The Meateater (1979)
directed by Derek Savage
starring Arch Joboulian, Dianne Davis, Emily Spindler and
If anyone ever wanted to know what abject failure looks like on film... this would be it.
I would like to know what the hell went wrong with this movie. Someone, somewhere, obviously intended for it to be entertaining, even if they weren't really interested in a faithful interpretation of the Phantom story (and yes, it is a version of the Phantom story... nominally). I can only assume that the film and everyone involved in it were actually placed under a terrible pirate curse, one which caused the actors to completely lose their minds and abilities, the director to order nonsensical cuts and bizarre sequences to be scattered about willy-nilly, and the writers to both do five double shots of absinthe and then revise their script. It is the only plausible explanation for this incredible trainwreck.
I howled with laughter throughout most of this movie, but I don't recommend it as a good Friday-night comedy unless you have the stamina of a Viking. The movie's barely an hour and a half long, but it feels like three times that, easily. But you're here in this review, so come share in the pain with me.
Are you ready for a curve ball? The opening scene of this film is genius. We start with a long zoom in on the Crest movie theatre, in the top window of which we can see the flicker of light from a movie projector going; this earliest film is, I suspect, actually shot in color, but it's making such use of shadow and the color is poor enough that it seems to be in black and white. We pan past several old photographs of Jean Harlow, famous screen star of the 1930s and a sex symbol of the time period on par with Marilyn Monroe; the slow-moving camera and shadowy eeriness of the scene make her large eyes and half-shown faces part of the ambience of age and fear. There is also a photo of a nice-looking young man in a tuxedo. Someone, still unseen, is watching Harlow's 1931 film Platinum Bombshell on the screen in the abandoned theater, and we see several flickering in-and-out shots from said movie. After some time presumably goes by, a man staggers into the back of the theatre after the film; he is backlit so that we can see nothing of him except that his clothes are hanging off him somewhat, ragged. He looks derelict and aged, stooped, and slowly shuffles offscreen after picking his way past unidentifiable bits of debris.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where this movie needed to end. Look at that up there; apart from a somewhat mediocre standard horror movie score (heavy strings, ominous minors, etc.), that would make an excellent seven-minute short film. It sets a believable mood; it suggests without telling; the juxtaposition of the film of Harlow in her prime with the faded pictures of her suggests the transience of life and the march of time; the old man staggering slowly through the dark reinforces the idea of time's inevitable crawl and encourages us to think of him as a representative of humankind, slowly fading away into nothing as we age; the abandoned cinema suddenly becomes symbolic of humanity's forgetfulness and fear of mortality, and of the fleeting nature of stardom and joy. I loved that part of the film. I was fooled into thinking that Savage might kind of know what he was doing. I was prepared to draw parallels and unearth metaphors. You could have had me, Savage! It could have been something beautiful!
And then the old man started eating a rat and it all went downhill from there.
For one thing, the rat-eating wasn't particularly gripping or distressing, since it was extremely unrealistic and I didn't feel the need to feel sorry for the obvious prop rat drenched in obvious stage blood. For another, this presumably homeless and desperate guy grabs a rat off the floor and takes a big bite out of its intestines, clearly starving... but then he puts it back down after one bite and wanders off? Dude. Desperately hungry people who eat live rats don't, I assume, watch their figures much.
Everyone please note that this is the first instance of someone eating meat in this movie; it is far from the last, although, bizarrely, it is the only time the villain does so. The film is absolutely saturated with MEAT MEAT MEAT everywhere, for NO apparent reason. It is relentless and you will ask why many, many times without receiving an answer.
He drips some blood on the picture of the tuxedo-wearing young man, for purposes unknown to me, except to draw our attention to it again, or possibly to suggest that he dislikes or resents whomever-it-is. This scene wasn't helped much, either, by the sudden return of vivid color (which only made the bloody rat that much less convincing for me) and the introduction of a pretty damn shoddy makeup job for a Phantom.
Still, I was being charitable and giving things the benefit of the doubt. If we had even ended the movie there and made it ten minutes instead of seven, I would have been all about it. The rat-eating and blood-dripping could have had something to do with the man's (as representative of society's) revulsion at what he had become in his old age, if we assume that the stage magician is maybe meant to be him at a younger age. But I was horribly, horribly misguided in my analysis of the beginning of this film, because unless there was a sudden, secret switch in directors here and I'm the first ever to uncover this astonishing conspiracy, I just made all that shit up.
Ten minutes of the film met with my approval. Another eighty to go. Is everyone as excited as I am?
