Even though we’re well into the 21st century, it’s still disturbingly rare to find a black person playing the primary villain in a horror movie — despite the fact that black is overwhelmingly the skin color of choice for anonymous gang members and thugs in any genre. Why would I WANT a black villain, you ask? Well, in horror, the baddie is often the main draw — see Freddy, Jason, Michael, Leatherface, Chucky, etc. — and can attain the status of antihero, carrying enormous weight by propelling the franchise while the traditional “heroes” are swapped in and out from one film to the next. And frankly, even if the villain isn’t particularly memorable, a major character is still a major character — and major characters, whether hero or heel, are not typically assigned to people of color.
Into this void steps — or rather, pratfalls — Phantom of the Grindhouse, a low-budget horror-comedy-musical that doesn’t have enough money for makeup, wardrobe or apparently for a script long enough to fill 60 minutes…but it does at least have a titular black villain.
As the name implies, this is a spoof of The Phantom of the Opera, with the Phantom (Jason McCall) in this case haunting a struggling movie theater that’s run by a transgender ex-porn star named Tenderoni (Jaime Osborne). When a group of young moviegoers bands together to save the theater by hosting a 24-hour horror movie marathon, the Phantom — a masked mashup of Prince and Michael Jackson (a literal combination in that he weighs as much as the two of them together) — begins knocking them off because they’re intruding on his home. Or is it because he’s in love with one of the group members, Christine (Desiree Saetia)? Or is it because he thinks the marathon “diminishes the art of true horror?” Or maybe it’s because it “puts a real bummer on the time down on my brain pan”? WHAT LANGUAGE ARE WE EVEN SPEAKING HERE???
Such is the slipshod nature of the script, from prolific writer-director Chris Seaver, creator of Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker, Filthy McNasty, Return to Blood Fart Lake and more than 30 other, um, “films”…? Phantom of the Grindhouse is the first of his offerings I’ve watched in its entirety, but judging from the bits and pieces of others I’ve seen, it seems representative of his oeuvre: zero budget, barely an hour long (and that’s including 8 minutes of fake trailers), low-brow humor, intentionally bad makeup/costumes and manic performances that feel like overly desperate stabs at camp appeal.
It’s like Seaver had a requirement that someone had to make a doofus face — either the speaker or a background actor — during every single line of dialogue. And it doesn’t even matter if the face matches what’s going on in the scene. The movie is littered with all manner of non sequiturs, from random exclamations and singing to goat noises and an unacknowledged guy prancing around in a cat suit for no discernible reason.
I get that zaniness can be funny, and for stretches, this movie is at least watchable. The performances aren’t bad for one-note, B-movie, comedic bit territory, but when ALL OF THE ACTING IS TURNED UP TO TEN and when all of the humor revolves around either a bodily function or a sex act (Tenderoni’s gender identity seemingly just an excuse to use tacky phrases like “she-nuts” and “dong-gina”), it becomes very tiresome very fast.
All of the characters are either exaggerated, outdated impressions (aside from the Phantom’s Prince/Michael Jackson, there’s magician Doug Henning, a Dr. Loomis wannabe, a guy who talks like Marty McFly and a straight-up ’80s valley girl) or SNL characters that never made it past the pitch phase. In short, it’s a chore to sit through — like an improv group’s demo reel. Perhaps worst of all, at some point, it just devolves into a goddamn ska video. And not good old fashioned ’60s Jamaican ska, but shitty millennial American “watch my insufferably happy, arhythmic dance moves” ska.
But at least there’s a black villain, so there’s that.
Inside the Actor’s Studio Masterclass #14: The Art of “Face Acting”: