On the surface, The Phantom of Hollywood, a TV movie from 1974, may seem like it’d only appeal to the most devoted of B-horror aficionados. A retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, the film has plenty of inventive killings and questionable dialogue to satisfy those viewers, but it also holds value for fans of classic films—particularly those interested in MGM. That’s because The Phantom of Hollywood was actually filmed on the MGM backlot as it was being parceled off and torn down. The movie makes great use of that decaying, yet familiar, setting, and also creates a fun, rebellious, pro-film anti-hero as its villain.

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A decaying MGM stands in for Worldwide

The film takes place in the final days of Worldwide Studios, a historical production site that has fallen on hard times and is now being physically dismantled. Despite its lofty history, sets are being torn down, famous props auctioned off, decades of head shots thrown out, and so on. The filmmakers do little to mask the fact that this is meant to depict MGM (despite the fact that the film was actually produced by the studio), and go so far as to incorporate actual footage from the 1970 MGM prop auction, juxtapose near-subliminal flashes of vintage film footage with the current, decrepit backlot sets, and even use familiar old tunes like “That’s Entertainment,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “You Are My Lucky Star” to score some of the scenes. Readers of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot will recognize locations like Jungle Lake and New York Street specifically mentioned throughout, and the film actually makes a surprisingly great companion piece to the book.

The sharkish developers working to sell off the backlot are, I suppose, somewhat innocent in their intentions, but in any case, they aren’t expecting a wild force of resistance like the Phantom. It’s implied that he’s been something of a legend around the studio for years, being held accountable for all manner of tricks and pranks over its long history. They quickly realize that he’s more than just a story when he starts killing off vandals, potential buyers, construction workers, and anyone else threatening the sanctity of his home. We later learn that he has been living in an underground set on the backlot for many years, and has clearly been raiding the costume and prop department for his choice of disguises and weapons.

"To destroy the backlot is to destroy yourself." - The Phantom
“To destroy the backlot is to destroy yourself.” – The Phantom waxing poetic

Similar to some incarnations of The Phantom of the Opera, the Worldwide Phantom definitely claims some audience sympathy in his valiant quest to protect the studio, despite his murderous tactics. After watching countless MGM movies—especially the That’s Entertainment series, which was filmed on the backlot without the usual attempts to mask that fact—it was heartbreaking to watch bulldozers actually pulling down the facades and sets that had been part of so much history. As an audience member, I’ll admit I was kind of rooting for the Phantom to succeed in preserving the studio, even it meant a few lopped off-heads—anything for a bit of an escapist fantasy where the MGM studio would still exist today.

Overall, the film is a great, albeit depressing, visual preservation of what the MGM studio looked like as it shakily stood in the early-to-mid ’70s. There’s a couple of fun chase scenes that take you into previously unseen nooks and corners of the backlot (tunnels, warehouses, connecting roads, and whatnot), which are fascinating to see now. The plot isn’t anything special, rehashed almost identically from the operatic edition, save for the chandelier and obsessive interest in a female singer. The Phantom does kidnap the studio head’s daughter in this version, but it’s more of a means to an end—the Phantom’s true love, we know, is Worldwide. But there are more than enough classic movie references and familiar settings to satisfy classic movie fans, as long as they enter in expecting to see what really amounts to a tragic, backlot snuff film.

The Phantom of Hollywood is newly available on Warner Archive Instant, as well as on DVD.

One Reply to “The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)”

  1. I just caught this on Warner Instant last week myself, and I found it fascinating, too. I also liked the touch that the Phantom was more or less meant to be John Barrymore with a disfigurement, from the busy body brother to the ‘on the nose’ portraits. Overall, it’s a much better historical document than film, but an enjoyable romp nonetheless.

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