Directed by: Brian De Palma
Starring: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli
In the days before The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was briefly the reigning king of the midnight-movie circuit. And this was a good thing, because De Palma’s modern-day take on The Phantom of the Opera (with a large chunk of Faust thrown in) hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire in its original release. Its cult following is the only reason it survived—and its survival means this remarkably clever, cheeky and jovially cynical film is still around for us to see the young De Palma at his most outrageously creative.
Although stylistically very much a part of 1960s filmmaking in terms of its look, Phantom of the Paradise expresses a distinctly 1970s sensibility, and that may account for its original failure. In 1974, much of the aura of the ‘60s was still around—and that would continue through 1975. Phantom is having none of that. This is a “morning after” look at the world of rock ‘n’ roll from every angle: the performers, the promoters and the audience. No one gets off unscathed or unsatirized. The film’s soundtrack album made this clear in its liner notes, which began with, “Welcome to the Satanic ‘70s.” If it wasn’t for the fact that the film was made in such a playful and even cartoonish style, it would be so grimly cynical that it would be unbearable.
Fortunately, it is playful and cartoonish—in large part, I think, because it’s a send-up of rock music and rock culture by a guy who actually loves the music. This is evident in the way he—with the assistance of pop-music insider Paul Williams—takes on every genre to come down the pike. In the course of the film, we get large doses of ‘50s nostalgia rock, beach music, art rock and a blend of glam and shock rock. Off to the side, there are good-natured jabs at folk rock, pap rock and even country rock (“Pretty, but, no”). It’s love, but with no illusions—and a fondness for the excesses and silliness of it all in the bargain.
Of course, rock music isn’t De Palma’s only love—so are horror movies and films and filmmaking technique, in general. And these things are here in abundance, but that’s partly apparent the minute you set out to make a rock version of Phantom of the Opera. When you toss in some Faust and Dorian Gray, it becomes more obvious. The film itself is filled with references to other movies (after all, this is De Palma), including perhaps the funniest Psycho (1960) shower-murder parody ever. As for filmmaking technique, this is probably DePalma’s most fascinating explosion of montages, split screens, clever scene transitions, 360-degree tracking shots, subjective camera—and the kitchen sink is probably in there somewhere, too. Depending on your outlook on such things, it’s either excessive or just right. Looked at another way, it’s virtually an entire course in filmmaking packed into one movie.
Story wise, De Palma doesn’t stint on the horror content. He manages to play this fairly straight, even when parodying it. The clever variation on how the Phantom becomes disfigured—an accident with a record press—works as both parody and as horror. The comedy element always remembers to be appropriately dark. In this, the filmmaker is aided by having a splendid villain in Paul Williams as Swan, the evil head of Death Records and apparent emperor of the rock world. The movies rarely knew what to do with Williams (5-foot-2-inch leads are rare), but here for once he got his one big chance—and made the most of it.
The film was made on a low—very low—budget and was plagued by problems throughout its history. The story has it that De Palma originally called it Phantom of the Rock Opera, whereupon Universal started rattling legal sabers over their supposed ownership of the name Phantom of the Opera. (It was announced in horror mags of the time under the title Phantom of the Rock Opera.) Rather than fight this, De Palma decided to change it to Phantom of the Fillmore after the famous theater—until they made legal noises, which caused the creation of the fictional Paradise of the film. Something similar happened with the name Swan, which turned out to be fine for Paul Williams’ name, but not so fine as a record label, since it was already one. This wasn’t brought to light until the film was in production. In fact, there are instances—check out the podium when Swan introduces his latest star, Beef (Gerrit Graham), to the press—where the Death Records logo has been rather dodgily superimposed in post-production to cover the offending Swan logo.
In the end, what matters, of course, is the film on the whole, and Phantom of the Paradise—despite a few rough moments (who told Jessica Harper she could dance?)—is remarkably fresh and fun even 36 years later. Don’t take my word for it, see the movie for yourself. Oh, yeah, be sure to watch the credits till the end for the name of the film’s set dresser—and a clue to where De Palma would go next.
Phantom of the Paradise starts at 8 p.m., but is preceded—starting at 7:40 p.m.—by “Mysterious Magic,” the seventh thrilling episode of the 1934 Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu and the Betty Boop cartoon Red Hot Mamma (1934), so get there early.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Phantom of the Paradise Thursday, June 24, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.