Phantom of the Ritz (1988)
directed by Allen Plone
starring Joshua Sussman, Deborah Van Walkenburgh,
and Peter Bergman
Why isn't this grade so much lower? It probably should be, at least a little bit. God knows, this isn't exactly the most insightful of interpretations. In fact, it seems to be drawing inspiration from some of the worst films I've already reviewed. But it's so goddamn enjoyable, like a really, really bad-for-you snack that you just can't give up.
Pretty much everything in this movie made me laugh so hard I hurt myself. The good part is that most of it was on purpose! The opening scene is a good example, in which a very tall Phantom apparently likes being a dick at the movies and keeps sitting in front of an increasingly frustrated kid, who is presumably murdered when he finally starts to complain loudly. There was no pretense that this film was going to be serious, which I appreciated; it meant that I could enjoy a lot of the silliness going on, instead of glare at it.
My first big surprise (and source of entertainment!) came when the plot unfolded; a middle-aged dust-cover maker named Ed, tired of his humdrum existence, decides to break the mold, sell everything he owns and purchase a theater, which he will fix up and make the new talk of the town.
Now, wait. Surely not. Did someone out there actually base a film on the cinematic misery that was the 1979 Savage/Joboulian movie? But... but... and yet, the plot appears to be almost identical. The last place I would have expected anyone to draw inspiration from was The Meateater, but there it is. Or is it just that the incoming manager's perspective is an easy jumping-off point for adaptations of Leroux's novel?
His interior-decorator girlfriend, Nancy (who incidentally looks more than a little bit like Sarah Brightman) is totally behind him, which should have warned him off because Plone has a lot of fun making sure everyone knows what terrible taste she has. In particular, the scene in which Ed inspects her collection of really, really bad VHS horror flicks is golden satire; about halfway through his recitation of some truly awful titles, I began to feel better about the Savage/Joboulian source. Obviously, Plone's making a sort of homage/parody of terrible horror films here, and what more terrible film to hint at than that one? Also, dude. I totally agree with Ed when he says that "Othello with Mr. T and Chuck Norris as Iago" is totally a must-see. You don't know how much I wish that were a real movie.
A very abrupt jump takes us straight to a hapless, much-put-upon real estate agent (his name is Punjabi, which is a common Indian name but also probably a homage to Leroux's Punjab lasso), who is showing Ed the theatre in an attempt to convince him to buy it. Despite the fact that the agent is helpful, accommodating, and in no way tries to pretend that the place isn't a dump, Ed abuses him verbally at every opportunity. I felt sorry for him. Luckily, the scene is injected with a few more shots of hilarious when a local drunk wanders up and starts telling Ed about all the things that are wrong with the theater; he looks like such a twitchy, unstable drug addict, and I think I love him for his completely over the top acting. His in-depth spiel about booze bottles is particularly enjoyable. More hilarious than all of this combined, however, is the Phantom's first voiceover, when he sees that his building is being bought; in a sardonic, whiny voice, he says, "Are you serious? Another loser wants to mess up my place." The eloquence! The artistry! Teen Phantom is alive and well!
Ed, of course, still buys it, despite the fact that there are a million things wrong with it, it's falling down, it's a dump, and he's confrontational and snarky to the realtor about it. None of that is getting in the way of his dream! His lawyer (who apparently carries champagne [that totally looks like Martinelli's sparkling cider, but who am I to judge? That stuff is delicious!] and glasses around 24/7 in his briefcase - BEST LAWYER EVER) toasts this decision and everyone decorously pretends not to notice the startling number of drunks passed out in or around his new place of business.
In the very next scene, the Phantom (presumably - and let me just say that he must be enormous if that's his hand) grabs a rat out of a dumpster, one would assume for dinner, and scares the shit out of one of said drunks. Now I KNOW this is related to The Meateater! The persistent shots of empty alleys aren't really spellbinding, but the music is at least suitably creepy.
