The Phantom

Every Wednesday, I revisit a film that I have strong memories of watching, to see how well my memories of it hold up to scrutiny, and whether the film is as good (or as bad) as I remember. This week, in a slight change of direction, I have chose a film that I very much don’t have strong memories of.

What I remember

Almost nothing.

Once, when I was at university, I dreamt an entire police procedural film starring Steve McQueen and Larry Hagman. I woke up knowing I had watched a ninety minute movie that nobody on else on earth had ever seen. That nobody else on earth ever would see. It was mine alone, a tiny miracle of sorts, albeit quite a small, and very much non-religious, one. Obviously, dreams being what dreams are, within minutes the details of the plot began to drift from my memory, and before long all I had left was an image of the films conclusion, McQueen and Hagman, at the edge of an abandoned warehouse district, somewhere in or near Boston, standing over the body of the murderer they had been tracking for the whole film, and neither they nor the audience sure who had fired the fatal shot.

Twenty-odd years later, I remember even less detail than I did then, and what I do recall has been tainted by the muddying effects of the act of remembering itself. But I remember much more about that dream than I remember about The Phantom, which I watched about five years more recently, with my eyes, while I was actually awake.

What I expected

I can tell you what I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect a film that would create any strong memories. I chose to rewatch it mostly because it is a superhero movie from the era when people were trying to work out how to make superhero movies, before Blade and X-Men hinted at a formula that might work. I thought that might be interesting. Plus, Treat Williams is in it, and I’ve liked him in things before.

What I found

First off, it is worth mentioning that while The Phantom is about a man who spends half of his time being debonair in a nice suit and the other half fighting crime in a skin tight purple costume it is more of an Indiana Jones rip-off than a superhero movie. The director’s first priority was, I think, creating a cool ‘1930s adventure’ vibe. I may be being unfair, but it would explain other aspects of the film, and in particular the superhero aspects of the film, not quite being, shall we say, good.

My favourite part of the film was when three gangsters chased Kit Walker into a maintenance room only to find a pile of his clothes on the floor. Imagine their surprise when The Phantom turns up! Those poor guys. Their last thoughts before being knocked unconscious by our hero must have been, “I have to fight a naked Kit Walker AND The Phantom? What a predicament. I don’t know who to paste in the kisser first, see.”

In fact, there is barely a character in the whole film who at some point couldn’t have worked out that Kit Walker and The Phantom are the same person. The decision to include that detail but only once play it for laughs is, depending on your viewpoint, crazed or inspired. Maybe both. But once you introduce a character in a purple catsuit and then remove the ‘it’s his disguise’ element of it, you don’t leave much in the viewers mind except, “maybe it’s a sex thing?” And maybe it is a sex thing. Each to their own. He isn’t hurting anybody. Except for all the people he punches and/or kills of course. He does hurt them. But in a way unconnected to the sex stuff. If it is sex stuff. Which it probably isn’t.

I’m getting lost in the details here. There are other things I need to mention. There is the fact that this film is so unmemorable that I had forgotten Catherine Zeta Jones was in it. That’s like watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger film and then forgetting Arnold Schwarzenegger is in it. It shouldn’t happen. Her performance is probably the second best thing in the movie, a fun sort-of audition, or rehearsal, for her role in Zorro. Her character makes no sense – a heartless villain turns into a hero immediately upon being asked, don’t you feel bad about what you do? – but she makes the most of what she’s given.

And the best thing about the film? The two worst fake sharks you have ever seen in your life. You only ever see a fin and a bit of back but they still manage to look less real than anything else committed to film ever. Ed Wood would have made better sharks. Why are they pink? They look like Wall’s sausages with a credit card stuck in their back. Their entrance, gliding along the moat of an underwater pirate’s cave, provide the film’s one pure moment of joy.

So, how good was my memory?

As I have already said, I remembered nothing about this film. But is that my fault? I know that in a week’s time I will have forgotten almost everything about it again. In a month or so, if I sit down and watch The Phantom, Catherine Zeta Jones being in it will come as a surprise. I’ll probably remember those sharks for a little bit longer. Maybe six months. Maybe a year. But in time that will disappear too.

But it’s not me. It’s The Phantom. I’m going to not judge my brain too harshly on this one.

And how good is the film?

Honestly, I’m struggling to remember. I want to say, it’s shit? I’d have to watch it again to be sure.

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