The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)

     directed by Gene Levitt

          starring Jack Cassidy, Skye Aubrey and Peter Haskall

Brace yourselves for a trainwreck of nostalgia. Seriously.  It is literally like a train named Nostalgia went off the rails and mowed down some spectators.

 

This film is trying to do something very specific, which does not include anything particularly reminiscent of anything that Leroux was trying to do in his novel. The resulting conflict of interests was apparently so distracting that the filmmakers forgot many of the laws of physics and also most of the laws of suspension of disbelief.

 

We start with a film crew in a helicopter, filming the back lots of a Hollywood studio (nicknamed "Worldwide Studios", but pretty much a dead ringer for MGM) in preparation for its impending auction, along with a voiceover explaining the whole deal with Hollywood back lots. I learned things about classic filmmaking here: many older movies, from the twenties to the fifties especially, were filmed on elaborate sets that were created and maintained in the back lots of the studio. As time went by and films became more sophisticated, however, the convention of the back lot set fell into disuse as filmmakers began to favor filming on location (if you want a pertinent example, the 1962 film was filmed on a set; the 1983 was filmed on location. The difference is apparent). The shots here are powerfully nostalgic, even to a film dunce like me, and that's where most of the strength of this movie lies; juxtaposing scenes from classic films with shots of the now deserted, dilapidated sets they were filmed on has a poignantly wistful effect. It's obvious that Levitt has a love for days gone by and for the classics of his industry, and his passionately nostalgic vision is what saves this movie from the depths of F territory.

 

My notes say nice complimentary things like "gorgeously ghostly" and "powerfully sympathetic", until we are abruptly thrust into the plot that exists solely to further Levitt's point about Hollywood's golden days and which has so few redeeming traits it's a wonder I didn't give up on watching the film altogether. My notes here change to less complimentary things, like "god, the dialogue is sooooo bad" and "if this is supposed to be a parody, please try harder". Two teenagers (presumably they are teenagers, since the inspector will later peg them at 18-20 years of age, but John looked up from his monologue and said, "Those guys are thirty. Seriously. Look at them.") hop the fence into the abandoned Lot 2 of Worldwide Studios, and proceed (after some heart-rendingly bad dialogue) to kick the shit out of everything. I cannot figure out why, so don't bother asking me. Guy A grabs a length of pipe and goes at every window in the place as though they were his mortal enemies, and then the two of them start beating at facades and statues with their sticks in a frenzy of apparent manic hatred. I was bewildered by this, but I was saved from watching more of it by the arrival of our Phantom! Who is... uh.

 

Well, first of all, he's in what appears to be a crusader's costume from a very old movie. The mask part of it is surprisingly creepy; it's flesh-colored fabric with slits for eyes and mouth, and seeing the animation behind those slits gives us a nasty impression that he doesn't have the rest of his face. The rest of the costume, however, fails to inspire fear, since it mostly looks like raggedy window dressing. Upon having been spotted on a balcony by the vandal brigade below, he then turns and, much to my amusement, jogs all the way across the floor and then clatters down the stairs to the ground before scuttling off down an alley, ragged tunic flapping away. The camera is content to sit and watch him do this for about the full minute it takes. Not only was any menace the character had going for him lost, but I desperately wanted there to be calliope music in the background. Goodbye, Erik: the ghostly soul of the opera. Hello, Phantom: clown in a mask.

 

The Phantom's weapon of choice, which he is usually shown stroking and clutching in a rather distressingly phallic manner (it gets lonely out on the lots at night), is an honest-to-god morning star flail. It is apparently not a prop like the rest of his costume, since it appears to be made of real metal instead of plaster, and can be used to kill people just like in the good old days of yore. It is the most versatile morning star you have ever seen in your life.

 

Being as they are not the brightest crayons in the box, one of the kids chases him down the alley ("Hey, a masked weirdo who has caught us trespassing on private property and is luring me down an alley while no one knows I'm even here! Cool!"). This film, which as noted above is all about the nostalgia and not so much about the horror, has a marked aversion to showing violence of any kind, so instead of telling us what happens, the Phantom sort of wanders out of his shot and the camera allows us to stare at a blank wall for a little while, confused. It wasn't until a good few seconds had gone by that I went, "OH, those thunk sounds are supposed to be him killing the guy with the morning star!" Because, frankly, people being killed or menaced usually tend to shout, which I was waiting for, and also the noise had more in common with someone moving their coffee table on the floor above you than with bashing someone's skull in. Not enough splutch, you know? But that's all right. I'm well-known to prefer the least nasty horror film you can throw at me. I forgave the scene for its silliness.