Anyway, it's on to refitting and cleaning the place up! Nancy shows up to offer her services as an interior decorator, and even though Ed clearly thinks she sucks, he tells her to have at it (and tells the workmen to try to keep her paint choices in the spectrum visible to humans). She convinces him via sexy banter about their bedroom shenanigans from the night before, which was more nauseating than interesting. "[Your statement] won't stand up in court." "Stood up in bed." No, thank you. Ed isn't exactly an object of fantasy that I need imagery for.
That doesn't matter too much, though, because the Phantom's voiceover returns while he watches Nancy putter about in the theatre, and it is hilariously lecherous. I never expected to hear a Phantom utter the words, "Mm, baby, you know what I like!" But I think I love him a little for doing so. I mean, he's an ass, but we so seldom see him being such an obvious ass.
So we've already got a Phantom character (currently a disembodied voice), a Christine character (Nancy) and a Raoul character (Ed, who also incorporates the roles of the managers), but what about the rest of Leroux's cast? Enter Marcus Aurelius (yes, that's totally his name, though he does not appear to in fact be a Roman emperor), the extremely well-built and sexy-voiced black guy that just shows up at the theater one day and demands in a comically over-formal speaking mode to be hired as security. Is... is that you, Daroga? Have my dreams of seeing you in a film context after 1925 been realized? Ed seems to take after his illustrious forerunner, Mitford, in that he hands out jobs to people who just walk up and demand them. He also hires an extraordinarily cranky woman named Sally to do his accounts (Giry analogue ahoy!), but I kind of love her and her enormous cigarette and unamused attitude. It's nice to see a Giry who isn't all sweetness and light, and how could you not love a woman who informs her boss on the first day of work, "This place is a dump. It's where a dump comes to dump."?
The Phantom takes out his first victim, who is a talent agent that's been bothering Ed all morning trying to sell him some really, really terrible acts. I wasn't sure what his motivation was, except that maybe he really dislikes poor talent. And, I mean... the acts were intended to represent the absolute worst of the worst. Just discussion of the gent who sets his beard aflame and then stands there as trained beavers run in from the wings and spit the blaze out tired me. Obviously a classic variety act. So maybe this is all for the best.
Interestingly, there are a few shots of Nancy singing as she paints away, and wonder of wonders, she has a pretty lovely voice! Not operatic, obviously, but lovely nonetheless. I was really wondering if she was going to end up performing or if this was going to be the Phantom's new motivation for capturing her later, but neither ended up coming to pass; while the interlude seems to be a clear parallel to the original Christine, perhaps to help the audience along, Nancy doesn't actually have much to do with the musical acts at the theatre any time after this. Which is a shame, since she sounds very nice.
But never mind that: the police have arrived, mostly to let Ed know that a lot of homeless people keep dying at his establishment and they think that's kind of fishy. Entertainingly, the lead detective is named Lestrade - why, hello there! Fancy meeting you here, sir! Will Sherlock be coming by to heckle you today? Despite the bumbling exploits of his namesake, Lestrade is actually pretty competent when it comes to his job, which is a bizarre rarity in these older films. He will be around on and off to check up on things, while I chortle each time anyone says his name.
Plone enjoys the insertion of a lot of incidental scenes in this film, including the next one, in which Sally discovers Marcus changing his shirt in her office and has a hissy fit over the invasion of her privacy (the scene is actually quite hilarious; not only do I have no objection to watching Marcus change shirts, but Sally's frank admission that he "gave her a bit of a cheap tingle" but had better get out of here because she doesn't come here to have to see sweaty men take off their shirts is pretty darn funny, especially when Marcus looks so bewildered). The incidental scenes, which might have otherwise seemed random and out of place in the narrative, are actually excellent character builders; the ultimate result of so many pauses in the action to explore the characters' interactions was for me to actually give a damn about most of them, which is a feat that no bad horror movie has achieved since... well, ever.
