With Phantom of the Theatre, director Raymond Yip continues his recent streak of horror films that also includes Blood-Stained Shoes (2012), The House that Never Dies (2014) and Tales of Mystery (2015). Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, it unfolds in and around an abandoned theatre that is said to be haunted by the ghosts of an acrobatic troupe that was killed in a fire 13 years before. In comes Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) a young film director with plans to shoot a romantic ghost story in this very theatre; after a chance encounter with up-and-coming actress Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin), he offers her the lead role in his film and she accepts. But on the very first day of shooting in the theatre, the film’s lead actor dies horribly, mysteriously burnt from inside. Soon, one of the film’s investors meets the same fate, just as a strange cloaked figure is seen stalking the playhouse’s corridors. Despite all this, Gu Weibang – who has replaced the lead actor and is developing requited feelings for his co-star – keeps shooting his film, under the disapproving eye of his father, warlord Gu Mingshan (Simon Yam).
They say constraint forces creativity, but more often than not, the SARFT‘s ban on supernatural elements and gory violence in films has a way of kneecapping Chinese horror. Not that a horror film needs ghosts or gore to be effective, far from it, but these two ingredients are sorely missed in Phantom of the Theatre, so obviously does it strive to be both gothic romance and Grand Guignol horror. There is a reference to these restrictions in the film, when upon hearing Gu Weibang wants to film a ghost story, a crew member objects “But Sir, censorship laws state that films cannot promote superstitions and aberrations“, to which the young director answers: “What aberrations? The Book of Rites clearly states that ‘all beings die and return to the ground’. That is how a ghost is defined. Even our ancestors acknowledge ghosts.” But it turns out this is more playful mise en abyme than sardonic flouting of censorship, as the film predictably ends up restraining its ghosts in dreams and hallucinations.
Still, though its elements of gothicism and Grand Guignol are diluted, Phantom of the Theatre does manage to present them in a sumptuous visual package. The theatre set itself is a marvelous expressionistic concoction, its corridors cluttered with blood-red lanterns, its stage machinery a cobweb-adorned world unto itself, with a lavish main auditorium as luxurious in the theatre’s past glory as it is eerie in its present desolation. Nothing new here, only familiar elements executed with class, captured in a delightfully garish glow by cinematographer Michael Tsui and skillfully supported by Yu Peng’s masterful score, in turns lushly melodramatic and fiendishly macabre. The spontaneous combustion-like deaths are a fine way to feature gruesome deaths without irking the censors, there’s a few inspired nightmare sequences, and the titular phantom is a nicely cinegenic masked stalker. The plot’s focus on early-days filmmaking is also a treat, even though it appears in an extremely simplified form that doesn’t show anything technical, just a camera rolling on a simple set; the film is shown fully edited mere days after the last scene is shot, and with no evidence that the director worked on post-production at all, a shortcut that’s forgivable but also a missed opportunity to showcase the singular magic of film editing at that time.
Too bad then, that the plot is an imbalanced affair that promises more in its engaging first half than it actually delivers in its second half. What starts out feeling like an intricate web of deceit, dark pasts and supernatural vengeance, is too soon boiled down to much simpler and more predictable stakes and plot turns, that we won’t spoil, mostly because there’s not much to spoil. In a way, Phantom of the Theatre is like its titular phantom: once the mask comes off, it loses all its sense of dread and romanticism. Indeed, the central romance between Ruby Lin and Tony Yang is a thoroughly mechanical one, with insufficient build-up in the relationship and a lack of chemistry between the two actors, both of which are fine in their own right but a bit bland. Simon Yam’s charismatic, stone-faced warlord and the great Pat Ha as his forlorn wife remain underused despite being absolutely crucial to the plot.
Long Story Short: In Phantom of the Theatre, gothic romance and Grand Guignol horror are diluted by Chinese censorship and flawed writing, but still executed with visually delightful and enjoyably macabre aplomb. **1/2