We switch now to Suburbia, USA where shoe salesman Mitford Webster (who names their kid Mitford? Was he a really ugly baby?) is absolutely fed up with his life (no word on whether he is also fed up with the Addams Family-esque background music he seems to always bring with him). Mitford is supposed to be a kind of everyman, but if so I need to avoid other people more often, because this guy is the nastiest, whiniest, most immature asshat I have ever seen someone attempt to pass off as a film hero. His wife (Joan? Janet? How sad is it that I already can't remember her name? I looked it up on IMDB after the fact, it's Jan), who spends most of her time trying to achieve a spot in The Stepford Wives because it would afford her more acting range, is the only moderately convincing actress in the film, and I suspect I only say that because everyone else is so terrible. After about five minutes of Mitford whinging about how he hates his job, he has an ulcer, everyone is mean to him, bring my dinner out here woman!, I was both bored with him and ready to have him strangled. Were I his wife, I would have poisoned his chicken cutlets (LOOK IT'S MEAT!). Peter Spitzer, who plays Mitford, wears the crown in this film for incredibly wooden acting and a voice so obnoxious that it could make a nun go on a chainsaw rampage.
Anyway, Mitford reads his mail while bossing wifey around and discovers that his bid on a movie theatre has been accepted. He is excited, which I know because he says so (not because his "excited" differed markedly from his "cranky" or "depressed"), which is a helpful hint from a scripting department that perhaps realized that the audience might need a little help here. Jan is extremely hesitant, pointing out that they'd have to abandon their home to move, take their kids out of school, and face ruin if the place failed after they sank all their finances into it; Mitford responds to this with, "But it's what I want," and then I presume that his kicking, screaming toddler tantrum was cut due to time constraints. At any rate, Jan shuts up like the good little spineless homemaker she is scripted as, and the Nuclear Family moves to Podunk, Nowhere.
There is a scene wherein Mitford discusses the purchase and history of the theatre with the real estate agent, who clearly subscribes to the same stellar school of acting as Mr. Spitzer. The cinematography in this scene is absolutely bizarre - sometimes there are split-second shots of the characters' mouths as they speak for NO GODDAMN REASON. They're not eating, or saying relevant words, nor do they have relevant teeth. It is absolutely mind-boggling. The real estate agent reveals that the movie theatre went under five years ago because the owner insisted on showing nothing but porn, and the highly moral people of the small town wouldn't stand for it (yeah, people HATE porn. That's why it's been stamped out in this modern era. Wait, is this Oak Grove again?). Much conversation is exchanged regarding the evils of pornography and how a moderately salacious title on a movie marquee (seriously, it was something like "Naughty Schoolgirls Giggling" or something equally PG-rated) can put NOTIONS in the heads of the town youngsters. Oh, god, not the NOTIONS!
I am entertained by the fact that he gives us this speech right after mentioning that 99.9% of the town's children take off for the big city the second they achieve their legal majority; perhaps we NEED a few NOTIONS around here, eh? Well, not from Mitford; he pledges to play "nothing stronger than a G", prompting me to both wonder what on earth is lower than a G (unrated films? Awesome. Get the European ones with all the artistic nudity) and to wish him a fond few minutes of enjoying his movie theatre before it descends into permanent, irrevocable bankruptcy. By the way, the real estate agent, as Savage makes SURE we notice, declares that he has an "insatiable appetite" for his work. Could this, perhaps, be related to the MEAT? I don't want to over-stretch with a too-subtle metaphor, here.
So back we go to the Crest, where Mitford is lollygagging around watching his wife do all the heavy cleaning of an abandoned theatre. His only real contribution here is to discover a dead rat under a counter, and, after his wife turns away in delicate female dismay, to come around and intentionally wave it in her face. Smooth, man. Even more awesome, NOT FIVE SECONDS AFTER WAVING A STINKY DEAD RAT IN HER FACE, he starts groping her and asking if she would like to "make love next to the Jujubees". I think it is by this point clear that their two children must have been fathered by the mailman, because if seduction-by-rat is any indication, Mitford is not welcome in her chamber of secrets, ever. In an attempt to put him off graciously, Jan tries to leave to take her kids to the dentist, only to be informed that he'll do it and she can stay and finish the candy counter. "No, no, dear. You stay here and clean out the disgusting, grotty old theatre I made us buy that you wanted nothing to do with, while I take the kids out. Later, we can fuck!"