And speaking of small character interchanges, the next scene involves two stereotypical Italian plumbers working on the bathroom plumbing, and I love them. They are hilarious, and obviously meant to be parodies of the Nintendo game characters Mario and Luigi. I was accordingly very sad when the Phantom (who is massively sized and who wears prosthetic gloves to simulate some kind of hand injury, making him look very much like Frankenstein's monster from the back, albeit a Frankenstein's monster who specializes in random murder) killed the cheerful round plumber after his partner left for the night. Nooo, Phantom! You can't kill Mario! I did note, however, that it was really nice to see all these shots of the Phantom's very messed-up hands, since we so often see Phantoms who mysteriously only possess a deformity on a tiny fraction of their bodies.
Another nice side scene involves Ed and Marcus having a greasy-spoon diner dinner together, and Marcus discusses his reasons for always speaking in an antiquated, Shakespearean mode; basically, he's found that people otherwise assume he's a meathead because of his massive biceps and he doesn't appreciate the assumption that he's stupid (his race is not touched on, but as the only black character in a society that often assumes African-Americans are stupid, that is likely another motivation, too). Another really nice follow-up scene sees Marcus trying to make amends with Sally for his shirtless faux pas (why Marcus is so determined to make Sally like him is a bit of a mystery, but I suspect he likes the brutal honesty with which she lets him know that she isn't going to put up with any nonsense), and Sally opening up to him just enough for him to discover that her husband was recently killed, which is probably why she's become so bitter and standoffish. He backs off and there is no more whisper of romance between the two, which is a bittersweet and interesting choice that I wasn't expecting to find in this often-ridiculous movie. See what I mean about the characters being really intriguing?
Unfortunately, elsewhere, Ed is completing his transformation into his source character, Mitford, with disastrous results; after about the tenth time he blows his hot girlfriend off (often very rudely) and sends her off to hang out with the hot guy instead of paying any attention to him, I was wondering about his motives (of course, Marcus is a gentleman, even when Nancy kisses him on the cheek, but Ed is still kind of a doofus). Very smooth, dude.
But now comes one of the best parts of the film: the auditions for the theatre (which are magically being held a week before the show - fuck preparation!). Ed has decided he wants to put on a live stage revue of music from or reminiscent of the fifties, so he puts out an ad on the radio and is immediately swamped by crowds of hopeful young nostalgia musicians. The audition sequence, which lasts quite some time, is a little bit reminiscent of the revue in the 1974 de Palma/Finley film, but much more obviously intended to be comedic and even more full of parody. The entire thing, in fact, is hysterical, from the wailing progressive percussion band fronted by a man in a Jesus costume to the Little Richard impersonator to the Shatner-esque gent who only strums his guitar and speaks over it to the Elton John-like flaming pianist to the guy using a microphone to play his crotch like an instrument (dead serious) to the weedy kid with the unfortunate face and electronic accordion to a long parade of would-be Elvises. I practically couldn't contain my glee. The obvious lampooning of the artists from the fifties and sixties was great, as was the obvious effort put into reminding us that average people, on the whole, are completely unable to estimate their actual levels of talent. The pained faces of Ed and Marcus in the front row were just icing on the cake.
I can understand being made cranky by these terrible acts when he's trying to set up a success for his theatre's opening night, but Ed strikes out again when Nancy comes by to ask if he can take a break to get some lunch with her, saying, "Nancy, you don't need me to feed your face, just take care of yourself for once, all right?" Ouch. Even Marcus is making an "Oh no he did NOT" face next to him. And then, of course, one of the Elvis impersonators asks her to go get lunch, and Ed is all pissed off when she agrees. Well, dude... I'm just saying, maybe you could have handled your desire to stay and work more politely. For bonus points, he uses the same whiny "But this is important to me!" lines that Mitford uses on Jan in the Savage/Joboulian film.
Nancy, who doesn't really get lunch with the Elvis impersonator, instead huffs off and starts working on painting some more of the theater. More humor ensues when she asks the foreman what he thinks of the colors and he tells an elaborate story about, during his time in the war, being forced to roll a tank through a pet store, smashing small animals left and right and creating a horrifying smell. Nancy says, "Eww, that must have been ugly," and he replies, "Yes, ma'am, but not as ugly as this." Zing!
