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179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

“The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”–Gerrit Graham on Phantom of the Paradise (quoted in the New York Times)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Finley, , , Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli

PLOT: Swan is the world’s most powerful music producer, who dreams of opening a grandiose concert venue called the Paradise, while Winslow is a composer who has created a rock cantata version of “Faust.” Swan steals Winslow’s work; while seeking revenge, an accident disfigures Winslow’s face and destroys his vocal cords. Now wearing a mask, Winslow takes up residence in the basement of the Paradise and strikes a deal with Swan to rewrite the opera for Phoenix, a female singer whom both men lust after.

Still from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Brian De Palma became famous for thrillers and action movies like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible, he began his career making subversive underground comedies, and his earliest films for major studios were oddball farces. Phantom of the Paradise marks the apex of De Palma’s comedic phase; his next film would be the horror hit Carrie, following which he would largely abandon his burlesque and experimental impulses.
  • De Palma was inspired to write a satire on the commercialization of rock music when he heard a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in an elevator.
  • Paul Williams, a successful songwriter who had penned hits for The Carpenters, wrote and performed the soundtrack (dubbing in William Finley’s singing voice). Williams was originally cast in the role of Winston, but asked to play Swan instead, and proved a natural for the role.
  • The movie was a financial flop, but Williams’ score was nominated for an Academy Award.
  • A bizarre bit of trivia: although Phantom was a box office bomb, for some reason it was immensely popular in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played screens on and off for over a year. (I like to imagine famous weird Winnipegian , who would have been about 18 at the time, was a repeat customer).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the assassination of Beef, who is killed in improbable fashion by a neon lightning bolt. To ecstatic applause from the spectacle-hungry audience. Not only is it an unforgettable sight, it’s also the moment when the operatic Phantom solidifies its weird credentials.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a wadded-up plot of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a bit of “Dorian Gray,” rolled up into a music biz satire ball and sprinkled with a dusting of crazy.


Edgar Wright commentary on the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise (from Trailers from Hell)

COMMENTS: There’s a critical cliche that says that you can’t deliberately fashion a cult movie; it must be discovered. In other words, it’s the Continue reading 179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)

Steve Martin burst onto the national radar with his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978). He followed that success by starring in his first feature film, the box office bonanza The Jerk (1979) directed by Carl Reiner and co-starring his then-current flame, Bernadette Peters. Although The Jerk was merely crass instead of authentically humorous, Martin and Peters re-teamed for Herbert Ross’ winningly experimental Pennies From Heaven (1981). Predictably, American audiences smelled something new with the film, and stayed away. Many critics were more astute and praised the film, which prompted Martin and Reiner to briefly follow that attempted path of originality in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Man With Two Brains (1983). Alas, like the rest of that decade, what started in a burst of creative energy petered out midway through and succumbed to formula.

Paralleling the rise and fall of the 1980s was Martin’s work as an interesting artist. He simply ceased to take chances after his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and rendered himself irrelevant. In contrast, Peters continued to challenge herself, instead of taking the safe route. It is her post Pennies career, rather than Martin’s, which is more consistently satisfying.

Pennies from Heaven is an idiosyncratic and delightfully grim film, and it separates authentic critics from the weak-kneed boys by defying the rules of filmmaking and confounding those who expect dogmatic adherence to genre expectations (with due apologies to Mr. Ebert). It startles us even today and seems as fresh and innovative as it did thirty years ago.

 wrote the screenplay, which sprang from his 1978 BBC mini-series of the same name. As in his later script for Dreamchild (1985), Potter achieves a level of unsettling emotional intensity rarely achieved in the medium. Potter and Ross recreate a mythological Depression era, lifted straight from the haunting canvases of Edward Hopper, giving the film its unique texture.

Arthur (Martin) is a down on his luck sheet music salesman trying to ply his wares in a corrupt world. Compounding his frustration is his downright Victorian marriage to Joan (). When Arthur encounters the uninhibited Eileen (Peters), he is not above lying about his marital status.

Still from Pennies from HeavenThe characters lip-synch to songs from 1930s musicals and, surprisingly, it works. Often, Pennies From Heaven supersedes its source material because—let’s be frank—do any of us ever watch period musicals for their emotional depth or narrative substance?

A web of lies, back alley abortions, and the rape and the murder of a blind girl are not going to add up to an Astaire/Rogers happy ending. (Arthur and Eileen even take the place of that famous duo by literally stepping into a scene from 1936’s Follow the Fleet).  has an all too brief scene, doing a slimy striptease as only he can. Martin is refreshingly subdued. We root for him and Eileen, despite his manipulations. Harper is equally good, and it’s a revelation of some kind that her character in 1981 is not the one we are asked to identify with or root for, as we would have fifty years earlier.

Pennies From Heaven was a gutsy movie in 1981. It still is, never once succumbing to bland and pretentious realism, while at the same time never alienating us emotionally. Ross, Potter, Martin, Peters, Harper, and Walken all proved that the good and original musical had not gone the way of the dinosaur. Alas, it took European audiences to respond to them.