So she sticks around and cleans, and naturally the film's "be scared! Please?" score of minors and strings and skittery noises kicks into high gear in order to let us know that Something Is Amiss. The score relies heavily on "creepy" high-pitched sounds, which are basically just descending tones in a minor scale; unfortunately, every time they made an appearance (which, god, was SO OFTEN), I thought my cell was beeping or there was an emergency alarm system test on the radio or some shit, because they don't sound frightening so much as they sound like you have voicemail. I was hoping Jan would run away and start a happier life somewhere as a cabaret girl or something, but no such luck; instead, she digs around for a flashlight (cunningly concealed beneath a gigantic hot dog poster, a subtle reminder that there is MEAT involved here) and goes off to investigate some noises she's hearing in the projection booth.
People in this film have a serious love of investigating dangerous situations themselves instead of calling for help, enforcement, or specialists; even if this weren't a building that had been abandoned for five years and whose ceiling might conceivably cave in, why, as a defenseless, lone woman in a strange town, would you go investigate for intruders? She keeps shouting for Mitford, apparently thinking that he's up there and neglected to tell her that he returned, but this doesn't really reinforce my opinion of her intelligence after about the twentieth time. But then again, you know, maybe I'm being too harsh... it's not a stretch for me to believe that Mitford would probably hang out in the projection booth and intentionally scare his wife for no reason. It'd probably have an aphrodisiacal effect on him.
Jan discovers nothing in the booth, because she's distracted by an old man wandering in from the door that Mitford cleverly left open when he left. It's pretty obvious to the audience that he's a little too well-kempt to be our rat-eater from the beginning, but he is wearing the latest Derelicte Chic and staring at her with a disturbingly intense expression, so I'd be running if I were her. Not so our intrepid Jan: she puts on her game customer service face and tries to be nice to him, which unfortunately prompts him to speak and subjects us to the most unrealistic stutter I have ever heard in my life. He sounds like a motorboat.
All she manages to get out of him is that he really, really doesn't want them to reopen the theatre, at which point she decides to turn her back on him and go wander around through the abandoned building some more, which is an AWESOME idea. He is, naturally, gone when she returns. I particularly enjoy the part of this scene where she tells him they'll be opening in a few days. Oh, really?! Good luck cleaning the whole place, re-upholstering all the seats, finding and stocking food vendors, replacing and servicing equipment, acquiring rights to show films, and publicizing so you have an audience. Maybe it's just a magical theatre; they'll go to sleep tonight and the elves who drink milk out of a dish on the back porch will do all the work.
Mitford returns; when asked if he brought the rat poison, he tells her she should help him put it down in the attic, and then there will be nothing eating away at the theatre. Unless they decide to eat one another, HAR HAR. He actually said that. My libido shriveled like a raisin in the radioactive sun.
Then there's a nonsensical cut, and we go to BOOTY SHOT AHOY, FOLKS! Welcome to the movie, boys! Enjoy a few minutes of looking at Jeannie's (the daughter of Mitford and the long-suffering Jan) ass, which is perfectly nice but really not spectacular enough to get its own ten minutes of footage. There's a pimply, glasses-wearing nerd named Raymond also staring at said ass, until Mitford finally gets down to the business of hiring him as his projectionist for the theater. I would take bets on Raymond's projected longevity, but I am not made of money over here. We suffer through this extremely short job interview, in which Mitford proves to be a savvy businessman as well as a dashing Casanova and a dignified member of the gentry: when it turns out that this kid has absolutely no experience whatsoever with projection equipment, Mitford asks him, "Well, can you do this job or not?" With great determination, Raymond replies, "I can try." Well, shit, that's good enough for Everyman Mitford over here. Glasses are code for earnestness!
Now, the crowning scene of the film for me: the grand re-opening of the Crest. Our first clue that this is going to be epic beyond all expectation is the marquee, which reads Grizzly Safari Wholesome Movie. Hot DAMN, you guys, I am so there! This is clearly the big blockbuster of the summer. Unfortunately, we have to wait for it for a bit as Raymond, who still doesn't know anything about projection, bumbles around the booth dropping film reels and breaking things and generally making an ass of himself. It took a good five minutes before I realized that this kept being shown because it was intended to be comedic; the timing was so horrendously bad that I kept staring at it, waiting to see what the point was to the plot because it never even occurred to me that it was meant to be funny. I enjoy Raymond's Conan the Barbarian t-shirt, but not enough for me to get past the fact that I have no idea why he didn't learn this shit BEFORE the first showing. Seriously. You could have done all this futzing around on your own time earlier today.
Mitford (handsomely attired in what I think is a cast-off mariachi band shirt) molests his wife a little more at the concession stand, including a nauseating kiss through the hole in the glass (seriously! No way in hell I'd be putting my hands or my money anywhere near that germ factory!), before settling in his office to munch on some beef jerky (WHY HELLO THERE MEAT!) during the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie poster behind Jan proclaiming "Bambi: Coming soon!". Whoa, there, cowboys! Let's not get carried away! Don't want anybody getting any NOTIONS.
