The Phantom Lover (1997)
directed by Bosley de Longprez
starring Kyle Stone, Kristi Myst, and Kimberly Jade
I can't decide between laughing hysterically and staring with blank indignance. There is almost too much. I'm not sure where to begin (though the director's name is a good place - usually fake porn names are a little more subtle). I try to be kind of grade-lenient with the erotic films, because their primary purpose is to be sexually intriguing, not to create High Art (in my fantasy world, they could do both, but so far no production companies have asked my opinion, which is obviously a damn shame, really). However, this stellar example of hideous acting, tissue-thin plot, and extremely unappealing sex (in fact, downright boring at times) made the entire enterprise a resounding failure. Come on, adult film industry! It IS possible to make a film that is both crammed full of stimulating sex and yet also inoffensive to the eye, ear, and/or brain!
Okay, so, it's a well-known axiom that most acting in pornographic films is terrible. I know this. I have seen some that were no particular prize; the review I wrote of Phantom of the Cabaret not too long ago involved several examples of acting that was never going to top the level of expertise demonstrated by a very disinterested high school drama class. But - and this is key - that movie did at least make it to drama-class level. It was not impressive, but it was survivable. This was not the case in Longprez's film.
I do not actually have words to describe how bad the acting is. I would say everyone sounds like they're reading off a prompter, but I have seen plenty of examples of people who could do that and still sound credible. I would say they looked like life-sized dolls, but dolls can be painted with facial expressions. I seriously cannot describe to you how incredibly unconvincing every line of dialogue and every bland shot of people standing around doing nothing was. Every director I've ever worked with would have gone out back and made passionate love to an entire bottle of Valium and a fifth of whiskey.
What's going on here is that there is a director, who is totally not named because he is not important enough to be mentioned beyond being Penis #2, who is trying to direct two extremely unreal-looking people in a play (not a pornographic play. A regular play. Or so they claim). It's all very Stephen-King-self-referential. One of them, a cranky blonde, is named Carlott, so there's our first tie-in to the story! I had difficulty feeling the intended antipathy toward her, because the director was so much of an asshat to her that it canceled out her assitude. Anyway, in usual Phantom-story form, a backdrop falls (from... somewhere? I don't know. We never see it and all we hear is some kind of thump, which is apparently EPICALLY DISCONCERTING for the folks onstage because everyone panics) and a blonde Russian chick (perhaps capitalizing on the stereotype of the Russian ballerina?) declares that it's the Phantom of the Playhouse! Much extremely blase consternation ensues. Then, the following example of stunningly original dialogue:
Director: "These things just happen."
Carlotta: "Well, until it stops happening, this play does not happen!"
...seriously? Yes, seriously! Welcome, my friends, to The Pornographic Film That Shamelessly Rips Off Entire Lines From Andrew Lloyd Webber's Musical. I actually thought this was pretty adorable until, with sinking heart, I realized that it was going to be an ongoing thing. In case anyone is wondering, Lloyd Webber's musical is the only identifiable source for this trainwreck (I take that description back; trainwrecks are at least spectacular, while this is about as spectacular as dried toothpaste stains in a bathroom sink).
Blonde Russian Chick, who I assumed by default must be Madame (or Meg) Giry's stand-in, informs the director that Chris (aha! A clever renaming! Well done, Longprez!) can take over Carlotta's part. Blah blah blah, rehash rehash rehash, and everything is pretty much identical to the Lloyd Webber musical (though the script features amusing cuts here and there to simulate originality). Then, it's a cut off to Chris in her dressing room, who is practicing her lines completely naked and, to be quite frank, making them suck more than a gravity-powered Hoover. She seems to be aware of this, because she chucks the script and starts practicing her director-seducing skills instead, figuring this is a better way to make sure that she gets a role (I'm inclined to agree, based on her hideous line-reading). There is much breast-pawing and simpering into her mirror, which one assumes she imagines is sultry, though it is in fact terribly depressing. (Also, thanks a lot for reinforcing that women-only-get-place-because-they-offer-sex trope, director. I mean, I don't know what I was expecting.)
Of course, the Phantom is presumably behind said mirror, getting all hot and bothered, and when she turns away he pops out and says several more immortal, totally-not-ripped-off-from-a-stage-show lines while he gropes her, including "Let my darkness caress you," and the especially mirth-inducing "Let me be your director." I wrote a lot of erroneous notes here, out of confusion: you see, the Phantom not only kind of resembles the director and has absolutely nothing in the way of introduction or explanation, but also is both 1) not wearing a mask, despite the presence of a mask on the cover of the DVD, and 2) not disfigured even the slightest, tiniest little bit. Also I'm face-blind, so you can understand my confusion. It was only after intense study of truly terrible dialogue later in the film that I was able to suss out the identity of this mystery man.
Then there is sex (it may please you to know that this is the most believably motivated sex in the entire film). Despite what appears to be inescapable boredom on Chris's face, it goes on for quite a while. While I initially made some notes about how the presence of cunnilingus and extensive foreplay on the Phantom's part betrayed a certain dynamic of equality - that is, the sex was at least equally about pleasing Chris, rather than being centered only on the Phantom's needs, which could have been clues to this particular version's view of the relationship between the two characters - I quickly lost the stamina to continue to try to analyze things because the pace of the sexual encounter was MIND-NUMBING. It's not often in the adult film industry that I feel the "less is more" platitude is appropriate, but it definitely is here. All the things they were doing were pretty standard adult-film fare, but they did all of them for about thirty seconds to five MINUTES too long. This could possibly have been mitigated by cinematography, but their camera crew apparently all went out to get tacos every time there was a sex scene, because many shots were just prolonged beyond all reasonable sense, until I was just shouting, "Okay, I've SEEN THAT now, your audience might like to see it from AT LEAST ANOTHER ANGLE, FOR GOD'S SAKE." Never have I seen a film, even an adult film, with such a profoundly miserable lack of ability to make what was going on seem interesting.
After about twelve centuries, give or take a decade, the sex scene finally ends and we go back to the director and his whining about how Carlotta's being a diva pain in the butt. Madame Giry stand-in cheerfully tells him the tale of the Phantom's origin, which is where this carefully crafted and well thought-out film begins to diverge from Lloyd Webber's model just a bit, and I am SO GLAD to hear this new backstory, because seriously, it is hilarious in a way that can only be registered on the Richter scale. According to this version, the Phantom is the previous director-in-residence at this playhouse, and he is named Cecil (every time someone comes up with a new name for the Phantom aside from "Erik" or "The Phantom", it's always pure hilarity, isn't it?).
Cecil has a bad habit of always boinking his leading ladies, and when his fiancee (the previous leading lady) catches him at it with her successor, she curses him with a mighty curse (apparently she is also a master sorceress). This curse states that he will be forever so obsessed with sex that he will never direct again since he'll have to spend all his energy on fornication. And if you're not entertained enough yet, AFTER cursing him with satyriasis, said fantastically attractive witch goes ahead and kicks off her new campaign of hating her former fiance by having a threesome with him and the girl he was cheating on her with. As I mentioned, this backstory is epic.
Of course, that bit is kind of totally ludicrous (while I do indeed know some people who might go in for a threesome under the right circumstances, I do not know any who would do so when they were also angry enough to curse their significant other with a mighty curse), but it's sort of hard to mock it since we're in an adult film format here. After all, I understand that it's a fairly common male fantasy: man has hot girlfriend, wants a change of scenery, cheats on hot girlfriend with other hot girl, hot girlfriend interrupts but in a twist decides to join in the fun, man feels both incredibly lucky and madly virile. I wouldn't object if this were done in a more... surreal kind of a way, maybe? Of course, it was done here with all the subtlety of a board with a nail in it. It's definitely the most ridiculously thin premise for a sex scene that I have ever heard of, even in adult film (seriously? A forty-five minute long sex scene in a FLASHBACK that is ostensibly supposed to be moving the plot along?). And of course, the sex scene itself suffers from the same utter inability to successfully shoot sex in an interesting or stimulating manner. My notes say a lot of things like, "Seriously. What did I say about variety in your shots? CHANGE THE CAMERA ANGLE. CHANGE THE BODY ANGLE. CHANGE THE MUSIC. CHANGE ANYTHING, JUST DO SOMETHING."
Then I got to spend some time watching the script gleefully scalp Lloyd Webber's lines from the "Notes" scene and run around giggling with its grisly trophy. "I am anxious to see Miss Kristi's career in progress. Therefore in the new production, Carlotta will be a bit player and Miss Kristy will be in the role of the lead." I told you; there is no shame involved here. He signs his notes "P.L." (Phantom Lover) instead of the original "O.G." I'm very entertained by this.
(And yes, if you noticed the discrepancy, he totally did say "Miss Kristi", which is the actress's name, rather than "Chris", which is supposedly the character's name. Way to keep things in continuity, guys.)
Here's a digressionary question: at what point did the word "phantom" cease to have its own meaning and become simply a word for "dude in a mask/dude who stalks girls at this one place"? The word "phantom" literally means an apparition, spectre, or illusion, and the original French word, fantôme, is much closer in meaning to "ghost" than to anything even remotely physically concrete. So why do so many later versions of the story insist on calling their main characters "phantoms" when there is not even the tiniest shred of confusion as to their status as mortal men? Leroux's Erik was a conundrum, the superstition surrounding him real if somewhat blown out of proportion; these people seem to just use the word at random, as if it were invented by Lloyd Webber for his musical and pertains to all masked stalkers. A creature that appears to be death itself, does things that appear to be magical or supernatural in nature, and haunts a place in such a way as to cast doubt on whether or not he even exists... that guy, you can call a Phantom. A sex-obsessed dude who lurks in your theatre and molests your stars... not so much. That would be just a guy, and probably one you should call the police concerning.
But, anyway, back to the story... such as it is. We're into sex scene number three now, wherein Carlotta uses her feminine attractions to convince the director not to give her part to Chris. Aside from the continuing awfulness of the sex scenes (seriously, just... just move the camera on the tripod or something. Anything.), this is not notable at all. More of the same. Ho-hum.
