20th Century Fox
Written and Directed by Brian DePalma
Produced by Edward R. Pressman
Mention the name Brian DePalma and most people will probably cite him as the director of Hitchcockian style thrillers such as ‘Dressed To Kill’, ‘Blow Out’ or ‘Sisters’. I myself would be more apt to mention ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Scarface’ or his vastly underrated and overlooked Vietnam War movie, ‘Casualties of War’. And nobody would even dare bring up ‘Bonfires of The Vanities’ but very few would have his satirical horror rock musical PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE be the first title to come to mind. And I can understand why. It’s a movie unlike any other Brian DePalma had made up to that point and he never would again. In my research for this review I learned that apparently the only place this movie was a success was Canada and everyplace else was considered a major box office flop. And then ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was released the year after and we all know what a cult phenomenon that became and so PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became further eclipsed.
It’s a shame, though. For my money, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is the far better movie with a compelling story based on the Faust legend as well as ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ with a generous helping of ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ tossed in and done well with great energy and style. Everybody involved looks as if they’re having a great time and best of all; nobody’s taking themselves or the material too seriously. They know they’re making a satirical spoof of horror films and taking broadly generous pokes at the record industry but it’s all in fun. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who worship at the altar of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and have seen the movie more than a hundred times. I’ve seen it exactly twice and have no intention of ever seeing it again but I’ve seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE about five times and could cheerfully watch it another five times.
Swan (Paul Williams) is the hideously powerful creative genius behind Death Records, capable of influencing musical trends on a day-to-day basis. Swan can create rock stars and elevate them to godhood or destroy them and leave them broken with a frightening ease. Swan is searching for just the right music and singer for the opening of his music palace, The Paradise. He finds the music in a cantata written by Winslow Leach (William Finley) that is over 200 pages long and based on the Faust legend. Swan’s number one henchman Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) goes to meet with Winslow and through a combination of generous flattery, heaping helpings of bovine excrement and just plain lying; he gets hold of Winslow’s cantata, promising that Swan will make him a star.
Hah. That’s a laugh. Swan takes the cantata, refuses to meet with Winslow and has him thrown out time and again from the Death Records building. But Winslow is persistent and during one of his efforts to get in and confront Swan, meets up with Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who has the most beautiful voice he’s ever heard. Swan finally has Winslow set up on a phony drug possession rap and sentenced to Sing Sing. Winslow is a broken man until he hears that his cantata is to be performed at the opening night of The Paradise by Swan’s cheesy 50’s doo-wop boy band, The Juicy Fruits. Winslow’s mind snaps and he goes berserk, escaping from Sing Sing and making it to the Death Records pressing factory where he tries to destroy the huge machine pressing out copies of the album.
(We Interrupt This Review For A Historical Footnote: Before there were CDs and MP3s there were these things called ‘albums’ that people used to listen to music on. They were made of vinyl and a device known as a turntable was used to play them. We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Review.)
Winslow’s head is caught inside the hot record pressing machine but he manages to get free. Driven totally mad by physical and psychological pain he flees from pursuing police who chase him to The East River where he falls in and is presumed dead. No such luck. Soon, The Paradise is being haunted by a leather clad, caped figure wearing a silver bird-like mask who commits acts of murder and destruction, delaying the opening of The Paradise. It’s Winslow, of course. But he’s horribly deformed and his voice has been destroyed. And he won’t allow Swan to let anybody except Phoenix sing his music. Swan agrees to this and even makes a deal with Winslow (they sign a contract in blood) who agrees to rewrite his cantata for Phoenix. But Swan has other plans up his well-tailored sleeve…
From that short summary it sounds as if PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a straight up horror film and if it was told in a straight up and down manner, it would be. But DePalma tells the story in a loopy, freewheeling style with crazy camera angles, split screens, a jumbled up music score that has everything from doo-wop to heavy metal, drugs, orgies, outrageous violence and yes, a lot of laughs. It also manages to get in a hell of a lot of plot in its 97 minutes, which means that the movie is never slow, and never lags. There’s always something happening and the twists and turns the story takes ensures that your attention won’t be allowed to wander.
I like all the performances in this movie. This is probably the best acting job Paul Williams has ever done and he is obviously enjoying himself. Swan is a terrific villain who relishes being such an unprincipled bastard. Along with George Memmoli as Philbin, they make a great team. They go about their villainy with just a day-to-day attitude that it makes it seem almost reasonable that they do such horrible things to people.
William Finley is wonderfully sympathetic as Winslow Leach/The Phantom and never fails to make you feel the pain of his character. I like how after his transformation into The Phantom he takes on a definite superheroish flair, climbing over rooftops, swinging from ropes and such, racing down corridors with his huge cape billowing behind him. Gerrit Graham nearly steals the movie as the bitchy hard rocker Beef. Every time he appears on screen he’s doing something that left me sore with laughter, including the scene where he slips and falls on stage and is trying to get up but his two foot high platform shoes keep getting in the way.
But Jessica Harper is the real star of the movie. I think Jessica Harper is a marvelous actress and one of the world’s most gorgeous women and it shows here. The camera simply loves her and when she’s on screen you don’t want to take your eyes off of her. I can’t help but feel she’s been vastly underused in the movies. When she gets a meaty role in movies such as ‘My Favorite Year’ ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘Suspira’ she’s magic. Wish I could say the same about her dancing. Just sit back and watch her dance in this movie. She makes Elaine Benes look like Tina Turner. I’m serious, folks. She’s that bad a dancer. But what the hell, her acting more than makes up for her two left feet and she gets to sing and that ain’t bad at all.
So should you see PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE? A lot of people are probably going to be turned off by the production values of the movie as it looks as if it were filmed on the smallest budget possible. The concert scenes look as if they were filmed in a high school auditorium and the attitudes of the characters is pure cheesy 70’s. The music score is done by Paul Williams and while it’s not memorable, it serves the needs of the story and the closing theme, “The Hell Of It” is probably the best song in the movie but I like the goofy opening song, “Goodbye, Eddie” as well. And Jessica Harper gets to sing two ballads that may not be show stoppers but they don’t suck, either… Hell, I’d watch Jessica Harper sing VCR instruction manuals without complaint.
So don’t let the movie’s 70’s production value stop you from checking it out. It’s done in a flamboyant visual style with an intriguing mix of the horror, musical, social satire and comedy genres and mixed very well in my opinion. One genre doesn’t dominate the others and the mix ensures that it’s not a boring movie. It doesn’t have the polish and sophistication of Brian DePalma’s later films but that’s part of its decidedly goofy charm.