PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies. The official Certified Weird entry is here.

Brain De Palma, , , and  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. 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  (but then, Webber’s treatment of anything could probably be considered its ultimate low point).

Still from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)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  as a gnome-like demonic cherub is delightfully idiosyncratic. De Palma regular William Finley (as the titular Phantom) and 70’s favorite (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 and .

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).

2 thoughts on “PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)”

  1. I wouldn’t call Phantom a cogent film, mostly because of its weak casting. Harper, as the supposed emotional center for the Phantom, is very stiff and unnatural, and her singing is embarrassingly bad. Beef, while energetic and somewhat entertaining, is simply thrashing around like a madman. It’s a vast overstatement to compare him to Bowie, Iggy, or Curry.

    Paul Williams, however, is perfect.

  2. This is probably my favorite underrated cult movie, in a tie with the not altogether dissimilar Lisztomania. Jessica Harper is horribly miscast – I suppose the idea was for her to come across as a vulnerable child-woman, but that’s all she is, so she utterly fails to convince as a vast international megastar. Her singing is adequate at best, she’s not particularly charismatic, and she dances like a Teletubby. Since she’s the only performer in the film who isn’t a broad parody of somebody else, it would have been far better to cast a real singer who was famous at the time. Given the minimal amount of acting the character has to do, that wouldn’t have been a problem. And it would have been fun to see the likes of Olivia Newton-John in a film as loopy as this!

    But everybody else is pretty close to perfection. Gerrit Graham’s performance, in addition to being hilarious – I can’t think of any other character in anything who manages to hit the opposite extremes of being ludicrously ultra-macho and screamingly camp simultaneously the way he does – is a ferocious parody of the then-huge (in every sense of the word) Meatloaf, who came very close to self-parody in the first place. And anyone who doesn’t laugh when a band who are obviously meant to be K*I*S*S (remember them?) very unconvincingly dismember the audience with weaponized guitars and use the bits to create a monster which is of course Beef in skintight shorts isn’t human!

    Also, throwing the Faust legend into the basic Phantom Of The Opera story is a touch of brilliance – if you haven’t seen the film before, you think you know exactly where it’s going, even if the costumes are different this time round, but then you find that you don’t after all. Just thinking about this film makes me wonder what De Palma might have done with the damp squib that was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

    By the way, this film was one of the very first to use digital effects. Since the baddie is called Swann, his record company was originally called Dying Swan Records. Unfortunately, after the film had already been completed, it turned out that the company logo, which appeared prominently in many scenes, infringed the copyright of a real record label called Swan Song. So they had to use horribly primitive digital technology to retroactively transform the company into Death Records. In some of the scenes where the Death Records logo is shown, you can see that it’s too bright and has an oddly vibrant quality.

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