Phantom X (1989)
directed by Paul Thomas
starring Jamie Gillis, Aja, and Mike Horner
The cover of this particular film entertains me, with the Phantom sort of popping in from the side there, like he wasn't supposed to be in the picture but jumped in at the last second. Those who are eagle-eyed may have noted Jamie Gillis' name there; he is in fact the same guy who played the Phantom in the contemporarily-released Phantom of the Cabaret. Apparently he found a niche that he liked.
This is the earliest of the Phantom-themed adult films on my list (if there are others made earlier, I have yet to discover them), and it tries surprisingly hard. In the end, of course, it's just ridiculous, but... well, it does try.
My suspicions were aroused (har har) when the credits rolled over ominous organ music, the clip-clopping of a carriage horse, and a screen passing Parisian architecture. Could it be? Yes! It's a period porno! Well, sort of. While they do a much better job of trying than I've seen in any other adult film, the language is still anachronistic and the costuming covers a wide range of time periods (from poorly-sewn seventeenth-century to poorly-sewn nineteenth-century). Nevertheless, everyone is determinedly wearing something from Days of Yore, so I have to be sort of fondly impressed, like I am when a child gives me an incomprehensible refrigerator drawing.
Interestingly, the film uses shots of newspaper headlines several times, usually to let the audience know that some time has passed and that the Phantom's exploits are being noticed by Paris at large. While this is a little more notoriety than the original Phantom attained, the use of the newspaper as a vehicle recalls Leroux's newspaper origins and his use of newspaper articles to effect communication between Erik and various other parties. Do I spy Leroux influence in this adult film? Le gasp! Further adding to this journalism idea, a narrator character is present in the form of narrator Robert Zuko (played by Ron Jeremy, in possibly his only adult film role ever in which he didn't have to take off his pants), who is not only adorably chubby and earnest, but also not too shabby at the acting; his presence makes me wonder if his passing resemblance to Leroux is on purpose. If so, I think it's very cute, even if he is wearing a tailcoat that looks like it fell out of Louis XIV's wardrobe.
The names have been changed, probably to avoid any whiff of possible copyright disputing from the recent hit Lloyd Webber musical; Christine Daae has become Nina Marchand, while Carlotta has been renamed Maria Delatour and Raoul has been demoted to Colonel Louis Muniere, who has no stated noble affiliations. Standing in for the obligatory noble of the story is a gentleman named Alphonse, who is apparently a friend of Maria's, though none of my pressing questions about who he was or what he was doing randomly hanging out in Maria's dressing room before the opera were answered. And, I mean, I suppose it's kind of obvious what he's doing in Maria's dressing room, considering that this is an adult film; nevertheless, I was impressed that some effort had apparently been put into the dialogue. When was the last adult film you saw that included someone saying, "Forgive me for being so boorish" (even if his delivery was, well, not spellbinding)?
After Maria fidgets a lot and angsts about some threatening notes that she's been receiving (aha! Plot!), she and Alphonse start getting it on. The interesting part of the scene comes with the introduction of the Phantom (voyeur ahoy!), who is apparently menacing the general area of Maria's dressing-room window. The scene is shot surprisingly well, with warm colors and soft piano music accompanying the sex scene inside while the Phantom's outside shots are mostly in darker blues with menacing organ phrases. The Phantom's mask is interesting in that it looks to be mostly original - it's not full-face, but it covers him from the forehead down to the upper lip, like the one in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, and is reminiscent of a skull, possibly hearkening back to the Red Death mask from Leroux's novel or its celluloid companion from the 1925 Julian/Chaney film.