 

Until a second later when the second guy decides to come down the alley in search of his friend. Why didn't he follow his friend the first time, when said friend ran maybe a total of fifty feet? Did he have absolutely no natural curiosity about the lot-squatter-Phantom, or any general concern for his friend? What did he do, stand there and stare at the empty balcony until it was plot-convenient for him to come down the alley, too? Does he totally lack reaction time? For whatever reason, he doesn't come down the alley until the Phantom has already had enough time to finish killing his friend and conveniently move into position to stalk him as well. We get a nice "oh noes, ominous!" shot of the Phantom walking purposefully toward him with his morning star (apparently, he also had enough time to clean it off, since it's sparkly clean and bloodless!) while he stands there at the end, posing like a runway model. And then cut, but we can assume there is more coffee table moving in store for this kid.

 

Now we pop off to the next day so we can meet our Christine and Raoul for this version; their names are Randy and Ray (Randy is the girl. I know, I was confused for a bit, too). Interestingly, unlike most other versions, they are both mature adults; Randy's not old by any stretch of the imagination, but she isn't a delicate twenty-year-old, and Ray's going gray while we watch. I was fired up to examine the reasons behind this, but I gave up later when it became apparent that they had absolutely nothing to do with the plot whatsoever. Seriously. Randy wins the award for Most Redundant Christine Ever; the Phantom doesn't love her, doesn't care about her, doesn't notice any talent in her, and generally ignores her existence completely right up to the climactic kidnapping scene, which also has about nothing to do with her. Ray is similarly castrated of any significance. Somewhere, a writer was faced with the daunting task of meshing Leroux's characters with this other story he wanted to tell, and the resulting mess of unnecessary confusion is this film's screenplay.

 

Ray, who is Worldwide's publicity manager, gets a call about the freshly discovered murders in Lot 2 and heads on down to the scene to plan his damage control, leaving Randy in the shadows of obscurity where she spends 90% of the movie. Here we get to meet the World's Most Incredibly Inept Coroner and his partner, the Worst Detective Alive. They are a comedy duo of epic proportions, and sadly not on purpose. They kick off their act when Ray asks, "Do we know the cause of death?" by replying hilariously, "No, but the coroner says one died of a split skull, the other of a broken neck." Nope, we're still not sure what killed them, but in light of this here split skull and broken neck, I feel like we're on to something.

 

But the fun doesn't stop there. The inspector forced me to pause the tape and howl with mirth with the following reconstruction of events: "See that tower? We can figure that they climbed to the top and the coping gave way." My notes actually say, "Are you fucking serious?" Guys. They were killed with a MORNING STAR. Perhaps the GIANT SPIKE PUNCTURES that are probably in their FACES or at least the back of their HEADS might have clued us in here. I mean... I... seriously, I am lost for words here. Apparently the Phantom has a magical morning star that, like clubbing someone with a bag of oranges, leaves no marks. It has retractable spikes or some shit. Or else, the inspectors have contracted the deadly Inept Police Officer Disease that so often strikes law enforcement in horror films that don't want them to ruin everything by doing their jobs. Either way, something has gone amiss with this film.

 

After my cackling at the fact that no one so much as suspects murder in the case of two kids bludgeoned to death with a medieval weapon finally subsided, we moved on to the next scene. After some more schmaltzy, sympathetic music backing another pan around the abandoned movie lots, we head off to the office of the owner of the studio (incidentally, Randy's father), who is now receiving scraggly flowers from the back lot and threatening notes ("Destroy the back lots and you destroy yourself"). Like every executive in the history of threatening notes in a film, he throws it away and ignores it, but continues to seethe quietly.