There's also about a metric ton of hot dogs (MEAT!) being bought, sold, and eaten in this scene, which personally would do more to put notions in my head than anything else. But no one asked me or my prurient subconscious.
We start the film, which all the local teens have turned out to neck to. (Grizzly Safari Wholesome Movie. Hot.) and it's totally all black-and-white nature documentary footage, which is clearly what the people want because this theatre is PACKED. There was a moment where the audience started heckling and booing the screen because of something that had gone awry in the booth, and I was totally hoping Raymond had accidentally played some of the previous owner's pornography, because I would have found that hilarious; sadly, he was just being inept again and had forgotten to turn the sound on, which he rectified. And man, am I ever glad THAT got fixed. The voice-over for this thing is pure, straight, unadulterated hilarity. Several incredibly subtle shots of people eating popcorn and hot dogs, water buffalo chewing their cud, and predators chasing herbivores around are backed up by equally subtle narration about "the ever-increasing need for food" in nature, and the prevalence at the top of the food chain of "the meateaters". We have achieved Title of the Film! Huzzah! Now for some more Very Subtle Shots of People Chewing!
But the narration gets so much better, folks. Some of you may have been wondering what grizzly bears, native to North America, have to do with safaris, which are generally conducted in Africa. This entire movie appears to have been filmed by someone with an absolutely stunning mis-grasp of biology and nature, because that is only the tip of the iceberg:
"The slimy crocodile nets an unsuspecting baby seal..."
Is it an ARCTIC crocodile? How does that work with the whole being cold-blooded thing?
"Two leopards take down a struggling gazelle..."
Except that I'm a zoology dunce and even I can tell you that those are obviously cheetahs, bro.
"A gorilla and a wildebeest, locked in a fiery, passionate embrace of annihilation..."
Dude, HOT. And won't my professors be interested to know that the rare African Veldt Gorilla That Never Was is still alive and well, slimming down the wildebeest population instead of eating fruits like the rest of the great apes?
In case anyone is unclear on the point of all these scenes involving predators (or whatever) eating other animals: MEAT MEAT MEAT MEAT MEAT. The audience doesn't help matters much, going absolutely hog-wild at some of the most bizarre places I've ever seen (an iguana? That's so awesome! Look at everyone in the theatre burst into maniacal laughter! Man, reptiles sure are crowd-pleasers!) and generally staring in rapt attention at the hypnotically grainy film, unless they're all the horny teens making out to the stimulating sights of Gorillas Gone Wild: Wildebeest Nights.
Alas, all good (and bad) things must come to an end, and the film is abruptly interrupted when the Phantom manages to sneakily mess with the wiring on the projector and cause Raymond to electrocute himself to death when he reaches out to flip it (ten points to anyone who forecasted his death! ...so ten points for everyone, then!). I had a very in-depth conversation with John about the electricity in this theatre here, specifically as to whether there would be enough current running through the projector to fry this kid the way Savage shows here; unfortunately, since neither of us knows enough about projecting to know exactly how much power it takes to run that bad boy, we were unable to come up with a solution. Still, if it is realistic, then projectors need way more power to operate than I would have guessed. Being the comparisonist that I am, I had to wonder if the delightful 1988 Friedman/Rydall tour-de-force Phantom of the Mall borrowed from this scene when they electrocuted the security guard to death. If the dead guy in the projector booth wasn't enough, the audience has certainly had it when the film stops and the backlit empty screen reveals that someone has been hanged behind it (Buquet? Is that you?). There is a stampede for the doors, and the town sheriff is called in to handle the mess.
If anyone was still harboring delusions that someone in this film might be competent, the sheriff's name is Wombat and he is a crude oaf with an addiction to jerky (MEAT!), which he munches on constantly, even when viewing corpses. Mitford declares histrionically that he didn't even know there was anything back behind the screen, which both backs up my theory about a couple of days not being enough time to open a derelict theater and which tells anyone paying attention that Mitford is not fit to run a business of any kind (you bought a building which you're leasing for time periods to the public, but you didn't even INVESTIGATE it thoroughly, much less CLEAN it?). Wombat brings with him officer Mulligan (and don't we all need a mulligan after deciding to watch this movie?), who, hilariously, looks much more like a gangster in his white double-breasted suit and fashionable hat than he does a grunt cop. I like to think that Mulligan is in the witness protection program, and no one has caught on just yet. In fact, if there's a movie somewhere about Mulligan and the tribulations of hiding out in a small town with these kinds of unreasonable problems, I would totally watch it.
At any rate, they head back behind the screen after comically breaking the door down and discover a dessicated skeletal man, presumably the previous owner of the Crest who disappeared five years ago. I've investigated, and it is a pretty good bet that even if the dude's head didn't actually come off at the time of the hanging (this does happen sometimes, especially if the hanged person falls too far and there is too much pressure on the neck), the whole body certainly wouldn't still be hanging there now. It's been five years! Does this corpse have magical, never-rotting ligaments or something? And in the same vein, Wombat, put your goddamn handkerchief away and stop telling everyone that you don't know how they didn't smell it. It's been FIVE YEARS and he is fully MUMMIFIED. Your nose is not awesome enough to smell rot that isn't there.
Then we go to the next morning, where I discover that the horror that is this film can indeed get worse when I am confronted with Spitzer's hairy chest and pimp chain as he eats breakfast in an open robe. Oh, god. I want to say snarky things about the pimp chain, but I can't because all the hair is causing me actual difficulty in the arena of coherent speech. There is more scintillating dialogue, in which Jan wants to go home and Mitford tells her to stop being such an unsupportive meanie because this is his dream, dammit, and he's going to run the theater even if people DO die in it, gawd. He finally agrees to go talk to the sheriff about it to shut her up, and I can only hope that he takes his pimp chain to the station with him.
Now we embark on a spellbindingly boring interlude in which Jan does dishes. A lot of dishes. And putters around the kitchen. The "oh noes, fear the unknown!" music is playing in the background, but after about ten minutes of this I don't even care what's going to happen to her anymore, and it turns out that I'm right to be blase since all that happens is that the creepy old guy she talked to earlier turns up watching her through the kitchen window and then flees when she catches him. Much to my delight, she decides to chase him through the woods instead of calling the police, and then determines that the best choice is to break into his house, because OBVIOUSLY. He's not there (apparently, still hiding in the woods? Or something? While she breaks into his house?), but he does have a photo or two of Jean Harlow and many, many photos of the handsome young gent in the tuxedo, who appears to be a stage magician of some kind. Aha! A clue, Sherlock!
After peering into his windows some more like a nosy ex, Jan manages to corner the old gent in the projection booth at the Crest, which is conveniently located across the street, but the proximity of which still doesn't stop her from wandering around for a full fifteen minutes while the bargain basement horror score desperately attempts to impart some interest to the proceedings. Like any rational woman might, she decides to stand up there where someone recently died and threaten her crazy stalker, because this method is bound to produce results everyone can be satisfied with.
It turns out that, just as I predicted about ten thousand years ago, this guy is the Phantom's brother, an idea that seems to have been borrowed directly from the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film The Phantom of Hollywood, which is about the last film I would have expected to have a profound influence on any other. We have to endure some more poorly-executed stuttering, but basically the Phantom is this guy's twin brother, Ben, who was tragically burnt to death in a fire when all the nitrate film in the Crest caused it to spontaneously burst into flame several years ago (don't ask for more explanation than that, because there isn't any). Despite the obvious trauma and fear the guy is displaying, she decides to ignore him (AGAIN) and wander around the theater a little bit more, which leads to her discovering the Shrine to Harlow where Ben presumably lives.
It's full of pictures of Jean Harlow, and we in the audience begin to sense a theme, perhaps. Maybe, just maybe, he enjoys Jean Harlow. Perhaps there is the tiniest touch of obsession going on here. Hey, obsession - it's a Phantom trait! Hallelujah! Blah blah blah more obvious comments on devouring one another to survive (MEAT!), oh my god some pigeons fly through, batten down the hatches, and the music does nothing to make this any more interesting despite its constant drone. In case she hasn't sealed her fate yet, Jan takes some of the pictures of Jean Harlow down and leaves them in different places around the room, because she's always dreamed of the chance to disturb a dangerous stalker's hideout and make sure he knew that she had been there so that she could be conveniently offed in a timely manner. Maybe it's her only escape from marriage to Mitford.
And now we're watching a game of Pong. No, really. It's just a Pong screen. Why are we watching a game of Pong? Granted, it does have somewhat more unpredictability and verve than most of the film's plot. The game is interrupted, mercifully, when Jan returns to tell her husband all about her harrowing afternoon, only to be broadsided by his cheerful assertion that they're re-opening the theater tomorrow (snort. Good luck, and I hope you bus in some movie-goers). There is an awesome fight, in which Mitford is confused as to his wife's vehement opposition to this plan. Reduction follows:
"The theater's going to be open again! I thought you'd be happy."
