Saturday, July 23, 2016
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)
In conjunction with Cinema SuperCollider's upcoming podcast, we take a break from our usual programming to showcase Anna McKibben's essay, which originally appeared in the Rondo Award-winning compendium, HIDDEN HORROR. Hope you enjoy!
“It's all here. Read it carefully then sign at the bottom in blood. Messy, I know, but it's the only way to bind. Tradition.”
Phantom of the Paradise is a rock and roll musical fantasy with its roots firmly grounded in classic terror literature. Lifting its story primarily from The Phantom of the Opera and Faust, writer/director Brian De Palma’s film may have been a commercial and critical failure on release but is now considered a cult classic. The usual De Palma flourishes and references—as well as a brilliant cast and an ear-catching, Oscar-nominated soundtrack—ensure that Phantom has more than earned its place in horror cinema history.
Released in the United States on Halloween in 1974, Phantom’s plot resembles that of Gaston LeRoux’s famous novel if that particular Phantom was hopped up on sex, drugs, rock music and then covered in glitter. It’s the story of a talented songwriter, Winslow Leach (William Finley), whose Faust-based rock opera is stolen by record producer mogul Swan (Paul Williams) and given to a mediocre Sha-Na-Na rip-off band, The Juicy Fruits. When Leach attempts to retrieve his music from Swan’s mansion, he meets and quickly falls for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young starlet auditioning for a part in the Faust chorus.
Arrested for trespassing, Leach is sent to Sing Sing where his teeth are forcibly removed and replaced with metal ones. When he finds out that Swan and The Juicy Fruits are about to release their recording of Faust, Leach launches into a murderous rage—he kills a prison guard, escapes in a crate of tiddly-winks games, and heads to Swan’s record plant. While vandalizing the new records, he is caught by the police, only to slip and fall headlong into a record press. His face and vocal cords now crushed and disfigured, and crazed beyond saving, Leach makes his way to Swan’s new music hall, The Paradise, to exact his revenge.
My introduction to Phantom of the Paradise came via the Internet Movie Database’s horror message boards. At the time, I was interested in seeing other De Palma films aside from Carrie (1976), and other little-known genre gems that had flown under my radar. From the opening narration (delivered by an uncredited Rod Serling or a really good impersonator of same), I was completely enamored. Phantom kicks off with The Juicy Fruits singing a rather-awful-but-still-somehow-catchy song called “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” that calls to mind every absurd doo-wop ballad ever written about dying in car crashes or losing your girlfriend in a knife fight.
On top of that, Phantom is a grand satire of glam rock, exemplified by Gerrit Graham’s portrayal of Beef, an over-drugged, over-glittered singer who is built entirely of pure macho buffoonery. It was like someone had made this just for me, a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan who had grown tired of that particular groove.
Interestingly enough, Phantom came out almost exactly a year before Rocky Horror, but never enjoyed the same level of success (except in Winnipeg, Canada of all places, where it played for 18 consecutive weeks). There is no real explanation for its failure to connect with paying audiences or critics, but really, when it comes to cult films—especially cross-genre ones like this—some just have better legs, touch a particular nerve, or have that elusive “it factor.” The Rocky Horror comparison is particularly noteworthy since on the surface, the two share many similarities. Both have soundtracks that recall 1950s and ’60s rock and roll as well as ’70s glam rock, both have characters that fall outside of the hetero range of sexuality and both borrow liberally from existing horror stories.
Looking back on the film, it's relatively tame in comparison to something like RHPS, which carried an R-rating. The drug use in the film—from Beef rifling through a collection of pills and powders prior to his opening night performance to the Juicy Fruits smoking an obnoxiously enormous joint—is largely played for comedic value. The sex scenes amount to a bunch of women (and Finley, in drag) writhing around in lingerie and the sight of Paul Williams' nipple, which is undeniably shocking on its own, but nothing quite like the shadowplay sex scenes in Rocky Horror. For a film set in the wild world of glam rock, it's awfully mild. Perhaps audiences weren’t in tune with someone like Finley (he of the frizzy hair and buggy eyes) as a leading man, despite his being masked for the majority of the running time. That’s all speculation, though, and seeking the bedrock reason for Phantom’s flopping at this point is both moot and futile.
It’s much more fun to discuss all the things that make the film worth watching. As unconventional a choice as he might have been, Finley’s work as Winslow Leach is probably his best and best-known, though seasoned fans might recognize him from two other De Palma teamings, Sisters (1973) and The Fury (1978), or Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1977) and The Funhouse (1981). He manages to be sympathetic and villainous at once, but not in a typical antihero kind of way. Then again, these aren’t exactly clear-cut villains and heroes; we bounce back and forth between Swan and The Phantom as to who to root for—even by the end we’re not exactly sure. It’s a slick move by De Palma, who handily feeds us a steady stream of ever-evolving references and homage.
He also gives us one of the best visual representations of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” explanation of suspense in the scene where The Phantom plants a bundle of TNT in a prop car about to be wheeled into a Juicy Fruits (now called The Beach Bums) dress rehearsal. De Palma then shifts into split-screen—another trademark—and we follow the car as it’s moved onto the stage while simultaneously watching the band sing and dance to a horrible surf rock ditty. The scene remains effective, even after multiple views.
For those used to slashers or ghosts or buckets of blood, Phantom of the Paradise might not be a traditional horror film. It isn’t even a traditional musical, where people break into song for no apparent reason to the accompaniment of invisible orchestras—almost all of the songs and music are completely diegetic, the musicians and singers creating the music onscreen before our eyes and ears. However, De Palma so deftly modernizes (well, for the 1970s) The Phantom of the Opera and Faust while weaving in nods to other horror classics, his brainchild becomes a whole new beast of terror.
Its cult following grows every day, encouraged by folks like Paul Williams, who seems to take great pride in his roles both as co-star and composer of the musical score. Williams, who De Palma initially approached to play the Phantom (despite writing the role for Finley), is as responsible for the film’s appeal as anyone, contributing a memorable soundtrack and an insidiously sympathetic villain. You’ll likely find yourself singing along (or at least keeping time) with the songs, smiling and nodding all the while at the various allusions contained therein. So find yourself a copy for the hell of it and meet the devil who is so special to me — The Phantom of the Paradise.
(Read more of Anna's edifying and entertaining ramblings at https://bemusedandnonplussed.wordpress.com/)
Phantom of the Paradise is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE: