It’s one of those odd coincidences that in 1974, 20th Century Fox released two rock music-horror-comedy films, and that both bombed at the box office. Of course, one of those films would go on to become a midnight movie phenomenon, but the other has never quite achieved mainstream recognition.
I understand why people will make comparisons between the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, but beyond the superficial, the two films have little in common. RHPS is a traditional stage musical, dressed up with rock ‘n’ roll, Fifties sci-fi spoofery and a rampant omnisexuality; Phantom is more a traditional horror story – based, as it is, on both Phantom of the Opera and Faust – spiced up with black humour and a biting critique of the music industry, less a musical than a film about music (a slight distinction perhaps, but a significant one). The need that some people have to compare the two – and demand people choose a favourite – is baffling. They are both great films.
De Palma’s version of the familiar Phantom story has dweeby songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley) submitting his rock opera based on faust to all-powerful music mogul Swan (Paul Williams). When attempts to contact Swan prove fruitless, he makes his way to the svengali’s mansion, to find girls, including the talented Phoenix (Jessica Harper), being auditioned – in classic casting couch manner – as singers for the very piece of music he’s written. But When he’s thrown out of the mansion, beaten up and framed for drug pushing, he realises what a monster Swan is – he’s stolen Winslow’s music and plans to use it to open his new ‘rock palace’ The Paradise, with garish bubblegum band The Juicy Fruits performing bastardised versions of the songs. Enraged, he escapes from prison and vandalises the Death Records pressing plant, but an accident sees his face crushed in the vinyl pressing machine.
Presumed dead, the now deranged Winslow – his teeth replaced by steel spikes in a prison ‘dental program’, his face mutilated and his voice gone – turns up at the Paradise, steals a leather costume, cape and bird-like mask (absolutely THE best costume ever – comic book designers must look at this with envy) and begins terrorising the Faust rehearsals. But Swan soon convinces him that he will work with him rather than against him, and persuades Winslow to rewrite the piece for Phoenix, getting him to sign a contract in blood (if anyone ever asks you to sign anything in blood, run away!). But of course, Swan has no intention of having Phoenix as his lead performer, and instead hires garish glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham) to front the piece, while making plans to have Winslow bricked up in his studio as soon as the opera is finished. Naturally, this doesn’t go according to plan… the Phantom escapes, kills Beef onstage at the opening night and ensures that Phoenix gets her moment in the spotlight. But now she’s a star, Swan moves in on her, while Winslow discovers exactly what a lifetime contract is…
Phantom is a movie I’ve adored since I saw it, like most British people of my generation, on a Channel 4 broadcast in the 1980s, when it more than lived up to the promise of the tantalising stills you would see in horror movie books and magazines. It has, of course, aged considerably, though you could argue that it was never exactly an accurate view of the rock music industry. While the music actually fits the time, the presentation is all over the place, and it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to accept that Swan could not only open his ‘rock palace’ (which looks like a rather small theatre) with a piece of music that isn’t even finished, let alone rehearsed and choreographed, until the opening night. Equally, the idea that a crowd of rabid, blood crazed rock fans who are in a state of riot after seeing Beef killed would be immediately cowed by a girl in a long white dress singing a Carpenters style MOR song (it’s a great song, but still…) is stretching things somewhat too. There are continuity errors, misplaced comedy moments and plot points that make no sense. But you know what? None of that matters, and you only start to really notice these things after multiple viewings. Coming to Phantom expecting reality is to miss the point. This is comic book stuff, a live action cartoon drawn in broad strokes and ‘realism’ has no place here. It is, after all, a parallel universe where Swan is the musical svengali who “brought Liverpool to America”, as Rod Serling says in his fantastic introduction.
And oddly, while Phantom is dated in fashions, hairstyles and perhaps music, it actually seems like a film that could be made now. Paul Williams’ songs were not especially cool in 1974 – he was no cool rock ‘n’ roller – and the fact that much of the music is deliberately nostalgic anyway (a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll song here, a Beach Boys pastiche there) while the rest is mostly balladry actually gives it a timeless feel. Even the Kiss-style production number and Beef’s Life at Last don’t seem that old-fashioned (and the fact that Beef is lip-syncing is very much in tune with today’s big production number stage shows from the likes of Britney Spears). And let’s be honest – these are wonderful songs.
What’s more, the idea of a rock svengali is more pertinent now than it’s been since the 1960s – for Swan, read Simon Cowell (disclaimer – I’m not suggesting Cowell has sold his soul to Satan, steals music or plans to assassinate anyone on stage. Though none of those things would surprise me if they turned out to be true). In an age of manufactured music, where people hang on the approval of a musical overlord like Cowell, the scenes of of fans waiting for Swan to give his approval to an act before applauding don’t seem that outlandish.
When I first saw Phantom, it seemed a decidedly odd film in the Brain De Palma filmography. Now, it makes a lot more sense. While the garish, cartoonish and comedic aspects of the film seem a million miles from most of his other work of the 1970s, you can still see familiar De Palma touches, and not just in the use of split-screen. The grandly operatic excess of the film certainly fits nicely with his grand set pieces in movies like Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and others, while the studied garishness is something you’ll still see in more recent works like Passion. The nature of Phantom perhaps allows more deliberate high camp, but De Palma has always had a taste for excess. And Phantom still has room for subtlety, tragedy and seriousness when it’s needed – Winslow’s cry of anguish as he watches Swan seducing Phoenix is as haunting a moment as you’ll see in any ‘serious’ film.
The movie is perfectly cast, too. William Finley, in a rare leading role, is adept at both comedy and pathos, and gives the Phantom both a crazed psychosis and a genuine humanity, while Paul Williams is impressively sinister as Swan. He could’ve been laughable in the role, but he exudes the seductive charm that power brings and captures the insincerity and smugness of the character perfectly. Jessica Harper, in her movie debut, is perfect – you can see why Winslow would fall in love with her immediately, but she’s far from a simple ingenue, and there’s a steely determination behind her character and her performance. It’s brave of the film to undermine our expectations of Phoenix by making her as ruthlessly ambitious as anyone else in the film; as the story goes on, we realise that she would probably stab anyone in the back to get to the next level.
As the the supporting cast, Gerrit Graham of course steals the show as the screamingly camp Beef. His overly comic and mincing performance could easily be a distraction, but Graham keeps it (just about) under control to avoid derailing the story. Cult movie fans should also watch out for appearances by Rainbeaux Smith and Jennifer Ashley as groupies early on.
Phantom of the Paradise is one of the true cult movies of the 1970s – unknown by most, even now, but adored by a small but dedicated group of fans. Those fans haven’t been well served by previous editions of the movie, so this new edition is welcome indeed. The Blu-ray looks amazing – possibly too good in parts, as the optical replacement of the original ‘Swan Song’ logos with ‘Death Records’ – the result of legal action by Led Zeppelin’s record label – is now much more obvious than ever before. A small price to pay for the film looking so great though. And the extras are fantastic – the lengthy documentary, Paradise Regained, that first featured on the French DVD is included here, as are interviews with Finlay and costume designer Rosanna Norton. There are outtakes and a fascinating piece pointing out the scenes where the Swan Song situation required edits, optical changes and general tinkering – the completist in me would love to see the complete work print that features the original footage included here, but you can’t have everything! Also original to this release is a 72 minute interview with Williams by Guillermo del Toro, which is a bit rambling – more a conversation than an interview – but a nice addition nevertheless, rounding up an essential purchase.