There's nothing to write home about in the sex interlude, though it's interesting to note that it isn't the entire focus of the scene; there's sex going on, yes, and the camera lingers, but it cuts away several times to build suspense by showing the Phantom skulking about, up until he drops some kind of drug into the wine (reminiscent of the drugging of Biancarolli in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film) waiting for the two lovebirds over by the window. Is this film actually... well, giving a shit about the plot? I have not encountered this in previous adult films. The aftermath of the scene is kind of witty and cute; I even spied a wee little joke there when Alphonse quips, "Well, I only ever was good for one thing... luckily, I was born into nobility." Why, it's wry class humor! Leroux would be so proud. And I even said aww when Alphonse took a moment to kiss Maria and toast her with the drugged wine: "To you, Maria, for finding the worth in me and truly loving me." I'm on the road to caring about the characters in an adult film! Their actors don't even suck too badly! Of course, both Maria and her lover slump over in a stupor after drinking the wine, and another newspaper headline proclaims that Nina, who performs in her capacity as understudy, experiences a great success.
Very, very sadly, Nina's actress, Aja, is awful. She's pretty damn poor at line delivery, and her character, who comes off as nasty, selfish, and totally unlike Leroux's Christine, had me rooting for her demise pretty early on. Her introduction brought with it a host of silly anachronisms, including Maria storming into her dressing room and initiating a fist-fight that necessitated both ladies' paramours dragging them apart. Somehow, I had never before envisioned Christine punching Carlotta directly in the face (though Bischoff's 1976 novel did feature something vaguely close to a confrontation between the two women, and Lloyd Webber's musical has them briefly confront one another during rehearsals for Don Juan Triumphant).
Nina makes it obvious that she fucking LOVES the Phantom's threats on her behalf, and very obviously rubs her apparent triumph in Maria's face. She's an ambitious, conniving person who could not be happier that someone is willing to perpetrate threats and vandalism to get her where she wants to go, and my sympathies are way more with Maria, the injured, drugged party, than with the Queen Asshole, but nobody cares what I think. The manager (who looks familiar... hey, it's Rick Savage from The Phantom of the Cabaret!) seems to share my sympathies, but he's afraid of the Phantom's retribution and, in the end, gives Nina her way.
A little bit of revealed backstory lets us know that Nina is a former street urchin, the daughter of a pickpocket and a sex worker; this is quite a change from the sheltered violinist's daughter of Leroux's novel. At least, with this background, her ambitious and self-centered personality makes sense, though I am not really sure why she's talking about her frankly awful-and-embarrassing-for-the-time origins to her boyfriend.
Luckily for her, he's not in the least put off and ready for some rough, tough shagginating. This is kind of a relief because it frees the audience from Aja's terrible acting, though, to be fair, it's probably very hard for anybody to say a line like "Make love to me, Louis! Make love to me like I've never been made love to before!" in a truly convincing manner. The dynamics of this encounter are noticeably different; as opposed to the first sex scene, which put Alphonse in more of a position of power, this interlude places Nina firmly in the dominant role, including plenty of cunnilingus and placing her in largely dominant physical positions, again a far cry from the original, virginal Christine (and, while we're at it, the lustful Louis is quite removed from boyish Raoul, as well).
I was very curious as to who the opera singers that can be heard in the background might be; they're perfectly credible soprano and baritone voices, singing perfectly credible opera, but they're also perfectly uncredited, so I will probably never know. It's too bad, but their use does help keep the scene both in period and in the general mood of the story (such as it is). I did notice, however, that Nina shaves WAY too much for a nineteenth century gal; either she's anachronistic or she's shaved and wearing a merkin, which just invites a whole host of unappealing possibilities to take root in my brain. While there's no Phantom voyeurism in this scene, the camera often shows the proceedings off-center in order to keep the room's large mirror in the frame, which suggests to those familiar with the story that there may still be invisible eyes on them.
Nina's refusal to let Louis see her home is pretty random, but he heads off on his own like a good boy, leaving her to rendezvous with the Phantom, who appears first as shadow silhouettes on the wall, calling to mind the shadow sequences of the 1925 and 1943 films. He's also playing a violin, and while this element of the original novel will be kept in the later D'Amato/Foster adult film, it hasn't been seen in mainstream film since the 1943 Lubin/Rains film; combined with the mask, I wonder if that film doesn't have more than a little influence here. Sadly, Gillis can't actually play the violin, and it's obvious, but there are actually a few examples of nice cinematography, including a shot of a large, blooming pink rose placed symbolically beside Nina's genitals.
