“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)
DIRECTED BY: Brian De Palma
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.
- 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 Guy Maddin, 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 audience, not the filmmakers, that make a movie “cult.” While there is an almost tautological truth to that adage, I think that it’s also valid to recognize that many successful cult films were deliberately planned as such; not that these movies intended to flop at the box office, but that they were crafted to appeal to a small demographic with peculiar tastes. In the 1970s, in particular, there was the idea of the “midnight movie” as its own niche genre, a place for films too strange for the general public but so unfettered and freely bizarre that they would appeal to the adventurous. Phantom of the Paradise writer/director Brian De Palma suggested as much in a New York Times interview when he reflected of the Phantom period, “It was an era when people were letting young directors make all kind of film. For a while.” If El Topo, a surrealist western full of impenetrable, hallucinatory occult imagery could pack theaters with pot-smoking cineastes, surely that same crew wouldn’t be scared off by a little Phantom of the Opera spoof filled with bizarre costumes, gaudy colors, and that hard rock music all the kids are talking about today?
Movies like Phantom of the Paradise rejected (or had never heard) the advice that you can’t create a deliberate cult movie and aimed themselves at a small, hip audience eager to embrace the aesthetic of excess. Phantom had an apparent “in” to the youth crowd with its pop music angle: “he sold his soul for rock n’ roll,” read the posters decorated with neon stars and lightning bolts and weirdo longhair rockers. While the movie’s attitude towards the then-current state of rock music was decidedly satirical, Paul Williams’ score proved popular (although it didn’t contain a radio hit). Besides penning the music Williams also co-starred, and as the laconic and cynical Swan, he is excellent (perhaps his murderous portrayal of a ruthless music baron drew from his personal experiences in the business). Swan’s machinations are perfectly calculated to his sleazy and perverse advantage, having nothing to do with artistry. Needing a new act to realize the “Faust” rock opera he wants to open his concert palace, Swan uses studio magic to audition a folk-rock outfit, a funk-gospel trio, and even a country singer: he deliberately passes over the most suitable musical choices (the Phantom or Phoenix) and picks instead the image he thinks the public will eat up. That morsel proves to be the movie’s best creation, the aggressive and androgynous glam-rocker Beef, whom Swan introduces to the press growling from out of a coffin. Beef’s backstage persona doesn’t quite match his fearsome public image, and Gerrit Graham steals every scene he’s in with what might have been a one-note stereotype in other hands. One of the movie’s grand jokes on the music industry is how diabolical producer Swan reinvents his house band every couple of months to capitalize on the latest pop trends. They begin as “the Juicy Fruits,” a Sha Na Na-based nostalgia band with greasy ducktails and leather jackets who open the film with an elaborate doo-wop ballad about a singer whose suicide funds his baby sister’s lifesaving operation. A few scenes later, the same band turns up in blond wigs as a Beach Boys knockoff, and by the end of the film they are in white and black greasepaint as the goth-y “the Undeads” (quite by happy accident, in this last iteration the group looks like a parody of the then-unknown band KISS).
The staging of the “Faust” cantata provides plenty of pageantry to please eager eyes. If De Palma is satirizing rock concert excess here, he’s also exploiting it for its entertainment value. The Paradise’s opening night features a slanted monochrome set based on Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Beef is introduced arising from a raised slab in a lightning storm, a la Frankenstein’s monster. The stage production involves the Undeads slicing off the limbs of screaming groupies with wicked bayonets attached to their guitars; the victims are happy to be sacrificed on the altar of rock and roll. When Beef is actually executed onstage, the crowd, whipped into a bloodthirsty rage, is ecstatic. It’s not clear, at first, whether they think it’s part of the act or not, but what is clear is that the concert hall creates its own emotional reality: what is the difference between cheering for a fake carnage, and lusting after the real thing? When the crowd mobs Beef’s coffin after the show, Swan is thrilled: “they’ve really been entertained!” He plans a bigger extravaganza: an onstage wedding complete with showgirl bridesmaids and gilded bishop, and a surprise tragedy he has planned…
We get only a glimpse of “Faust,” the show-within-a-show, but that’s OK, because the real plot is itself Faustian. The connection between selling your soul to the Devil and selling it to show business is an old and obvious one, but I can’t recall the conceit being used so literally and transparently as it is here. The Phantom eventually signs a contract, in blood, with Swan, and so does Phoenix. The familiarity of the source material isn’t an issue, because combining the stories of Faust and the Phantom provides De Palma with a solid narrative backbone on which he can slap some surprising flesh. Phantom adds an unexpected supernatural twist near the end. Basically, however, the movie is the story of the maneuvering between Swan and Winslow; the producer toys with and torments the composer, without realizing that he is slowly creating a mad Phantom he won’t be able to control. Swan is a magnificent creation. Williams’ casting is unusual, but effective. With his diminutive stature, long blond hair, large tinted glasses, measured accent, perpetual cig, and perpetual frown, Williams makes an odd, Napoleonic villain. Yet he is completely in control of his scenes; you truly sense he rules over his empire with a velvet fist. De Palma takes his time revealing Swan’s face; we see his white gloves clapping politely, hear his calm voice measuring out the career spans of his musician playthings, but he doesn’t appear onscreen until the proper amount of suspense has been built up. As Winslow, William Finley is not nearly so imposing. Slightly bug-eyed, at the same time naive and manic, he looks like the nerdy love-child Donald Sutherland is ashamed to acknowledge. He needs a scarred face and a stainless steel sparrow mask to transform himself from nebbish balladeer to dashing Phantom, but when he does so, he projects legitimate pathos. While Jessica Harper gained some notice in her debut here—she’s very appealing, even in a flat role—her Phoenix is nothing more than a pretty prize fought over by the symbolic forces of Art and Commerce.