Anyway, after this, Carlotta goes off to confront Chris (as happens occasionally in Phantom story interpretations) and there is a bit of a tiff. At least, the dialogue suggests a tiff, but the girls sitting woodenly next to each other on a couch doesn't support that conclusion. For those wondering, Chris's hair is dark and Carlotta's is blonde, another clue that suggests the pervasive influence of Lloyd Webber's musical and its brunette star, Sarah Brightman. Interestingly enough, Carlotta claims to know what Chris is up to because she got her own first break at the behest of the Phantom; while the whole sex director idea is still too funny to me, it's nevertheless an interesting theory that I was wondering if anyone would come up with as I went through these various interpretations. Considering the original Phantom's grip on the opera house and its inner workings, Carlotta would have needed at least his tacit approval or tolerance to remain a featured singer there for so long. Combined with a few of those side details from the original novel that are often forgotten - the ladies' fan, the footstool request - it wouldn't be a stretch to think that perhaps Carlotta could even have been a previous pupil or companion for Erik, though her extreme fear of him later seems to suggest that she believes him to be a supernatural agency. A "mystery woman" wouldn't necessarily have to be Carlotta, but it would certainly be an interesting angle to explore.
Alas, the only exploration here is of various (clumsily presented, I might add) erogenous zones. In another clearly carefully-plotted-out move, Carlotta and Christine decide they have to have sex now to find out which of them is better (since the Phantom apparently told both of them that they were the best he'd ever had). There is not even a smidgen of logic attached to this plot choice (is the Phantom hiding behind a curtain? Is he going to leap out and JUDGE this little shindig?), but this is an adult film, so it is likely that nobody cares because there's finally some girl-on-girl action. Sigh. I noted that the female-female scene was much more intimate and had many fewer hallmarks of a power struggle, possibly as a function of pornography designed for men usually viewing the female as the submissive half of a sexual encounter. However, past that point, the only thing I could focus on was the fact that they both had extremely long, manicured nails, and dude. Ouch. No. I also wondered why Carlotta seems to insist on wearing what look like orthopedic sandals all the time, even during her sex scenes. Last time I checked, granny-style arch support was comfy but definitely not sexy.
After an interminable eternity of even MORE poorly-shot sexcapades, we go back to the director, who is standing around with Russian-Giry and the large, beefy guy who has so far had no lines, having a fit because neither Carlotta nor Chris has shown up to rehearsal yet. Russian-Giry, who, in a shocking turn of events, is finally named and turns out to be Meg (oops, my bad on that assumption... of course, since the roles were fused and nobody told me the character's name, it's not like I was leaping to conclusions with reckless abandon or anything), informs him smirkingly that Chris and Carlotta are "busy", and that this is the Phantom's fault. Meg's belief that the Phantom's powers include forcing everyone in the playhouse to have sex all the time is never explained (perhaps he's an incubus now?), but the large, beefy gentleman agrees with her, and it turns out that his name is Ralph - which is, of course, the English form of Raoul. Well, at least he got included in this version, right? But before we can get to any part of the plot that might involve him, say, meeting Christine, we have to get through another sex scene, this time without even the tiniest shred of reason for it taking place (unless it's through incubus-intervention, which frankly should be a lot sexier in presentation if that is, indeed, what is going on).
It is not any better shot or more entertainingly presented than the first three scenes, so it goes on for a while... and then another while... and then a while longer. At least nobody can say that they didn't get enough sexy bang for their buck in this one, right? Except that, when the sex scene ends, it is... wait for it... THE END OF THE FILM.
My outraged confusion was extremely great. John, who had been plugging away at his computer game and trying to ignore my sniggering and note-taking behind him, emerged to explain to me that this is not entirely uncommon in the adult film industry: that is, the film is in production, things are going along swimmingly, and then they lose funding or run out of money and abruptly end the movie, but still package it and sell it, because why not? It's not like anyone's watching it for the story, right? They're watching it for the sex, and we already got four (bad) sex scenes in there! Obviously, it would be futile to go on a tirade concerning stories vs. commercialism here, but suffice it to say that I Did Not Approve.
So a great number of things - such as the back of the DVD text, which claims that there is a sexy secret revolving around a mask despite the fact that there is no mask in the actual film, or the guy in the mask on the front cover, or any of the plot that was abruptly terminated (probably good that it was put out of its misery, but still, it might have wanted to live!) - pertain to a film that does not actually exist. So if anyone out there is looking at this one and thinking, "At last! Adult entertainment that incorporates my love of the Phantom story!", I have terrible news for you. It will make you a very sad panda. This really exists for purposes of morbid curiosity, and nothing else.
By the way, I find it almost hysterically funny that Kristi Myst, the actress playing Chris and billed "star" of the film, is not actually the lady on the cover; that's Kimberly Jade, the woman who played Carlotta. Since she was in more of the "important" scenes than Myst was, apparently that's only fair. Heh. This might be the only Phantom interpretation I've seen to date in which Carlotta got billed over Christine.
Bottom line: this is awful in every dimension of awful. It didn't even manage a decent titillation factor, and for that, it goes in the F bin.