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).

CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cliff De Young, Barry Humphries, , Charles Gray, Ruby Wax,

PLOT: A young married couple end up in a town that’s actually a giant television network; Janet is groomed as a celebrity, while Brad becomes a mental patient in a hospital show.

Still from Shock Treatment (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shock Treatment is a cult film even among the tiny subset of cult film enthusiasts. This “sequel” was rejected as a confounding disappointment by most fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but is still vehemently defended by a segment of that fan base. It’s a peculiar exercise in wacky musical satire, for sure, but it lacks the kind of résumé necessary to place it among the most significantly weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: What would you get if you took The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stripped out Tim Curry‘s domineering performance as the mad scientist transvestite dominatrix, leaving behind only the theater-rock musical numbers and campy supporting players? (On the off-chance you don’t see where I’m going yet, the answer is Shock Treatment). Whereas Rocky Horror was a theatrical flop that organically grew into a cult movie, Shock Treatment was pitched as a deliberate cult movie, but became an instant flop. This delayed follow-up is full of amped-up ideas and energy, but it comes off as cocksure; it’s so convinced its madness is entrancing that it forgets to ground us in its quirky universe. The (confusingly executed) idea is that the entire town of Denton, U.S.A. is a TV studio, with the audience as regular citizens, the stars and staff as sorts of metro officials, and the sponsors as big-money villains manipulating studio politics behind the scenes. The movie throws so many colorful eccentrics at us that every character turns into a minor character, even the leads. Janet (not necessarily the Janet Susan Sarandon played in the previous movie) and Brad (again, a character with the same name but little connection to the original) enter the town’s audience, for unclear reasons, and wind up on a marriage counseling show run by a blind Austrian in an orange thrift-store tuxedo. He hands Brad off to a brother/sister pair of psychiatrists (writer Richard O’Brien, wearing uncomfortable- Continue reading CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

67. SUSPIRIA (1977)

“For Suspiria I was inspired by… everything that German Expressionism means: dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis.”–Dario Argento

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , Joan Bennet, Allida Valli, Stefania Casini

PLOT: Suzy, an American ballet student, is accepted to a German dance academy, but when she arrives there one stormy night she is denied entrance and watches as a young woman flees the school and runs into the forest. The next day she returns and is admitted to the academy with apologies, but she soon falls ill and becomes too weak to practice with the other students. After a series of bizarre occurrences and disappearances, Suzy becomes convinced that the faculty and staff of the academy are not who they pretend to be.

Still from Suspiria (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • Suspiria (concerning the “Mother of Sighs”) is the first and most notable of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. Subsequent installments are Inferno (1980, about the “Mother of Darkness”) and Mother of Tears (2007). The idea of the Three Mothers came from opium-addicted English writer Thomas de Quincey, who invented a myth of three witches analogous to the three Fates in his collection of fantastical essays Suspiria de Profundis (“suspiria” is Latin for “sighs”).
  • Argento originally wanted the story to feature a school of girls in the 8-10 year age range, but producers balked at the idea of showing gruesome murders of children. Although he cast adults to play the roles, Argento left in some childlike dialogue, and actually raised the doorknobs on the set so that the actress’ would have to reach up to turn them, as if they were children.
  • Argento has said that the color scheme for Suspiria was inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
  • In an early scene in the taxicab Argento’s scowling face can be seen momentarily reflected in the glass that separates the driver and the passenger; the effect is nearly subliminal.
  • Suspiria was one of the last films made using the Technicolor process.
  • Argento co-composed the remarkable soundtrack, performed by the Italian progressive rock group Goblin.
  • Rumors of a remake have been circulating for years. A project entitled Suspiria is (at the time of this writing) listed as “in development” on the IMDB, scheduled for a 2012 release. There are reports that Italian producer Marco Morabito has confirmed that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) will direct. Earlier rumors speculated that Natalie Portman would play the lead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isolating a single indelible image in the movie is an impossible task; Suspiria shapes its surreality from the play of supersaturated colors on the baroque walls of the dance academy, and from its impossible, unnatural lighting schemes. The colors as a whole are indelible; there are perhaps a dozen impossibly lit individual shots (scenes that look as if they were inked by a demented gnome) that together form an impression of a world gone luminescently awry. The image of Suzy posed in front on a neon peacock as she enters the witch’s chamber, with a background column glowing an improbable scarlet from an unseen light source, is as a representative an image as any.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there are plenty of “weird” (in the sense of “uncanny” or“ occult”) occurrences in Suspiria—such as the rain of maggots—it’s the stylized sensual elements, the brilliantly unreal cinematography and the relentless unnerving score, that catapult the movie out of the realm of ordinary supernatural horror and land it in its own unique fairy tale nightmare realm.

Edgar Wright’s commentary for Suspiria trailer for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS: Suspiria is more an assault on the senses than a narrative; it’s Gothic horror Continue reading 67. SUSPIRIA (1977)