Lost Treasures of Cinema- Phantom of the Paradise – Film Review
Directed by Brian De Palma
Reviewed by Anthony C. Francis
Phantom of the Paradise is one of the most original and entertaining films ever made. Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult riff on The Phantom of the Opera is one of the finest films of the 70’s; a grotesque amalgam of great music, horror, comedy, and wild atmosphere. This is a film that is alive!
After making his name with a few experimental counter-culture films and then graduating to the Hitchcock pupil that would make his career with the wonderfully creepy Sisters, Brian De Palma wrote and directed Phantom of the Paradise. This would be his “rock opera” infused with all of the horror and Hitchcockian thrills he loved. Rock operas and horror were both big at the time so the project had great promise to be something special.
The story is a conglomerate of Faust, Frankenstein, and Phantom of the Opera, and follows a music mogul named Swan who has sold his soul to the Devil in order to be the king of the rock industry. In his contract with the Devil, he receives unlimited power and eternal life.
Swan meets Winslow Leach, a nerdy and aloof songwriter whose music he steals and makes his own while having Leach banished to prison to complete his scheme. However, Leach escapes and tries to vandalize Swan’s record studio but is chased by guards and gets caught on the machinery causing his head to be crushed in a record press and his face mangled. So Winslow Leach becomes The Phantom, haunting the halls of Swan’s rock palace known as the Paradise.
As with The Phantom of the Opera, Leach wants no one else to sing his songs except for his muse, the beautiful Phoenix, and he will kill anyone who tries.
The casting in this film could not be more perfect. Swan is played by Paul Williams, who also wrote the phenomenal songs. Williams is perfect as the slimy producer who lives his life walking a tightrope due to the Faustian deal he has made. His performance is pure devilish charm as he seduces and corrupts anyone that he meets and, perhaps, the audience as well.
Jessica Harper plays Phoenix, who is a wide eyed, virginal, up and coming singer. She becomes seduced by Swan and the rock and roll lifestyle as The Phantom watches her sad transformation from the shadows. Harper made a career of playing neurotic New Yorkers but here she was given the chance to do a multi-layered role and flesh out the character perfectly, even doing her own singing, which was great.
The main act of the big show Swan is putting on at the Paradise is a rock star called Beef. The great and massively underused character actor Gerrit Graham plays Beef as a coin with two very opposing sides. On stage he is a rock god; a muscular, macho, deep voiced, star who oozes sexuality. Off stage, Beef is an extremely effeminate, apparently bi- sexual male who is terrified of the rumors of the Phantom haunting the halls of the Paradise Theater. Graham is very funny and gives the film a large dose of its humor. It is a classic comedic performance.
The part of The Phantom can be seen as two roles. The late character actor William Finley plays Winslow Leach as a soft, bumbling, yet talented songwriter who is gullible enough to let his work be stolen from him and romantic enough to fall for the doe-eyed Phoenix who sings his song perfectly and becomes his muse.
As The Phantom, he is commanding and evil as he lurks in the shadows of the Paradise, terrorizing the singers and staff and murdering anyone who stands in his way. The Phantom is made more tragic when he watches helplessly as Phoenix falls under Swan’s evil spell. Even as he becomes more and more homicidal, The Phantom never loses our sympathy. Finley’s work in this film should have been the start of a long character actor career in films. Alas, he only made a handful of films, five with De Palma, and never found the recognition he deserved. William Finley died of a heart attack in 2012.
There is a tragically beautiful moment where The Phantom is on a roof during a hard falling rain. He is watching through the glass window as Swan and Phoenix begin to make love. The Phantom cries out in heartbroken pain and then symbolically plunges a knife into his heart, lying down to die. Unfortunately, he earlier signed a contract, in his own blood, with Swan that now binds them together. The Phantom cannot die! As Swan stands over him telling him the horrific news, we watch as The Phantom becomes helpless and realizes Swan has now taken everything from him. It is a great scene.