 

Every time anyone does anything on Lot 2, we see the Phantom, pretty much. Usually he's just a wee black ant-like figure up on top of a set or a tower or something, staring with grim intent at the dudes down below who are just trying to do their jobs and get on with life. We know it's him because, even when he isn't doing anything and there's no possible way for him to do anything threatening, we always get the slow focus in to let us know we're about to see him, backed by the Minor Scales of Fear. The poor doomed souls are this time two building contractors who have been sent down to plan out which sets to knock down and where to go about setting up for the new buildings that will replace them (Randy's father is selling the back lots to developers, since practically no one uses them to film anymore). For building contractors, they're not very bright; one wanders off to investigate an old film set that he saw in a movie, while another decides that he wants to investigate the inside of an old, falling-down house that may or may not collapse on his head. Is he really foolish enough to poke around inside abandoned, dangerously dilapidated prop houses that probably weren't very solidly built to begin with? Apparently, he is. Unsurprisingly, the workman (ingeniously named Clyde) does not reemerge from the house (which, incidentally, looks like the house used in To Kill a Mockingbird and made me giggle at the image of the Phantom as Boo Radley).

 

The other workman finally gets concerned enough (or bored enough) to search for his missing companion, also climbing up into the upper levels of this house and poking around. In another sniggeringly funny moment, he finds Clyde's helmet on the floor, with three wee flecks of blood upon it and one side apparently broken off. Please, guys, no. When you get hit in the head with a morning star, even while wearing a construction helmet? That thing should be covered in blood (not to mention dented all to hell). It should be everywhere, all over the floor, all over the helmet (which could have bonus pieces of flesh on it, actually), all over the Phantom, all over everywhere. Three tiny flecks of decorous blood do not cut it here. So we can add to the morning star's impressive resume not only retractable, accident-imitating spikes but also a self-cleaning property. Fantabulous!

 

Then the Phantom shows up and (presumably - it's in another cutaway shot) kills the other workman, and I was sort of without sympathy because, man, you are way too poorly characterized to also discover evidence of your partner's violent death and/or injury while a man is approaching you with a spiky medieval weapon and intent to kill and then just stand there and flap your mouth like a stranded fish.  Get out of my movie.  Send someone better.

 

This tendency of Levitt to studiously avoid showing any kind of violence is interesting in light of its place in the film chronology; for example, the 1962 film included a rather gruesome hanging and the Phantom's death via chandelier, and the other 1974 film included quite a lot of burning, stabbing, etc. This film falls just as Phantom-based movies were beginning to bring more visceral horror into the picture, and the lack of such here is yet another indication that Levitt has a different type of movie in mind, and that this film falls somewhat outside the realm of adaptations of Leroux's work. The framework of the story is borrowed, but the point is far and away different from anything in the original novel.

 

The next morning, everyone is out combing Lot 2 for the missing workers (according to the inspector, there was a missing persons' report filed - fast work, considering that they usually make you wait, what, 24 or 48 hours?), though of course nobody finds them or the copious amounts of blood that SHOULD be staining set pieces (the Phantom buried the bodies in the pretend cemetery, naturally). Everyone takes some time to hang around for no reason and discuss the legend of the Phantom of Lot 2 instead, led by the old night watchman (who is totally the Madame Giry analogue), instead of actually doing much investigating. After some more seriously awful detective work, nobody concludes anything and everyone goes home shrugging their shoulders at the mystery.

 

Then the Phantom makes some prank phone calls to the owner of the studio, which I suppose could be interpreted as being similar to his mocking notes to the managers in the original novel. The owner promptly demands that Ray find out what's going on, fast, because Ray is... uh... a... publicity agent? And that's totally the same as detective/private investigator, apparently.

 

Now, we get to meet Otto, the great fakeout of the movie. Otto is an old muttery dude who lives in the basement of the studio and takes care of the old reels and whatnot, and has been here since God was a boy, apparently. Gee whillickers, I wonder if he has any connection to the Phantom, especially since he appears to be wearing the same signet ring as our mysterious masked man and gets very close-mouthed when you bring the subject up. Ray doesn't seem to notice these things, nor does he notice that Otto apparently knows what he said in a conversation with the owner just a little while ago despite the fact that he totally was not there. After Ray leaves, he starts crushing photographs in his gnarly old hands in rage, and we're all supposed to be impressed by how obviously unbalanced and evil he is even though I'm really just wondering how the hell this 70-something-year-old is so goddamn spry that he can be running around bashing peoples' heads in with a heavy-ass morning star.