When Sally goes off to smoke in the bathroom, the Phantom decides she's next on his hitlist, and starts attempting to haul her under or over the door; being the hard-as-nails dame she is, she burns him with her lighter, but unfortunately eventually does get grabbed by the hair ("Holy SHIT, she says with more anger than fear") and dragged off to her presumable doom. As with the plumber, I was seriously saddened by this event. I really liked her. See, horror directors? When you use real characters, I care if they die! The suspense is enhanced by my desperate hope that you won't kill somebody I enjoy! It works so much better than cardboard characters do! I spent some time trying to figure out why he went for Sally next in particular, but all I could come up with was that maybe he disapproves of all the coffee/cigarettes/alcohol she consumes, or else (probably correctly) assumes that the place will fall apart without her helping to run it.
I think I love Plone and his writers a little bit. In the next scene, when Ed was murmuring about how he needed a gimmick, I was struck by the thunderbolt of enlightenment. The Ritz theatre... variety show... Ed needs a gimmick... giant Phantom who looks like Frankenstein's monster and hates everyone else's performing talents... Plone, level with me. Is this entire movie one big "Puttin' on the Ritz" joke waiting to happen? The reference to yet another parody of the genre (Mel Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein, of course) just makes me happier inside. The Phantom never actually took the stage to moan out any lines, mind you, but it almost didn't matter.
Ed calls Lestrade (incidentally, pulling him away from an interrogation in which he appeared to be threatening the guy with a knife - he's hard-boiled, this one!) to request some security for his opening night, since he's a little bit worried about kids getting out of hand, or possibly murder. Lestrade, because he is a good civil servant, says sure, so there are some police on hand at the opening night show; let's hear it for these guys, who are the first intelligent operators of a shindig that I've seen in quite some time in this project. They plan ahead! They look for contingencies! They rock, in short.
And this opening night is awesome, let me tell you. Not only is the place packed (I guess fifties nostalgia is big in this town), but everyone has shown up in costume. There are poodle skirts and saddle shoes everywhere, leather jackets and greased pompadours, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis costumes abounding. It's a great, festive party atmosphere, and everyone is extremely excited (this fifties is remarkably eighties-like, but to be fair, nobody ever really gets nostalgia right, do they?). The show, once it kicks off, is again very reminiscent of the de Palma/Finley film's final performance; it's not as nuanced or as involved a parody, but Joey Perrone's rock performance is amazing, both hilarious in its parody and enjoyable in its own right (as is the very scandalized old woman in the crowd when he lifts his shirt to reveal man-nipple. Gasp!).
The next victims on the Phantom's list are a pair of young boys who are drinking in the alley out back behind the theater, and whose asses he unceremoniously kicks. My theory now is that maybe the Phantom disapproves of liquor in general, which could also explain why the local drunks always seem to get massacred around him. It's not much of a theory, but it's all I've got.
In another entertaining character aside, Marcus gives a long-winded spiel about the words of Pliny the Elder; disgusted and lost, the foreman says, "Jesus H. Christ," to which Marcus calmly replies, "No, Pliny the Elder." Classic. It's funnier onscreen, trust me.
Backstage, Ed apparently has the gun hookup, which confuses me; not only does he have his own gun, which he gives to Marcus to aid him in security, but he claims he can get guns for the rest of the recently-hired security team, as well. Ed! Is there something you're not telling us about your source of funding for this venture or something? But this is never explained, because off he charges onstage to wave his arms in a very Muppet-esque manner and be ridiculously excited as he introduces the next act. It's hard to make fun of him when his passion for the place that he's worked so hard on is so obvious.
And he should be excited about the next act, because Plone somehow got Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Coasters to appear in his film and perform "Yakity Yak". I am duly impressed (for those unfamiliar with 50s and 60s music, the Coasters produced a ton of the more recognizable hits of the time, including "Love Potion No. 9", "Poison Ivy", and "Charlie Brown"). Even the Phantom, usually a pretty cranky guy, can't find fault with this; you can hear him giggling and enjoying the show from his hiding place.