"Why would I be happy? I don't want it to open. I never wanted to come here. I'VE BEEN SAYING THAT THE ENTIRE MOVIE."
"You're just being unreasonable! Why do you STOMP ON MY DREAMS, YOU HIDEOUSLY UNGRATEFUL WENCH?"
"I HATE YOUR THEATER AND YOUR STUPID FACE."
"You know how much the theatre means to me (more than you do, obviously)! MAKE ME A ROAST, WOMAN!"
And then off she goes to make a roast (MEAT!) and contemplate how they're all going to die, thus neatly demonstrating the continuing need for social reform of womens' roles. This family dinner is not yet awesome enough, so our friend Sheriff Wombat shows up, still chewing on his beef jerky (MEAT!) while Jan carves away at a large roast which gets its very own prolonged closeup (MEEEEAT!). I didn't care about most of this scene, because I was too busy being tickled; Mitford's daughter, Jeannie, opens the door for Wombat and she's wearing a Phantom of the Paradise t-shirt. Glee! Hello, homage! We've got two confirmed contemporary sources for this film now: the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film and now the 1974 de Palma/Finley outing. Alas that this film wasn't a parody like de Palma's.
Wombat manages to make things even more excruciating, though, again, the intended comedy is completely absent because of the total inability of the actors and director to grasp comedic timing or variation in the tones of their voices. Wombat's mad sexual innuendo, from telling Mitford that his wife made him shave his moustache because it "tickled" her (please, god, never do I ever need to know anything about Wombat's sex life, love, Anne) to his suggestion that seeing someone die is like losing your cherry, he never stops causing the audience intensely unfunny pain. More sausage sticks (MEAT!) and slices of roast (MEAT!) abound. When asked about the creepy old man and his dead brother Ben, Wombat just shrugs and says there are plenty of nutty old hobos like that guy (really? Your tiny town is just full of presumed-dead murderers?) and that there's nothing to fear from Ben, since he was burnt until there was "nothing but charred meat" left. (OMG MEAT!) He also treats us to a charming discussion of his family life before he leaves (Mitford: "You have kids?" Wombat: "Yeah, nine of em. I was pumping one a year into her for a while, but after that she kinda dried up, know what I mean?" Anne: Appalled silence.) So Wombat leaves, Mitford tells Jan that, see, your fears were unfounded and stupid, and all I'm left pondering is why she doesn't stab her husband with that hella big butcher knife she's STILL using on the roast (MEAT!).
The Websters, incidentally, have a cat. I feel sorry for it. It's notable because the Phantom's brother has like seventeen other cats in his house, I suppose to enhance the idea of him being insane. Or else Savage really likes cats (but if he really liked cats, he would have left them out of this monstrosity of a movie).
Then we get a switch back to the theater at night, in an attempt to heighten the tension, and see that the projector is flickering and someone is once again watching Jean Harlow's Platinum Bombshell. There is recycled footage like whoa, which appears in other parts of the film but is most noticeable here. I had to pause for a moment to ponder: if the old Phantom's been up there watching this movie every night for the last five years, how has no one in the town noticed the clearly visible-from-the-street projector flickering in that time? Or, perhaps an even better question, in the five years before the Websters bought the place, where the hell was he getting the electricity to even run the damn thing? Maybe he has a private generator squirreled away, covered in smoking Jean Harlow pictures, which would at least answer some of my questions about the electrocution death of young Raymond.
Then comes another intensely painful conversation over breakfast; as though hearing my distressed pleas when first confronted with Mitford's unnecessary chest hair, this time he's wearing the robe EVEN MORE OPEN. The pimp chain is still representing, and this scene seems to have no purpose except to cause me mental anguish and to enable Mitford to reach a level of total parenting failure when he says patronizingly to his wife of his daughter, "Oh, let her go. Does it really matter if she gets enough vegetables and lean, red meat?" (MEAT!) Just run, Jan! No judge is going to give your kids to a schmuck with a pimp chain!
So now it's time for Opening Night at the Crest, Round Two. We are thoroughly introduced to a nerdy little kid with massive glasses, huge red hair, and braces, all of which informs us that he has about a 99.99999% of being the next person to die. He resembles the unholy spawn of Napoleon Dynamite and Carrot Top. After a detour to eat some frankfurters (MEAT!), he hatches a fiendish plan to let his friends in to see the movie for free (Grizzly Safari Wholesome Movie - an instant hit with kids of all ages!) via the back door, despite the fact that the theater's been closed forever and I have no idea how Punk Kid #1 knows its ins and outs. Meanwhile, Jan is trapped at the concession stand with a woman who is supposed to be funny in her gossipy stereotype but whose delivery is so deadeningly awful that there was no enjoyment to be had in life while she was talking, and there are more hot dogs (MEAT!).