 

As a side note, it is extremely entertaining for me that every time a phone rings in this film (and there are several), it always stops ringing well before someone answers it. Where I come from, that means the person on the other end has hung up, but apparently the phones in Hollywood have a magical ability to connect you even after the caller has hung up. Oh, Tinseltown, will your wonders never cease?

 

Now, to continue the parade of poorly defined people getting killed for no particularly good reason, we're going to meet a soon to be deceased security guard (oh my god, Otto saw him, you guys! Doom!). Apparently, he's temping, because he doesn't seem to have much idea how security guarding works. Instead of walking a perimeter, he instead decides to go wandering around through the interior of the lot among the falling apart sets and dark, uncharted piles of rubble, because that seems like such a better idea if he is planning to accidentally fall through a floor to his death. While this is really, really bad ideas, it nevertheless did give me the only truly creepy moment of the film, while he's wandering and desperately trying to find the source of the noises with his flashlight. He is lit from the front, and the constant following of his own stark shadow on the wall behind him reminds us that he has another stalker as well.

 

Then the Phantom pops up with his trusty Self-Cleaning Retractably-Spiked Magical Morning Star of Obfuscation +2, and kills the dude, and the frenzied attempts by the guard to shoot him do nothing because he has blanks in his gun. Whoops. The security guard's disappearance doesn't seem to bother anyone enough for them to cancel the party on the lot that takes place the next day. In fact, the police don't even come out for this one (damn people always getting themselves accidentally yet mysteriously killed!).

 

The publicity party is effectively the masked ball from Leroux's novel, though the only real similarities are the facts that everyone is in costume and that the Phantom crashes the party like a jerk (since the Christine/Phantom dynamic is nonexistent, he really doesn't care who she hangs out with at the party. We do get to see her, though, in one of her random appearances. Hi, Randy!). It's here we suddenly discover that we've been thrown a curveball - Otto isn't the Phantom, because suddenly they're both at the party at the same time. Our indignation at being tricked doesn't last very long, since we can move on to thinking Randy is failing Safety 101 for accepting the mysterious masked stranger's word that her boyfriend wants her to go meet him on an abandoned stage far, far away from everyone. The Phantom turns out to be Otto's brother, as a matter of fact (which still leaves me wondering why he's so freaking athletic for an old dude), and they have a little altercation wherein Otto threatens to expose him if he doesn't stop killing people. Predictably, the Phantom then drops a gigantic... um... board covered with balloons... on Otto, killing him. It doesn't look like it weighs much, but then again, Otto's pretty old. Either way, it's kind of a sad chandelier substitute.

 

I had been wondering why the Phantom chooses that particular costume to appear in; in the context of this film, he could literally have looked like or worn anything a movie crew could conceive of. I had written something down about how he's a crusader for his cause (preserving the history of Hollywood), but after the Otto revelation, suddenly that made a little more sense - it's all a bit The Man in the Iron Mask, isn't it? Why, hello, Dumas; I have to confess that I totally did not expect to see you connected to this film in any way (hey, didn't someone mention the film version of The Three Musketeers earlier? I think they totally did! Ha!). Anyway, Dumas-connected or not, I really like the idea of the Phantom being one half of a set of twins. Doesn't that idea open up a vista of excellent possibilities, not to mention so many opportunities to sharpen the themes having to do with unfair ostracization and entitlement?

 

Anyway, after offing his brother, the Phantom is forced to flee the police officers who have been hanging around the party waiting for just such an infringement. The chase is hysterical in its badness. It's pretty much all long shots of the Phantom running around stuff... and then the policemen running around stuff... and the the Phantom running around stuff... and then the policemen running around stuff. It didn't exactly have me watching in agonizing suspense (and John, beside me, kept shouting in pained disbelief, "SHOOT HIM. You have GUNS. What are you DOING?"). The Phantom is also big on stopping places for no reason to glare dramatically about, which you would think hurts his chances of escape, but apparently not. To add the final dollop of hilarity, he weakens a rope so that it will snap when the police climb down it, which it does, consigning them to the horrifying drop of... two yards. Seriously. Apparently the master plan was to hope they would turn their ankles upon landing and be unable to continue the chase. It doesn't seem to work, but he gets away anyway, cementing the police force in this movie as one of the most steeped in ineptitude that I've ever seen.

 

My notes here say, "The acting is soooo bad." I failed to notate why I thought that, but given this film's track record so far, I'm inclined to believe me.

 

And then it's off to keep his appointment with Randy, who is wandering around the abandoned stage like a ditched prom date and calling Ray's name even though he didn't answer the first TWENTY-FIVE TIMES so he's probably NOT THERE, ya dummy. Again I am confused by Randy's decision, like the contractors and security guard before her, to stare silently at the Phantom instead of doing anything useful. Personally, if a guy told me to meet my boyfriend and then locked me in and showed up himself with a mask and a weapon, I'd be screaming rape and murder at the top of my lungs and probably kicking someone in the groin, but I may not be cut out for television stardom. There's a cut to avoid violence again, and then I ended up snorting juice up my nose to discover that the Phantom had knocked her out and was carrying her off over his shoulder. What? Did you hit her with the morning star? Because that's all you had on you when we cut from the scene. What, was it set on "stun"? I have got to get me one of these.

 

He hauls her off to his lair (incidentally, she is really, really bad at playing unconscious... unconscious people don't help their kidnappers pick them up, nor do they hold on), which is basically a cellar with some candles and medieval trappings to give it that homey feel. Weirdly, as he takes her off to put her somewhere, the camera decides to zoom in on a candle flame and just sort of sit there staring at it. I wasn't sure what the intended effect was. "Oh, by the way, audience, you're scared"? "Omg he's assaulting her in the next room"? It's a mystery.

 

When she wakes up and gets to talking to the Phantom, it turns out (unsurprisingly) that he's not very coherent, probably from the solitude. It seems pretty obvious that he's a Shakespearean actor - he keeps quoting the bard, and there's that whole medieval shenanigans thing - but beyond that there's not much more insight into where he came from yet. For some reason, he's decided not to wear his mask but also to shout at her whenever she tries to see his face. Maybe he's training her, Pavlov-style.

 

Everyone back at the studio is freaking out, because of course they've received the ransom note (Randy is a hostage because she's the owner's daughter; as noted earlier, the Phantom couldn't care less about her other than that). Their masterful solution, since the Phantom is hiding somewhere in Lot 2 with a hostage, is to bulldoze everything in Lot 2 and flush him out (or pick him out of the wreckage, as the case may be). Ray points out that this seems like a very fatal course of action for said hostage, but everyone ignores him with great relish ("It's a chance we've got to take!"). And where are the police? What are they doing? They are nowhere doing nothing, because when someone is kidnapped by a dangerous murderer, you should always take care of it yourself instead of calling law enforcement.

 

The Phantom, who hears everything (duh), does not appreciate this plan and knocks the owner out to let him know. The witty response of those who find him unconscious on the floor is, "Gee, he got hit hard." With the morning star set on "stun" again, apparently. Ray heads off to play detective because now, at the eleventh hour, he is suddenly a super-genius capable of putting together clues (and soliloquizing unnecessarily; how many times did he need to pose with dramatic angst and say things like, "Who is he, this Phantom?" Seriously).

 

Here comes one of the more poignant parts of the film, however; the bulldozing begins, and while it generally looks about like you expect bulldozing to look, it has significance because they really are bulldozing down the old MGM sets and filming it. It's not staged. When they take down the church used for The Three Musketeers and the castle used for Joan of Arc, you're really watching those parts of film history be destroyed for good. It's a little hard to concentrate on because of the Phantom's continuing shenanigans, but you can, again, clearly see Levitt's regret for the loss of these artifacts. There's something very powerful about seeing something destroyed and knowing that it's never going to be replaced, especially when it's representative (as it is here) of an entire era.