Made in the heart of the midnight movie craze, when directors were free to take (relatively) big budgets and take crazy chances with them, De Palma included a number of stylistically off-balance scenes that surely would have been excised, to Phantom‘s detriment, in a less forgiving film era. Besides the outrageous musical numbers, there’s an (all-clothed) lesbian orgy; a silent-movie style jailbreak complete with undercranked camera; lots of split screens, POV shots and slanted angles; a weird musical number with the Phantom hooked up to an enormous Moog synthesizer with walls of dials as he attempts to recover his voice; and numerous tributes to other movies, including the strangest and funniest parody of Psycho‘s shower scene ever filmed. De Palma’s adoption of the musical/rock opera as a weird movie form predated Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show by a year. Although the musical styles are different, Phantom shares a lot of comic spirit with Lisztomania (also from 1975, the banner year of weird musicals), the movie I would pair it with if I were programming a double feature. Of course, 1980s The Apple has a very similar Faustian premise; it’s far less accomplished moviemaking than Phantom, but it’s fun in its own right. Looked at in context, Phantom might have been a phlop, but its influence turned out to be much greater than its receipts would indicate. It launched the eccentric careers of Paul Williams and Jessica Harper, and (sadly) marked the end of a career arc for Brian De Palma, who must have felt that with this masterpiece under his belt he had pushed oddball cinema as far as he could and needed to accept the challenge of the mainstream. A loss to the weird movie community, for sure, though a gain to people who like to see Alfred Hitchcock plots recycled, or Tom Cruise star in movies based on old television series. It was the end of an era for De Palma, but the beginning of a wild, weird musical heritage for the rest of us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…[the movie] becomes quite enchanted with its own special photograpic effects, as well as with its bizarre sets, which, because there’s very little of interest going on within them, become the mildly amusing surrogate subjects of the film.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“De Palma’s cinema frequently draws on the medium’s oneiric affinities, and Phantom of the Paradise progresses as a darkening reverie from which escape is revealed as unattainable; the hero’s blood-sealed contract with Swan locks their souls together, and only the rebellion of protégé against master (to be later followed and enriched in Obsession, The Fury, Raising Cain) can lead to liberation, even if that means death.”–Fernando F. Croce, Slant
IMDB LINK: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Phantom of the Paradise: The Swan Archives – This fan site disguises itself as a tribute to fictional producer Swan; it has a huge amount of content, almost every available document regarding the film, even including some rare video outtakes (presented in low resolution). It’s possibly the most detailed fan site we’ve ever seen for any movie.
Phantom of the Paradise – A Canadian fan site with interviews and, most significantly, a detailed analysis of the “Winnipeg conundrum”
The Fox bean-counters speak: Funhouse interview clip “blocked” on YT – A 2012 clip of Gerrit Graham talking about the movie on Media Funhouse, a Manhattan public television show, along with an explanation of how YouTube blocked it
In Memory Of William Finley (1942-2012), 5 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Phantom Of The Paradise’ – From Oliver Lyttleton of Indiewire comes five bits of oft-repeated trivia about the film, one of which might be exaggerated
Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – Alfred Eaker’s review/tribute written for this site
DVD INFO: The Shout! Factory sub-label Scream Factory is striving to be the Criterion Collection of the horror genre. Besides remastered video and audio, their Phantom Blu-ray (buy) offers a host of extras spread across two discs, foremost of which is a new commentary with Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham and the “Juicy Fruits” band (as well as a second audio commentary with production designer Jack Fisk). There are almost an hour of alternate takes and outtakes, and numerous interviews with writer/director De Palma, composer/star Paul Williams, and others. Add in a fifty-minute documentary and other video odds and ends and there’s almost nothing in the set even the cultiest Phantom phan could complain was missing.
Beware: although the Scream Factory release contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD disc, the actual movie is not on the included DVD, which only contains supplemental material. If you only have DVD capabilities you’ll have to make do with a copy of the out-of-print Fox DVD release (buy), which contains no special features other than trailers. Alternatively, if you don’t care about extras or physical meida, you can rent or buy the film digitally (on-Demand) in either standard or high definition.