And now, for those who missed it the first time, may we present a triumphant reprise of Grizzly Safari Wholesome Movie? It's back, just as delicious as ever, and no one felt the need to show any different parts of the film, so much of the voiceover is that same narration about carnivores and the laws of the wild (MEAT!). Additionally scintillating moments:
From the narrator, spoken to the predators onscreen: "Hey, kid, time to strap on the feedbag and chow down!" (THE SUBTLETY, IT HAS BLINDED ME.)
And the most awesome moment of this film, when we are treated to footage of rhinos mating. Goddammit, Mitford, what did we say about NOTIONS? The audience finds this SO HYSTERICAL that they are almost literally rolling in the aisles. Rhinos humping! Everyone laugh until your sides ache, and eat some more (totally not symbolic) hot dogs (MEAT!)!
While all this is going on, the Phantom strangles the obnoxious kid behind the screen, which is merciful in that it does not require us to watch him anymore. Also during this, Jeannie throws a fit at the concession stand because she wants to go on a date with the captain of the baseball team instead of selling concessions, and is needlessly cruel to a fat old lady and her mother (who asked her to find cups, OH MY GOD THE ANGST). She takes off, and is predictably ambushed and abducted by the Phantom, which doesn't achieve the intended level of panic and sympathy since I really don't care about anything anymore except the bright hope that the movie will end soon.
I am, unfortunately, totally unconvinced by Savage's direction, which tries clumsily to reassure the audience that there is no rapine afoot. Joboulian obviously did not get the memo. The way he's constantly touching her, obviously shaking with anticipation and glee, says that your white-bread interpretation is a total lie. In a shocking twist, it turns out that the Phantom thinks that Jeannie is Jean Harlow, since she bears her a passing resemblance and is also named Jean (I know! I never saw it coming!), and has kidnapped her so they can live happily ever after in grotty movie theater bliss, or something. He's obviously delusional, and I wrote a few notes about how the idea of a Phantom who is literally unable to see reality and reacts to things only in that he can relate them to his delusion is really nice and apropos and totally, utterly lost in the morass of this film.
Back at the concession stand, Jan tells her son that of course he can have a hot dog (MEAT!), since they're delicious and full of vitamins and minerals. Hot damn, I am on a hot dog diet from here on out! Who knew they were so healthy?
We spend a little time with the Phantom, and this is where Savage really tries to tie his bizarre clusterfuck to the original Phantom story. He makes Jeannie watch Platinum Bombshell with him when she wakes up, telling her all the while how beautiful she is, and begs her to "Sing for me, you have such a beautiful voice," about halfway through, thus bringing in the musical element of the original story (and, unfortunately, leaving it to die a tragic, neglected death on the cinema floor). He also informs her that "It's beautiful here, you'll see. You'll like it here. When it gets dark, it's so peaceful and quiet," bringing to mind Erik's insistence that Christine would grow to love the underground of the opera house (and him). Savage also takes a stab at the deformity idea, having Ben (yes, of course it's Ben) cry over his face (unlike most Phantoms, this one doesn't use a mask at any point) and beg Jeannie to understand that "It's not what's on the outside that counts."
Unfortunately, that's the very best this film has to offer in terms of faithfulness to the source material. I will say that I prefer Joboulian as Ben than in his overly hammy role of the brother, as he seems to demonstrate a broader range of acting talent there, but the Phantom is overall pretty much a complete loss in terms of characterization and usage. His "deformity" doesn't help; as in most film versions, it's not a birth defect but the result of an accident, in this case a fire, and the fire itself didn't have anything symbolic to say. Unfortunately, his makeup job is absolutely abysmal and doesn't resemble a burn victim so much as it resembles an old guy with running sores who really needs to take a bath. No makeup job on a Phantom should make me think of sexually-transmitted diseases, unless the director is intentionally taking that direction as an explanation for the deformity.
Meanwhile, Jeannie's family haven't yet noticed that she's missing (or maybe they just hate her as much as I hate all of them), and are cheerfully driving down the street singing a lusty rendition of "I Wish I Was An Oscar Meyer Weiner" (MEAT!). No, I am not even kidding. They go through it twice. The audience weeps in torment. They're intercepted by Jeannie's date, who's peeved at being stood up and immediately pledges to go looking for her (Raoul, is that you? ...not really), which makes Mitford stand up because she's HIS daughter, thank you very much, and HE'LL look for her (and also he has a pimp chain, man!), which makes his son stand up because she's HIS sister, dammit, and everyone presumably compares penis sizes all the way around the town's perimeter. Jan goes home to call the police, because apparently all the sense in the entire town is located in her only occasionally-reliable brain.