In keeping with her bizarre and kind of reprehensible personality, Nina seems to be all about the Phantom and has no problem going to his dank home below the the theater; while she's slightly freaked out by the mask, the fact that there's no Angel of Music conceit here makes her nonchalance especially strange. She doesn't seem to have much of a problem with him being the Phantom or his perfidious exploits to date, which only reinforces her image as someone with few morals who appreciates an advantage, even if it happens to come from a slightly less than scrupulous source.
The Phantom, on the other hand, gets some interesting exposition here; certainly, there's been a little more effort put into his character than in many adult versions of the story. He claims to have once been in love with a singer, who proved unfaithful to him and who disfigured him with acid in order to flee with her lover; the acid incident is again traceable to the 1943 film, while the idea of a previous lover is an intriguing one that never gets explored as fully as I would like. Gillis' Phantom has more range in this film than he does in the contemporary The Phantom of the Cabaret, with a powerful voice and a very firm grasp on his new identity. He makes several statements to the effect of, "No, this is my face. That's all there is," in reference to his mask, which plays into the idea of the Phantom as less than himself (or, possibly, even less than human) when his face is exposed. I watched the scene with bated breath for the unmasking, but Thomas changes it up on us and refuses to do even an indirect masking until the very end of the film.
Nina's attachment to Erik (hey, look! He got to keep his original name in this one!) is markedly different from her interest in Louis; while she seems to think of Louis as a good time and an entertaining admirer (tellingly, she did not return his words of devotion earlier, simply acknowledging them with a flippant, "I know"), she obviously wants to keep the Phantom's regard for reasons of ambition. Therefore, despite what seems to be genuine devotion (or at least infatuation) on his part, the ensuing sex scene has more than a little quality of commerce, since Nina is calculating her advantage as things progress. It's interesting to watch the Phantom in said sex scene, since he's very possessive and demanding as the scene carries on, gradually usurping Nina's initially dominant role. Also, he lasts an impressively long time for a dude who hasn't gotten any in X number of years.
Possibly to balance out Manipulative Nina, this version of the Phantom seems a lot more psychologically balanced; while he's obviously a little off, what with living underground and scaring the crap out of everyone for no particular reason, he's still much more rational and generally non-threatening than the average Phantom character (the worst of his sins, in fact, is non-fatally assaulting a night watchman). In fact, it's Nina who tries to cajole him into taking immediate action in the opera house; he tries to put her off at first, saying (somewhat more reasonably than anyone else in the film behaves) that now that the public has heard her sing and the critics appreciate her, her career will ramp its way up without any help from him. But she's a determined lady who knows what she wants, so she bothers and bothers and bothers him, finally laying down an ultimatum ("If you love me, you'll find a way to silence her!") to force him to do something about removing Maria from the spotlight. Amusingly, he gets all self-righteous when he thinks she's asking him to kill the other woman, which is pretty damn funny in light of the original character's total lack of compunctions when it comes to murder. Nina's hasty backpedaling with the offended, "What kind of a person do you think I am?!" fools exactly nobody.
The most interesting part of that little interchange is Erik's protest that "It's too much. I'm not a monster." The underlying motives for the havoc (kind of... compared to the original Erik's machinations, it's pretty tame havoc) have been changed in a very thought-provoking manner; instead of society having created the monster through neglect and ostracization, Nina herself directly creates it through her ambition. I'm not sure how much of this parallel theme Thomas was using on purpose, but even if it's accidental, it's entirely possible that the idea survives precisely because it was such a powerful one in the original story. Erik eventually relents and promises to interfere on her behalf, but only on the condition that Nina promise never to be with another man again; she does, though we all know she's probably lying, so we aren't exactly clueless about how this is going to turn out (though Gillis, who didn't get to display too much acting talent in his other Phantom-based adult film, does a surprisingly good job of portraying the Phantom's devotion and obvious emotional attachment to Nina). Also, I stopped being able to take the scene even remotely seriously when Aja totally failed to be able to pronounce the word "impresario", largely, I think, because the actress probably didn't go over the script before the actual day of shooting.
Naturally, off he goes to kidnap Maria. Noooooo, Maria! Look behind you! Scream and run! You're the victim here! Thomas uses the newspaper headline convention again to let us know that Maria has disappeared without a trace, and a few asides also inform us that (SURPRISE) Nina, now the darling of the Paris artistic circles, doesn't think she needs that nasty old Erik guy anymore.
And now, it's time for the Sex Scene That Makes No Sense. Sigh. Every adult film seems to have at least one. In this case, Nina goes to a party at the home of the Countess Manette, who has no character value and exists solely because the writers couldn't think of a way to get Nina and Maria together for the obligatory lesbian banging. So, after the Countess sends the rest of the party (an entertaining journey through Centuries of Bad Costuming) away with an awe-inspiring lack of subtlety, they go ahead and get it on on the piano. Well, I suppose, technically, Nina hasn't broken her promise not to sleep with another man. The whole scene is tooth-gratingly anachronistic, from the Countess refusing to hang out with her guests to her giving Nina a backrub like a horny frat boy. I got tired of it pretty quickly.
Of course, Nina is not tired of it, because it is HOT, yo. Besides, apparently, "Men are just toys," so perhaps she's been more interestedin ladies all along (most viewers of adult films like to think that, don't they?). While Nina and the Countess are getting all girl-on-girl on the parlor floor, Thomas keeps the scene from being too static by cutting several times to the Phantom's lair, wherein Maria is desperately trying to figure out a way to get Erik to let her go, which mostly does her no good as he just sort of stalks around playing his violin while she's tied up. Intriguingly, Maria remarks on the fact that she can hear his "faulty phrasing and technique", and theorizes that it must be the reason behind his failure to attain true fame; this is obviously a violent shift from the original Erik's musical genius, and one which devalues the character's general aura of mastery quite a bit (while we never see it, Nina does claim that Erik has been tutoring her in secret, so it makes me a bit sad to hear that he apparently ain't all that). However, a big deal is also made about the fact that, in spite of his technical faults, Erik has an unparalleled sense of passion in his playing, and the original Erik (in keeping with his status as representative of passionate, genitive forces) was greatly concerned with passion in performance. It's still disappointing, though.
It's not really surprising that at some point during this scene, while the ladies are still doing their thing in the Countess' parlor, Maria gets loose and starts fellating the Phantom, trying to bargain not only for her freedom but also for her career. Again, it's obviously a commerce-driven encounter, with Maria using Erik as representative of her public and admirers, begging him to want her and make her the favorite again, etc. Her protestation after the deed is done that "Everyone is capable of sin, even me," is ably answered by Erik's mocking, "Especially you. You're an artist." Of course, while we're supposed to be making fun of Maria, I really can't get too excited about mocking a woman who is doing desperate things in an attempt to escape captivity and danger.
Meanwhile, Nina and the Countess FINALLY finish up (the Countess is way better at self-stimulation than Nina is... possibly because Nina is wearing some fantastically period-inaccurate long false nails, which I imagine make things difficult in sensitive areas). It's by far the longest sex scene in the film, and the one on which the most attention is lavished without deference to the plot. It is not coincidence that Nina looks bored during most of it. I, too, looked bored while watching it.
And now, hello, masquerade ball incoming! While there's seemed to be some influence from the 1943 film previously in this movie, the masquerade ball seems to be a direct throwback to the 1925 film or even to the original novel itself (it was also included in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, but I don't see too much resemblance between that film and this). The raucously incorrect costuming can be more easily forgiven here, since people are supposedly dressed up, and we get a few nicely dizzying shots of the many masks and partygoers before some bare-assed men show up and the whole thing devolves abruptly into a Roman orgy. So it's one of THOSE parties.
