Pete Riley – Taylor Handley
Bryan Riley – Jacon Smith
Karen Riley – Caitlin Wachs
Mrs. Riley – Corinne Bohrer
George, Mrs. Riley’s boyfriend – John Novak
Movie Mason – Mickey Rooney
Shawn MacGibbon – Rich Hutchman
Wolfgang Nedermayer – Colin Fox
Merle – Joe Pingue
Written by – Stu Kierger
Directed by – Blair Treu
Music by – Bill Elliott
Cinematography – Derek Rogers
Makeup – Diane Mazur
Original network – Disney Channel
Original release – 10 November 2000
Running time – 89 minutes
The film opens with footage of Universal’s silent Phantom of the Opera (1925). As Christine (Mary Philbin) unmasks the Phantom (Lon Chaney) an off-stage commentary spoken in a distinctly young-sounding voice informs the viewers that ‘history need not be boring’, then continues to describe the history of movie theatres in a particular town, presumably American (the film was shot in Salt Lake City and Toronto). An old cinema is torn down and replaced with a modern 26-screen megaplex called the Grande, and the narrator’s voice is revealed to be that of a 17-year-old assistant manager, Pete Riley. He mentions rumour of a ‘phantom’ haunting the movie theatre, but quickly dismisses it as irrelevant hearsay. The staff, including Pete’s immediate supervisor, Shawn MacGibbon, prepare for a spectacular premiere of a new Hollywood monster film titled Midnight Mayhem. The cinema appears to be a haven for a colourful troupe of eccentrics young and old, including ‘Movie Mason’ (played by veteran comedian Mickey Rooney), an elderly member of the family who owned the original building. He still hangs around the megaplex just to enjoy the atmosphere. Shawn gets particularly anxious as the owner of the megaplex, Wolfgang Nedermayer, is to be present among the guests at the opening gala. Much to his disappointment, Pete is forced to take his two younger siblings, Karen and Bryan, with him to work as their widowed mother has a date with her boyfriend George.
All kinds of minor technical problems ensue, some caused by the staff’s negligence and the sheer scale of the megaplex and some, apparently, by sabotage carried out by the mysterious phantom. Pete does his best to solve the crisis, all the while trying to impress a girl he likes. The Riley siblings join up to investigate the case, taking clues from the plots of the movies and from new technologies, including the internet.
There are some more or less direct references to The Phantom of the Opera. The ‘phantom’ skulks around the megaplex disappearing around corners, sporting a long, black cape and a full-face white mask; any mention of him by other characters cues ominous extra-diegetic chords played on the organ. A friendly but rather stern elderly lady working at the cinema might be a distant allusion to Leroux’s opera box-keeper, Madame Giry. At one point, Karen and Bryan discover a darkly fascinating backstage storeroom full of discarded props and costumes, including some Universal Studios Phantom memorabilia. The place turns out to be a secret hideaway of Movie Mason, but he is soon confirmed to be a harmless aficionado, innocently enthralled by the magic of the cinema.
The next likely suspect is Merle, the chief projectionist, however he turns out to be just another victim of the real saboteur’s mischief. Then, Shawn is discovered tied up, hanging helplessly on the door frame in a vague reminiscence of Leroux’s hanged stagehand, Joseph Bouquet. As Nedermayer and the premiere guests arrive, the megaplex staff prepare for the decisive moment of the evening. Mason provides much-needed help with his impromptu entertainment and consummate small talk with the stars. The Riley kids go to the megaplex’s roof to investigate a missing publicity prop, a giant inflatable dinosaur-like monster. The masked phantom attacks them suddenly, ties all three of them up laughing maniacally, and then escapes. Mrs Riley and George arrive at the megaplex looking for the children. By the time Pete, Karen and Bryan finally manage to free themselves, the phantom has enacted his plan to cause more commotion by inflating the dinosaur prop in a room full of people. Pete, helped by Mason, manages to pierce the monster with a toy ‘Excalibur’ sword and deflate it. He then confronts the phantom behind the movie screen (they are visible in silhouette, in a way reminiscent of a film projection) and finally unmasks him: it was Shawn all along. Shawn says he impersonated the phantom only to attract Nedermayer’s attention (the big boss has never once remembered his name), but the owner is unamused and fires him on the spot. He then offers the manager’s job to Pete, but the teenager declines, arguing that he wants to spend more time with his brother and sister. The director of Midnight Mayhem treats the whole affair as an inspiration for his next movie and invites Shawn to work with him. George proposes to Mrs Riley and Pete finally finds the courage to ask his romantic interest out on a date. Finally, the premiere can begin and everyone joins in for the show. As they enter the projection room, Mason spins another yarn for Bryan, this time warning him of the supposed ‘Werewolf of the Megaplex’…
The film combines some allusions to The Phantom of the Opera with a broader theme of the appreciation of classic cinema and its magic. Being a Disney production, all elements of violence, amorous obsession, and real threat—so crucial to the original Phantom—have been airbrushed out. Indeed, the whole premise of the movie is a family-oriented adventure story in which a group of entrepreneurial kids (especially the youngest, 12-year-old Bryan) solve the alleged supernatural mystery and—Scooby-Doo-like—reveal the threat to be fully rational and more or less harmless. It might, however, encourage some members of the audience to have a look at the 1925 Lon Chaney version of the Phantom, repeatedly referenced as a beloved classic. Mickey Rooney’s monologue on the undying attraction of cinematic fantasy is also a touching highlight of the movie.
University of Warsaw