This leads us to the best thing EVER. Jan calls the police, but just as they answer she looks out the window and sees the projector flickering and she realizes what's happened through a sudden thunderbolt of intuition. And THEN, my friends, she HANGS UP ON THE POLICE without saying anything, because that would slow her down too much (though she still has time to write a note to Mitford and leave it beside the phone), and sprints off to the theatre ALONE, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, WITH NO BACKUP, to rescue her daughter. Prizes for the absolute worst idea in the history of the world may be directed to her agent. She also appears to have brilliantly not brought her keys to the theater she OWNS with her, so she has to break the glass doors at the front to get in.
The Phantom, who is begging Jeannie to kiss him (again, so close to Leroux... but not really. It makes me sad), falls victim to the absolute worst staged bite (by the way, MEAT!) I have ever seen in film, when Jeannie bites his hand to make her escape. It defies my powers of description with its badness; you can only see it for yourself, but that would also necessitate sitting through the rest of the movie. Jan grabs her and they start to flee toward the front doors, but Ben's hapless old creeper brother wanders in, so in a stunning display of logic they TURN AROUND and dash back to get lost in the back of the theater. Apparently they can't tell Ben and his brother apart, which... well, okay, the makeup's pretty bad on Ben and he doesn't really look that bad, but come on, he's not a teleporter. A very long chase ensues, in which Burn Victim Ben is astonishingly spry and acrobatic for an old, injured guy who lives on rats and mildew, and his brother stutters a lot while Jeannie screams endlessly until I want to drive a screwdriver into my brain.
Somehow, Ben's brother manages to corner him on the roof, and they have a mini-confrontation (Brother: Ben! Ben: Glare. Brother: No more! Ben: Jeannie!). Jan and Jeannie take this opportunity to escape, and upon seeing this there is an incredibly blurred action sequence which results in one of the brothers falling off the roof to his death. I rewound and watched the damn thing four times, but I was able to achieve no further clarity. Did he fall? Did he jump? Did his brother push him? And, most annoying of all, which one was it, Ben or his brother? You literally can't tell, as the shot is only a second long and the resulting corpse on the floor is beyond recognition. Jeannie, who is obviously not handling any of this well, sticks her hands in the blood and brains on the floor and then goes into hysterics when she realizes she has blood and brains on her. Brilliant.
And then the film is over, and Mitford is selling the theater with a sad face (despite the fact that, theoretically, isn't the time AFTER the danger has been removed the best time to run it?), and someone, we see from the shots of the flickering in the window again, is still watching Platinum Bombshell in the Crest at night. We're meant to ponder whether this is Ben surviving or his brother now taking up his theater-squatter mantle, but all I was able to muster was a rousing round of not caring.
So, and I ask because I really want to know: what the hell is up with all this MEAT everywhere? Yeah, I got that the narration in the nature film was meant to set it all up as some kind of comment on how everyone devours one another to live, but you know what? This isn't Hannibal fucking Lecter. There's NO evidence of any kind of cannibalism, and the idea of people eating one another has NOTHING TO DO with the constant hot dog love. I don't understand. I don't understannnnnd. After some internet research, I've seen a few apocryphal articles claiming that the film was largely financed by a meat products company that wanted to use it as a propaganda piece, but I can't tell if that's true or just a desperate grasp at forcing it to make some sense.
Also, you remember that magician, the one that Ben had a picture of and that his brother had posters of all over the house? You do? So do I. The problem is that Savage doesn't, because who the fuck is that guy and why do we see so many shots of him if he isn't fucking relevant to the slightest degree? If that's meant to be a red herring, it's the most incredibly heavy-handed one I've ever seen. It doesn't cleverly misdirect; it just makes me angry.
My only spot of sunshine in the film came in the form of John; despite not really watching it with me, since he was busy with Warcraft, he nevertheless frowned at the screen in intense concentration for a minute and, when I said something disparaging about not understanding what the point of the brother doing any of this was, he said with great accomplished pride, "He's the Persian!" And you know what, he kind of IS, with his role as the only person connected via his past to the Phantom, and his attempts to warn Jan and her family and prevent Ben from wreaking any further mayhem. Ten million points to John, who thinks I'm a silly nerd but apparently still reads my pages of shouty analysis anyway.