The influences of Phantom of the Theatre are there, inside the mind. It's difficult to overlook the similarities that Raymond Yip's production share in common with Gaston Leroux's novel, and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical: a cloaked, masked figure looms in the haunted hallways of a ornately-adorned theatre, turning his attention to a young female performer brought to the venue for her talents. Unofficial riffs on classic stories like this can work if the things it does differently have enough substance, either in the look and feel of the setting or the actual dramatic mechanisms that the deviations put in place. Alas, Phantom of the Theatre never pulls back the curtain to reveal enough unique traits to justify the production's uncanny resemblances: while it switches out the opera for filmmaking and stumbles down the route of a poltergeist thriller, neither its chills nor romantic inclinations strike a distinctive -- let alone effective -- chord.
More like the introduction to the latest episode of a supernatural mystery TV show than a lead-in to a motion picture, Phantom of the Theatre tosses the audience into the focal theatre -- and back about a half-century -- with little rhyme or reason, illustrating the extensive, lethal dangers of the ghosts, actors who perished years ago, that loom within. The fact that it's haunted becomes the reason why upcoming director Gu Wingban (Tony Yan) chooses to shoot his latest picture there, which stars rising celebrity Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin) in a sort of supernatural romance. At first shrugging off the theatre's history as manageable superstition, peculiar events and accidents start to happen amid production, while the presence of a shadowy figure slips throughout its dark corners. The film hinges on how the cast and crew members keep the production together, how the director's father (Simon Yam) discourages and interrupts the process, and how romances become shakier in the process.
Phantom of the Theatre gets off on the wrong foot long before the movie crew even reaches the theatre itself, dragged down by iffy computer-generated imagery of the building's specters and weak development of the main characters. A goofy awards ceremony doling out "Most Photogenic" consolation awards generates a peculiar and superfluous tone while establishing Meng SiFan's character, which isn't helped by the clumsiness involved in framing Gu Wingban into an unseasoned director, the type who stereotypically scrambles for pages of his script while snooty actresses waltz by. These coexist with overly colorful, unscary effects in the film's introduction, building into a tone not unlike the general feel of the recent Ghostbusters remake, one without scares or terribly credible characters. Of course, the problem comes in the fact that Raymond Yip desires for all this to be taken seriously, and that's hard to do after such a rickety beginning.
Unfortunately, Phantom of the Theatre doesn't really improve once the activity reaches the theatre. Sure, the set decoration has moments of vivid appeal, where we're allowed to gaze out upon a unique small-scale theatre, throughout its dimly-lit dressing rooms and hallways, and upon the set design crafted for Gu Wingban's supernatural romance film. Cheesy lighting and visual effects are too bold and incohesive to sell any kind of illusion, though, instead forming into a garish haunted house type of atmosphere ... only without any strong thrills or jump-scares. A few inventive touches involving rotating mirrors and stretched fabric underneath sleeping bodies add doses of visual flair to the ghostly activities, yet there's very little curiosity behind what's actually causing these events to happen, hardly any mystery or investment into the theatre's storied history to delve deeper into the ambience or the characters' psychological shifts. Without, say, Theater of Blood's dark humor or Stage Fright's gory terror, the film's low-burning fire continuously gets smaller.
That's because Phantom of the Theatre fancies itself to be a romantic endeavor alongside the paranormal thrills, to a point where those soapy dramatic inclinations overtake whatever spookiness it hoped to achieve. Overwrought performances struggle alongside bluntly emotive music in the criss-crossing of infatuations, propositions, and desires, all of which become even tougher to appreciate whenever the film's movie-within-a-movie takes center stage, attempting to make connections between the theatre's oddities and the movie's scripting. Even with the presence of Simon Yam as an authoritative military man busting his director son's chops, there's little in the chemistry between the actors and the characterization they're supposed to exude to grab one's attention. Phantom of the Theatre reaches an operatic conclusion with profound personal stakes and melancholy revealtions, yet the spirits that stir in the building fail to possess those watching before doing so.
Video and Audio:
Phantom of the Theatre steps onto the home-video stage in a tolerable but underwhelming 2.35:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer from Well Go USA, one that holds many opportunities for ornate details and flashes of bright color. When it comes to the palette, the cinematography's intentions come through fairly well, with rich red garments, blue wisps of spectral elements, and both sterile green in bedrooms and bright green of foliage. Detail, however, is another story: while elements stand out in shiny materials in garments, upon hardwood floors, and criss-crossing elements in the architecture, there's flatness to the texture throughout, and quite a few moments of noticeable aliasing during camera panning. Skin tones are reputably warrm, black levels only occasionally encroach on details, and the brightness of light creates a few nice surfaces along leather, lampshades, and skin.
For such an attractive film, however, more could be done. The Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital track succeeds in creating the desired atmosphere for the film, occasionally allowing eerie supernatural effects to emerge from the rear channels and for high-end crispness to deliver the sizzles and swoops of ghostly effects. Dialogue sustains a strong, crisp presence in the center channel, while subtle effects of walking feet, fluid pouring, cameras operating and other on-set effects are clear and nuanced against the front channels. The flowy music commands the strongest aural presence out of everything, though, engaging all channels with plenty of heft and strength, mostly staying balanced with the other sound effects; only occasionally does the music drown out the sounds of movie-making or romantic engagement. The English subtitles aren't too shabby, but there are a few objective grammatical missteps here and there.
Only a Trailer (1:09, 16x9 HD).
Beware the Phantom of the Theatre, and enjoy an encore showing of many of the other theatre-based horror shows out there. Skip It.