As any experienced movie buff can tell you, it’s never a good idea to shoot a horror film on a location that’s said to be haunted. But director Raymond Yip (credited as Yip Wai Man) has appreciably better luck than his on-screen counterpart in making the most of the situation during “Phantom of the Theatre,” a spooky and stylish thriller that sustains interest even after it veers from the flamboyantly fantastical to the relatively realistic. Opening in North American multiplexes one week after its Asian premiere, this over-extended yet entertaining tale of fear, loathing and ghastly mayhem in an opulent 1930s Shanghai picture palace could scare up respectable grosses before passing on to the netherworld of small-screen platforms.
Gu Weibang (Yo Yang), an ambitious first-time filmmaker long estranged from his warlord father (Simon Yan), is mysteriously intent on shooting his debut effort, a supernatural romantic melodrama, in a restored movie theater rumored to be infested with restless (and, occasionally, homicidal) ghosts 13 years after a deadly fire in the building. Just as mysteriously, Meng Si Fen (Ruby Lin), a beautiful movie star on the rise, readily agrees to play the female lead, and sticks with the project despite production delays due to gruesome deaths in the theater.
Things get progressively less mysterious — and the movie itself gradually calms down after early outbursts of nightmarish fantasy — as Yip (“The House That Never Dies”) and screenwriter Manfred Wong slowly reveal the leading lady’s ulterior motives and the director’s unhappy childhood memories. As for the aforementioned violent demises: The hideously scarred title character (Jing Gang Shan), not to be confused with a similarly notorious denizen of the Paris Opera House, usually relies on chemistry, not chandeliers, to uptick the body count during most of the movie. But as a kinda-sorta homage to “Phantom of the Opera,” a wayward lighting device is allowed to do at least minor damage in a key scene.
Romance blooms between Gu and Meng — much to the exasperation of Gu’s girlfriend (Huang Huan), a pathologist who just happens to be in charge of examining corpses culled from the theater — as the director is forced to take over the lead male role in his own film. The blurring of boundaries between actors and their roles, real life and movie fantasy, is a theme repeatedly and not always subtly sounded throughout “Phantom of the Theatre.” Genre fans may be disappointed as the tone shifts from supernatural to Pirandellian to bittersweetly romantic. But the carefully stylized performances by Lin and Yang go a long way toward making the transitions smooth and, in the final scenes, surprisingly satisfying.
Production values are appropriately lush.