Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is a hard movie to classify, it’s not really a musical but it is chock full of music, it’s not a straight horror film because who the actual monster turns out to be is not who you’d expect and it’s darkly satiric, but what Phantom of the Paradise is in fact is an awesome blend of several disparate elements that all work together in a sort of monster mash-up if you will.
Though based loosely on Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but closer to the 1943 Universal movie (so close that Universal sued them), this version of a mad musician seeking revenge takes elements from many different sources; The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Cask of Amontillado, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and of course Faust, then weaves all these threads through a satirical look at the music industry. Of course what holds these various components together are the fantastic songs by legendary singer/song writer Paul Williams, not to mention his dead on portrayal of the evil music producer Swan the films chief villain, who is kind of a cross between Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and record producer Phil Spector.
Talented songwriter Winslow Leech (William Finley) is working on an immense rock cantata based on the story of Faust and when music producer Swan (Paul Williams) hears some of it he wants it for the opening of his new club The Paradise. Unfortunately for Winslow he wants the songs not the artist and soon poor Winslow finds himself tossed out on his ear, framed for drug dealing, and thrown in prison. While in prison he his forced to volunteer for some dentistry experiments and all his teeth are replaced with metal ones.
When Winslow hears that the 50s nostalgia rock band The Juicy Fruits, who he hates with a passion, are performing his music he loses it and breaks out of prison. It’s while trying to trash the record presses at Death Records that Winslow is horrible scarred when his head is caught between pressing plates. He later dons full leathers, cape and a metal birdlike helmet to hide his disfigurement. His reign of terror begins by bombing a rehearsal of The Beach Bums (formerly The Juicy Fruits).
This is where things diverge greatly from the original story as Winslow Leech’s Phantom isn’t all that monstrous, when confronted by Swan he cowers before him and eventually agrees to write more music for him as long as they are only sung by the beautiful ingénue Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Winslow signs a contract with Swan and of course he is forced to sign it in blood.
Swan has no intention of letting Phoenix sing because her voice is perfection and the only perfection he will allow is his own. He instead holds auditions and eventually picks a glam-rock meathead named Beef (Gerrit Graham) to sing lead for The Undead (formerly The Beach Bums) to open The Paradise with Winslow’s now finished cantata. Though a greatly altered if not a completely bastardized version of it. Swan orders his goons to brick up the studio where Winslow is sleeping and thus leaving him unable to interfere with Swan’s plans.
This movie has everything; great songs, an excellent cast and a story that has you routing for Winslow but also mesmerized by Swan. Paul Williams is just chilling as the Faustian Swan, with equal parts charismatic star power and evil seducer of the innocent, he pretty much steals the movie from the title character. This film also does a great job of poking fun at the industry, showing how original art isn’t always appreciated until it’s been sampled and turned into something more palatable for the public.
Jessica Harper’s Phoenix is quite different from her counterpart Christine from the original Phantom of the Opera as Phoenix may have started out a sweet young innocent but she quickly falls prey to the addiction that is fame. And a huge shout out to Gerrit Graham who’s portrayal of the flamboyantly homosexual rocker Beef is just a joy to behold.
William Finley certainly has the tougher character to play as he goes from mild mannered writer to not very effective figure of revenge; it pales in comparison to the richness of Swan’s character. Special mention goes to George Memmoli who played Philbin, the number one lackey of Swan, Memmoli was sufficiently creepy with a nice sense of menace and depravity, and greatly reminded me of Beadle Bamford, the evil lackey of Judge Turpin from Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and is most likely based on dozens of real life music industry personages.
On its initial release back in 1974 it failed to catch the public’s eye, it was only received well in two cities; Winnipeg and Paris, but it has since garnered a rather large cult following. This film certainly isn’t for everyone as it is whimsically weird at times, but that is why I love it.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
The pairing of director Brian De Palma and sing/songwriter Paul Williams in the making of a rock horror movie may seem odd to many but somehow it really, really works. The cast is fantastic and the look of the film is surreal and gorgeous in this darkly satiric tale.