 

Finally tired of avoiding Randy's curious eyes, that Phantom snaps and forces her to look at his face, just like pretty much every version where she unmasks him. I was less than impressed; the Phantom's face is disfigured some, yeah, but it's pretty much average burn scar territory. Not that I am belittling people who suffer from burn scars - burn scars are no picnic in the park - but he does not suffer from the kind of intense and life-spanning ailment that the original Phantom did. Randy prods him into explaining what happened to him (I nearly busted my gut laughing when she looked deep into his eyes and implored him, "Share!"), and it turns out that he's an ex-actor whose rise to stardom was curtailed when - I shit you not - "an explosive charge went off in my face".

 

So... was the explosive charge set on "stun", too? Because that's about the only scenario I can come up with here that explains why you are alive and even have a face. Randy's suggestion involving plastic surgery (we ain't exactly in the nineteenth century anymore here, people) is completely brushed off in favor of the continuing emo. Why make sense when you can wail about the tragic end of your life and career?

 

The Phantom takes off to go harry the destruction crews, leaving Randy trapped in his lair. I was confused by the childproof lair locks; not only can Randy not get the door open after he leaves (I could see that; maybe he locked it from the outside), but she also can't get it open before he goes anywhere, while he's still in the room with her. Luckily, part of the roof caves in and there's a way out, which she chooses to take advantage of by sitting down in the rubble and crying instead of hauling ass out of the maniac's home. Ray comes along and bails her out, and apparently the locks are only Randy-proof, since he has no trouble getting in. Poor Randy. It has to be hard to be scripted this pathetically.

 

The Phantom, perhaps recognizing that this may be a job too big for even his amazing Self-Cleaning Retractably-Spiked Optional-Stun-Setting Morning Star, trades it in for a big old yeoman's bow (and you thought the crossbow in Phantom of the Mall was an isolated moment of ridiculousness!), which he uses to gleefully begin shooting policemen and bulldozer drivers (have a heart, they're just doing their jobs!). Said shooting victims are pretty much just as bad as Randy at pretending to have just died; they have all the persuasive conviction of a lying toddler. Fortunately for those still alive, the Phantom apparently went to the same school of aim and shooting choices as the stormtroopers of Star Wars did, since he insists on shooting arrows (which are a finite resource, my friend) at things that cannot possibly be damaged by them, like the bulldozers themselves. The workers, spearheaded by the vengeful owner of the studio, decide to bulldoze over the castle wall set he's hanging out on and just pick his remains out of the wreckage later, a plan which seems to work (and which the police apparently have no problem with which seems wrong to me, somehow, but then again he has been shooting them).

 

Of course, they don't end up finding him in the rubble. He turns up on top of a ridiculously high bridge across the lot, cackling and screaming, "You fools! Fools!" at them in maniacal tones, and I was so forcefully reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I had to pause for a minute to get it out of my system. His frenzied shouting about how they can never defeat him because he IS Hollywood is cut rather short when he overbalances and nosedives off the bridge to his death. Even though he is supposedly a mad climbing master and hasn't fallen off any of the multitude of other high things he climbs, apparently every day.

 

And, well, yeah. That's the end.

 

I was kind of excited at the beginning of the movie to note that Randy was a redhead, because I was just musing the other day on the fact that Christine characters are always blonde or brunette, never red- or black-haired. However, given the fact that this version of Christine isn't an artist, or a love interest, or a protege, or in any way representative of Christine other than being a kidnapping victim, I don't think I can successfully get into much interpretive detail on this one.

 

The Phantom in this film, ultimately, is not a representative of any of the concepts Leroux's Erik stood for, but rather a representative of old Hollywood. When he says feverishly of the great actors he watched, "I was all of them!", he means it. When he seems almost physically wounded by the destruction of the old sets, it's because he is; the fact that his lair is almost literally caving in with every smashed building and bulldozed plot is a direct correlation of the fact that he, and old Hollywood by extension, is being destroyed. The long shot as he falls from the bridge to his death is paused and interspersed with scenes of the recent destruction of the edifices and props of Lot 2, which is a little bit heavy-handed but definitely gets the point across (i.e., that the Phantom's death is inevitably linked with the death of the old Hollywood conventions).

 

So if you've got a hankering to learn a little bit about the way old-timey movies were done or to feel that cathartic little tug of misplaced nostalgia, go for it, but if you're looking for anything resembling Leroux's original work (or, indeed, resembling any kind of good storytelling and less than ridiculous execution), seek elsewhere. Quest on.

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