But, eventually, the Coasters are done with their set and wander off, and the Phantom decides it's time to crash the party. He just walks right on in, seven feet tall in a very creepy mask, and hauls Nancy off to his hideout (his hideout's location is never exactly explained, since it seems like Ed and company have done a pretty thorough job of scoping and cleaning out the entire theater; my best guess is that he must be in the sewer system underneath it somewhere, though the later search for Nancy scene doesn't seem to bear that out). Before we get on with the scene, I'd like to pause and discuss the Phantom's deformity; for once, it's a horrible burn-scar situation that I can really believe in. His entire body (not just a swatch of his face, other filmmakers of the same year who I'm politely not naming) is severely burned and has an extremely slimy appearance due to the fact that it's pretty much just raw flesh now, on which skin won't reliably grow (he discusses the fact that grafts wouldn't take at length, making me wince in sympathy; I was also very sympathetic when Nancy shied away from his hand and he said sadly, "It's not contagious"). He is seriously hideous, no joke, and Plone doesn't skimp on letting us see it (he has no ears... realistic! And gross!). Further, his massive size and prodigious strength are explained rationally; he's been severely hopped up on steroids for years, in order to manage the pain and increase his own mobility (he says dolefully that he isn't concerned about the side effects, for obvious reasons), which also explains his sometimes illogical aggression.
However, all of this doesn't stop him from being one of the most entertaining-sounding Phantoms of all-time. When Nancy asks tremulously if he liked the paint job she did on the theater, he goes off into an immediate spiel. "Honey, your color sense is so poor..." It's Queer Eye from the Burn-Scarred Guy for a few hilarious minutes, while Nancy gets progressively more indignant. He doesn't seem to have much interest in her personally, earlier remarks about her ass aside, but it's when she despairingly asks what he wants from her that the real fun begins. With a happy smile, he says, "Just be pretty, and stay away from paintbrushes." Yes, Nancy is the anti-Christine--he doesn't want to nurture her talent. He wants her to stop hurting the public with her lack of ability. Brutal.
Also, I realized partway through the scene that Sally the accounts manager is tied up on the back wall. Huzzah! She's alive! I still don't know why she got kidnapped, but apparently Plone, too, loved her too much to let her die.
The bumbling search by Marcus, Ed, and the police for Nancy is pretty hilarious; while Lestrade is perfectly competent, his uniforms seem to be more than a little bit spooked, and Ed is almost hysterical. Naturally, it is Marcus that must save the day, diving through a wall to the rescue; his bodybuilding makes more sense now, since only he can hope to stand up to the massively steroided Phantom. After a brief fight scene, everything is suddenly on fire (I have no idea why, and nobody ever tells me), including the Phantom, despite the fact that his wet, oozy skin really shouldn't actually catch fire until well after he's dead. Still, the filming of his flaming body lurching around and bits of prosthetic melting and dripping off is pretty good at its job of terrifying the audience. And then everyone is rescued and can go home (including the police, who apparently don't feel the need to save the burning man... sheesh, guys, he might be a taxpayer, too).
After this debacle, Ed decides to close up the Ritz and abandon his dreams of doing anything with it, much like pretty much everybody. And the final scene, at the credits, is hilarious; the Phantom heads over to his large rock organ, sits down to play, and then discovers that being underground has rotted and destroyed the poor thing and it sounds terrible. Then off he sulks into the darkness once again, looking put out. Hee hee hee. I've often wondered how Phantoms always seem to have magical self-maintaining pianos and organs that are impervious to the effects of environment and time.
It's not a good movie, at all. So why do I love it so much? Well, it's a hilarious parody, for starters, and never tries to take itself seriously, which removes so many other problems it might have had. It's clever, has engaging characters, and comes up with pretty good rational explanations for most of the shit it pulls. It's not insightful as an interpretation... but it's not meant to be. It's poking fun at things, and I can't fault it for that. I will probably secretly watch it again when John isn't looking.
Also, like the contemporary-released Friedman/Rydall film, there's a theme song! It's called "Phantom of the Ritz" by The Waters, but I can't find a copy of it to save my life, so you will unfortunately have to wonder forever (or find the film and bask in its glow).