I was actually okay with the move into sex, since it stopped some truly horrendously bad dialogue and acting from continuing. Seriously, it was horrible; it put me in mind of the 1997 de Longprez/Stone film, and no one should ever want to approach that level of badness in acting. While the initial actors and actresses are unfamiliar, gradually we begin to recognize characters, including Louis with some random woman and Nina having sex with Alphonse (tsk tsk on everyone involved), not to mention the manager of the opera house getting his groove on as well. Orgy, orgy, etc., etc. It goes on for a bit. I was actually just noting down that Nina had finally broken her promise to Erik when she went and climbed atop the manager, too, so she failed double hard. Voyeurism is a major element of this scene, with quite a few of the indolent nobles merely observing the dance-floor shenanigans with varying levels of interest, while other forms of entertainment (jugglers, etc.) continue around the party. The idea of the debauchery of the upper class is strongly present, which was one of Leroux's favorite ideas (though not to this extreme, obviously), and Thomas cuts away from the action now and then, long enough to really give us the fully unsettling view of the entire room. Despite these interesting touches, however, the orgy goes on too long. Come on, Thomas. Even some of the participants are starting to look bored. Playing Who's-In-Nina's-Mouth is only entertaining for so long.
What with all the masks around, Thomas intentionally provides some doubt as to who exactly the Phantom is; however, when the gentleman in the skull mask is obviously torn up at seeing Nina in various stages of indelicate activity, we are clued in that it must be Erik, though he doesn't unmask for us during the masquerade ball itself. There's nothing as dramatic as a chandelier to drop on the proceedings, but he does cut the lights and steal Nina off to his underground dwelling (where, I hope, everyone will shower before doing anything else). In a moment of excellent unintentional comedy, Louis attempts to tear manfully off to search for his lady love, but is forced to return and find his pants first.
Thomas and his writers, I think, just gave up at the end of this film; from this point forward, everything is just escalating levels of weird beneath a dazzling veneer of not making sense. Erik manipulates Maria into attempting to kill Nina barehanded, and then skulks around his lair playing the violin like Nero during the burning of Rome while the two women have the most limp-wristed fight anyone has ever seen. Even Jamie Gillis appears to find this scene ridiculous, as he's often caught on camera while watching the fight with a sort of "This is pathetic and you suck" expression on his face. Zuko (remember him? He's been around on and off throughout the film, though someone always kicks him out when it's time for the sexinating) takes on the role of the daroga and leads Louis down to the hidden abode, pulling a gun (very reminiscent of the 1943 film again, in which Raoul had a pistol at the final confrontation) and threatening the Phantom. Nina's sudden cries of, "No, don't, he's already suffered enough!" fail to convince, since I didn't see any evidence during the catfight of her suddenly sprouting a conscience. Unsurprisingly, Zuko does shoot the advancing Phantom, who keels over dead, while the audience tries not to snigger at the terrible execution of said shooting.
For the coup de grace of ridiculousness, Nina finally kneels to unmask the dead Phantom, only to discover that... he has no disfigurement at all! Le shock! Don't hurt yourself trying to figure out why the hell he was wearing a mask and hiding in a basement, or why he made up the story about his girlfriend scarring him with acid, because nobody is going to attempt even the most cursory of clues or explanations for these phenomena. Even better is Nina's horrified cry: "He's handsome! And we killed him!" Oh noes! If only he had been hideous, so that killing him would have been all right! How could we kill a pretty person?!
The half-assed cliffhanger at the end, which is basically just the Phantom's ominous giggling laid over a long shot of the opera house, was entirely eclipsed by the WTF factor of the previous scene. And now we're done, so any questions you might have will never, ever, ever be answered. Let them go, friends.
They tried so hard (snort, giggle) to make this an adult film that actually featured a plot and some interesting ideas. They really did, and I have to give props to Thomas and his crew for that. But, sadly, the execution was still pretty awful, and the total throwing of logic to the winds at the end of the film stopped it from ever being able to aspire to anything above the D range (in fact, D might be kind of generous, but like I said, they tried). I'd place it head and shoulders above all the other Phantom-based adult efforts - but compared to more mainstream film and literature, it still looks very shoddy and sad.