The costume design of The Phantom was and still is groundbreaking. Leach’s voice box was destroyed by the record press so he is fitted with a voice box on his chest that tunes his vocal chords to an audible level. His voice is rough and electronic and fits the character well. He is dressed in black leather with a flowing black cape and a silver helmet that covers his eyes and most of his face, revealing only his mouth and silver, sharp teeth. The Phantom, while still human on the inside, is a monster.
William Finely came up with the idea of the bird theme that is prominent throughout the film. Swan’s record label, Death Records, has a dead bird as its symbol, Harper’s character’s name is Phoenix and she wears feathers for her big number, Beef dances around like a bird on stage and wears a tail, and The Phantom’s mask has a beak like quality to it. I felt that to be a nice touch.
De Palma wrote the film himself and has peppered it with many horror film references, my favorite being the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Beef is taking a shower and practicing the song that The Phantom wrote and only wants Phoenix to sing. De Palma shoots the sequence almost shot for shot as we see, from inside the shower, the shadow of the bathroom door opening slowly and The Phantom approaching the curtain. As he pulls it back, Beef screams like a teenage girl and, instead of a butcher knife as we would expect, The Phantom uses a plunger to cover Beef’s mouth as he is warned that nobody sings that song but Phoenix. The scene is comical, potent, and completely respectful to its source material.
The film is full of great ideas beginning with the opening narration performed by the great Rod Serling! Another great and original idea is that of the trio actors who play three different singing groups, The Juicy Fruits, Swan’s pop rock band, The Beach Bums, Swan’s Beach Boys bubble gum music group, and The Undead, Beef’s band who play hard rock while dressed in black with demonically painted faces.
The production design, of which Sissy Spacek was a set decorator(!), is completely original with its dark reds, purple and pink neon, sleek silvers, and darkest of blacks adding to the film’s wildly macabre tone. Swan’s surroundings are mostly cloaked in darkness with red being a prominent color, representing his deal with the devil.
Brian De Palma is a director who prides himself on a flashy directing style and here style reigns supreme. De Palma plays with focus and depth of field and uses it sparingly yet effectively. Long tracking shots that would become a De Palma trademark follow The Phantom through the halls of the theater giving the film an exciting flow.
Another De Palma camera trademark is his use of split screen. Here he uses it during a few scenes, one of the best being where The Beach Bums are practicing their number on stage. The screen is split while we watch simultaneously as The Phantom plants a bomb in the car they are sitting in. The Phantom, along with the audience, waits for it to explode. This is a great example of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” theory. The scene is tense and unnerving.
One of the great and most enduring of the film’s merits is the music. All songs were written by Paul Williams and each character sings their song while the lyrics tell the story. The actors become troubadours. Lyrics such as “the devils that disturbed me and the angels that defeated them somehow come together in me now…” are brilliantly telling. The sad, melancholy songs fill the screen with the dark emotions of the script while the bouncier pop tunes and harder rock sequences infuse the film with energy. It is a brilliant soundtrack and one of my favorites of all time.
The film was ignored upon its release in 1974. Reviews were mixed but the good ones weren’t great and audiences stayed away. Most who saw it did not like the mix of horror, comedy, and rock opera, yet two years later the inferior Rocky Horror Picture Show became a midnight movie mainstay and cultural phenomenon. I believe that film owes great debt to De Palma’s superior work. Rocky Horror is an entertaining film with good music but it is too silly and cartoonish and a bit all over the place. Phantom is a wild comedic, horror romp but is still grounded by masterful filmmaking and originality.
Films in the early seventies were alive with ideas and experimentation. Phantom of the Paradise is a joyfully mad film written and directed by a man at the height of his experimental stage. It is a phantasmagoric, wild, twisted, rock and roll, horror comedy that stands alone in its brilliance. I believe De Palma created a true masterpiece that is misunderstood and sadly under seen. Over the years, the film has attracted a cult following but not to the level it deserves. It needs to be rediscovered and take its place among the true classics of seventies cinema.