13 years ago, an acrobat troupe died in a fire at the theatre they performed in. Their unforgiving spirits took refuge in the theatre as it gained a reputation for being haunted. The spirits waited there until the opportune moment struck to get their revenge.
The inexperienced yet potentially promising director Gu Wei Bang (Tony Yang) has just returned from France with a new screenplay and the intention of shooting a horror film at the haunted theatre. He casts the recently awarded Miss Photogenic Meng Si Fan (Ruby Lin) as his female lead as supernatural occurrences, various injuries, and even death plague the production from the start.
However Wei Bang is the son of warlord Gu Ming Shan (Simon Yam), who was the man responsible for hiring the deceased acrobat troupe for his son’s birthday. Everything has finally come full circle and a masked stranger is lurking in the shadows of the theatre to make sure that vengeance is finally served.
From director Raymond Yip (co-director of The Warlords) with a screenplay by Manfred Wong (The Last Tycoon) and first-time writers Yang Mei Yuan and Li Jing Ling, Phantom of the Theatre is an unusual experience. In America, a film revolving around pissed off ghosts hellbent on receiving the decadent retribution they feel like they so rightly deserved would be molded into a generic PG-13 horror film. Since the film is a Chinese production they obviously approach the subject matter a bit differently. The film is labeled as a thriller yet makes full use of haunting imagery and is typically more dramatic than you’re probably expecting.
Phantom of the Theatre: US Theatrical Trailer
The film begins with a thief taking refuge from pursuing authorities inside the haunted theatre. He complains about how little his loot is worth and begins to eat the suspiciously fresh produce located inside the theater. Ghosts rise out of giant pots as the thief is burned from the inside out. Heartburn and acid reflux is taken to a volcanic extent. Phantom of the Theatre soon reveals that random individuals who enter the theater are dying of spontaneous combustion.
While the thriller’s special effects aren’t overly impressive, its striking imagery catches you by surprise every so often. The white bed of faces scene makes quite an impact and so does the hallucination sequence where a pair of grotesquely burnt arms tries to pull Meng Si Fan inside of a mirror. The score seems to take cues out of Danny Elfman’s composing; the music is often fanciful with ethereal moans, tender whispers, fluttering strings, bouncy piano arrangements, and exuberant flutes. The deaths in the film usually result in inventive poses. Remember when Neo dodged the bullets by Agent Smith for the first time in The Matrix? Imagine somebody tried to do that, combusted, and then the corpse just stayed in that law-of-physics-defying position.
The storyline of Phantom of the Theatre is fairly generic even when it attempts to throw a couple swerves at the audience. A love triangle develops between Wei Bang, Si Fan, and Wei Bang’s doctor girlfriend Fei Li Si (Huang Huan) and since Fei Li Si isn’t around for anything other than to nurse Wei Bang’s wounds then it’s pretty obvious who Wei Bang’s heart belongs to. Certain nods to specific horror films seem to be thrown in as blatant homage; the haunted theatre and its layout remind you of The Haunting, twins from the acrobatic troupe are a throwback to The Shining, and the masked man operating in the shadows borrows from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Unfortunately Phantom of the Theatre fails to have any lasting value. The acting is extremely flat even with Simon Yam portraying a sexually aroused, heartless, military leader. The film within a film is insulting as in it doesn’t seem like it’s long enough to even be considered a short film. It seems like Wei Bang shot enough footage for a teaser trailer and then ended it with a woman drinking a bowl of soup and walking across a foggy bridge. Phantom of the Theatre also lets you know that if you’re ever making a movie and people start dying for strange reasons, then you can always take a time out by eating dumplings and everything will be okay. The explanation for how people are suddenly combusting attempts to be something semi-clever, but is executed poorly like a janitor performing open heart surgery.
Phantom of the Theatre has brief moments of greatness ruined by the bland yet overwhelming downpour of mediocrity you’re forced to conquer just to reach the film’s practically meaningless finale. Apparitions in film have never been so boring, but Phantom of the Theatre does leave you with the question of, “Do ghost farts smell like garlic?”