbolically kill his own emotions, the last of which he believes are all attached to her; it's ham-handed, but at least someone was trying.

After a few false starts including knocking on her belligerent neighbor's door, William finally locates Nicole's apartment and bursts in (luckily, what he lacks in strength he makes up for in weight he can throw against that poor screen door). Then, in one of the most garish caricatures of Lloyd Webber's graveyard scene ever, he and the Phantom engage in Mortal Porn-Watcher Kombat. Unsurprisingly, the spry young dude with the sword (yes, apparently LonelyBoy has a wakizashi on him; why is not explained) is pretty easily overpowering the overweight old man, so William has to be saved in the nick of time... by none other than his thoroughly unpleasant roommate who hates him, who inexplicably shows up with a rifle to shoot the Phantom before he can stab William to death. It's especially hilarious that he's here because in a previous scene, William tried to call him for backup and his phone not only lost service before he could finish telling him the address, but Ford was actually saying a different address than the one on the piece of paper anyway (he got the street number wrong).

In line with some deadly boring dialogue earlier that was trying to hit on the idea of the fantasy Blue Bambi vs. the real Nicole earlier, Nicole rejects the name when William calls her that and gives him her real name, affirming that she is shedding her internet persona to return to the non-sexy, "safe" world of normal college students. It is also pretty scary, considering that she has no idea that these two guys who just burst into her room and are also calling her by her internet dancer name are not equally as horrible as the one that just died, but let's be charitable, she is probably very very traumatized by this point.

Then, in a final twist of ridiculousness, we jump forward to eight months later... when Nicole, fresh out of undergrad, has her own psychiatry practice and is seeing William as a patient. We're supposed to smile and think how nice it is that they're still friends, that he's getting to still tell her about his loneliness in a more acceptable setting, and that she's left the dark days of sexy dancing behind. Instead, I went with hysterical laughter at the idea of an undergrad student in psychology suddenly becoming a licensed practitioner of psychiatry with her own practice immediately out of college, as well as the probably-terrible idea of any therapist ever deciding to work with someone who rescued her from torture porn because he used to watch her perform exotic dancing online, because that's not likely to cause patient-practitioner issues.

All that alone is enough to more than earn this pile of DVD-shaped poo its F, but the underlying message is what really makes it intolerable past a few minutes in. Through William's tribulations, Jerkface's accusations, and the Phantom's tragedy, the strongest message coming through is that shut-ins who watch internet porn and live dance feeds are a noble and persecuted bunch, misunderstood and mistreated by everyone else in the world. Particularly through William's lens, we are given to understand that it's not that they're creepers, it's that they have normal fears of rejection and insecurity and therefore are handicapped when it comes to real women, preferring the safe environment of the internet dancers where such things are non-issues. The Phantom explicitly lays this out with his diatribe about dancers "tricking" their watchers by making them think that they care about them (although at least the film makes it clear that kidnapping/torturing said dancers is not an okay response to that idea).

 

There's nothing wrong with this in itself; taking a look at our perceptions of sexuality and challenging social conventions about them is a worthy goal, and there are plenty of guys out there who suffer from these issues and find interaction through sex work much less stressful than a traditional relationship, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the problem is that the oh-so-victimized guys in this film are absolute assholes. Their behavior toward others is uniformly hateful and violent, from William's tiffs with his roommate to the Phantom's enraged cries that "after all the money I've given you" he's entitled to own Nicole, not to mention the tendency of every male character in the movie to refer to the dancers they so avidly follow as "bitches", "sluts", and "whores".

 

More to the point, the final upshot of the movie is the implication that Nicole brought her situation on herself with her slutful ways, and only when she moves on to the wholesome non-sex profession does she get to be safe and happy. It's at once idolizing the men who hang on these sex workers, reassuring them that it's not only normal to be obsessed with internet porn, it's noble, and then at the same time denigrating the very women who perform those erotic acts for them, castigating them for being unfeeling assholes who only want their money and deserve whatever misfortune befalls them as a result. The only positive woman in the entire film is Nicole, and she only occasionally rises to that status because of her sympathy for these poor beleaguered men; everyone else is Jerkface best friend, William's shrieking ex-wife, or the cardboard other dancers who don't have real names and are instantly forgotten as soon as their routines are over.

 

This muddled soup of hideous cultural stereotypes doesn't approach examining the sex industry without bias; instead, it reaffirms every horrible generalized objectification of women in sexual roles and simultaneously tells the same men that are perpetrating them that anyone who objects to it is just being, well, a Jerkface. We're supposed to walk away with a confusing cocktail of morals including Being a Sex Worker is Bad and You Should Stop, Men Who Engage Sex Workers Are Misunderstood So Stop Being Mean to Them, It's Your Own Fault if You Get Hurt if You Were Being a Sex Worker, and Remember Ladies: Mens' Emotions Are Always Your Job Even if You Don't Know Them.

Truly, this is the most progressive of films.  But you don't have to take my word for it; the film is apparently available free of charge online as four webisodes, so if you feel the need to be bored, disappointed, and irritated all at once, YouTube is now your one-stop shop.

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