Brain De Palma, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and John Waters were among the directors whose films we passionately watched and discussed in that now extinct haven once known as art school. It was De Palma who topped our list, enough that we ranked him as high as, if not higher than, Alfred Hitchcock. There is justification in the criticism that Hitchcock’s films are often cold, mechanical exercises. De Palma was more experimental, and emotionally incinerating in ways that Hitchcock could not be. De Palma is decidedly unbiased when it comes to provocation: Scarface (1983) unintentionally inspired the current trash thug culture, and Casualties of War (1989) still manages to boil the blood of extremist patriots. He has been accused of being a misogynist and a feminist, an innovative bohemian and a plagiarist, a shrewdly manipulative avant-gardist and the quintessential sell-out. Any director this divisive deserves attention.
Unfortunately, one must briefly address the De Palma/Hitchcock comparison primarily because lazy, hack critics have long held De Palma to Hitchcock’s standards. De Palma was too much his own man to simply imitate Hitchcock. Rather, Hitchcock was one of several influences filtered through De Palma’s preexisting sensibilities. Jean-Luc Godard was another, and it is no accident that De Palma has been referred to as an example of American Nouvelle Vague.
Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970), Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972) and the scrappy Sisters (1973) were distinguished early films that reveal De Palma’s eclecticism and underrated sense of humor. De Palma’s horror-comedy-musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) came out a full year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Despite the fact that the latter came to define cult hit, De Palma’s is the better film; its shrewd satire was not accessible enough for American audience, even of the cult variety. It is the only worthwhile adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s pulp tale “The Phantom of the Opera”, possibly because Paradise recognizes the source as pedestrian. Even the unjustly famous silent version of Phantom of the Opera (1925) is primarily noteworthy for its star’s masochistic makeup, set design and a few choice scenes (such as the masque of the red death ball and the unmasking). Despite these highlights, Rupert Julian’s direction was flat and uninspired, resulting in a dissatisfying whole. The less said about Opera‘s remakes, the better; the story reached its nadir when adapted for the musical stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber (but then, Webber’s treatment of anything could probably be considered its ultimate low point).
De Palma’s Phantom is not content with a sole source: strands from “Frankenstein,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and Psycho are woven into a glittering glam horror extravaganza staging of “Faust.”
The casting of Paul Williams as a gnome-like demonic cherub is delightfully idiosyncratic. De Palma regular William Finley (as the titular Phantom) and 70’s favorite Jessica Harper (as the love interest Phoenix) fill out an equally odd cast. Gerrit Graham, as the glam rocker Beef, virtually steals every scene he is in, revealing a musical magnetism on a par with the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Tim Curry.
For all the sharp satire and cynicism regarding the pop music world, Phantom of the Paradise has at its center an authentically felt camp sentimentality. On paper, this sounds like yet another postmodern disaster, but De Palma’s innovative approach melds it into a cogent, maniacal, cinematic firework display. The nexus of De Palma’s film is locating the grandeur amongst the pandemonium, making one regret that it was Oliver Stone and not De Palma who eventually helmed The Doors (1991) (which De Palma was originally slated to direct).