Why Haven’t You Watched This Yet? Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Written by Matt Bowes

It was recently announced that Fox plans to remake the cult musical film The Rocky Horror Picture Show this year as a TV special, as part of a 40th anniversary celebration. Rocky Horror is a beloved classic among theatre nerds, Tim Curry fans and corset enthusiasts (in addition to being the bane of many a theatre employee’s existence), this is true. But what’s also true is that another film has always existed in Rocky Horror’s shadow, plotting away while it struts around in what has admittedly always been a somewhat diminished spotlight. I’m talking of course about my favourite gender-bending, revolutionary, violent, youth-oriented musical extravaganza from the mid-Seventies, Brian de Palma’s first work of genius, Phantom of the Paradise.

If like most people you probably haven’t seen it, Phantom of the Paradise is a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera story, which was originally written by Gaston Leroux at the turn of the century. Seeing as how it was made in the mid-Seventies, the story has been updated (some might say improved—like me, I say improved) with the addition of glam rock and disco trappings, in addition to myriad literary references to Oscar Wilde, Goethe and Christopher Marlowe.

The story opens with a description of Swan (Paul Williams), the coolest man in this morally bankrupt world. He’s a Svengali, a genius musician, producer and ladies’ man, whose next step is going to be big: the opening of The Paradise, the ultimate rock palace and final testament to his image. One of the mere mortals who vies for his attention is his ultimate foe, Winslow Leach, played by William Finley (and with songs sung by Williams). We meet Winslow after a concert by Swan’s latest find, a ‘50s revival outfit known as the Juicy Fruits, who the forward-thinking mogul knows are already on the way out even before they’ve really begun. When the nerdy, overly-earnest Winslow plays his “cantata”, his life’s work, the vampiric Swan knows he must have it. What follows is a twisted rivalry/partnership between Swan and Winslow, as the weedy folk singer finds himself set up, sent to jail, disfigured, and ultimately transformed into the Phantom, the auto-tuned instrument of justice and revenge. Adding further complication to the mix is Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful young singer who immediately steals Winslow’s heart upon meeting. She too falls prey to the machinations of Swan, and the twisted love triangle that results ends in tragedy for all involved.

Right away, you can start to see Phantom pulling ahead of Rocky Horror, with the casting of Paul Williams. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of the songs in Rocky Horror, but the combination of Paul Williams’ undeniable talent as a songwriter and singer with his unusual presence as an actor really makes this movie special. In crafting the songs for Phantom, Williams takes the viewers on a tour of the world of rock music over the last twenty years, which he effortlessly imitates via the Grease-esque Juicy Fruits, the Sixties surfer pastiche Beach Bums, and the forward-looking combo of Beef (Gerrit Graham, singing voice by Raymond Louis Kennedy) and the Undeads, the eventual inheritors of Winslow’s cantata. The Undeads recall shock rocker Alice Cooper, KISS and even The Misfits, at least visually, and their Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-themed stage show, which involves putting together Beef’s body from component parts before bringing him to life Frankenstein-style, is one of the film’s highlights.

Phantom of the Paradise also benefits from being the passion project of a young director just coming into his own. Brian de Palma fills the screen with the visual flair that would go on to define his subsequent projects, like Carrie, The Fury and Dressed to Kill. Two scenes are especially interesting in this respect: the Phantom’s split-screen assassination attempt on the Beach Bums (which also does some interesting stuff with audio as two separate soundtracks rise and recede against one another, a theme he returned to later on in Blow Out), and the film’s finale, which uses a hand-held camera and an orgiastic, uncaring room full of revelers for what is still a pretty unsettling effect.

The film was a box office failure, which only received awards attention for its score, which admittedly is awesome. I think the reasons for this are two-fold. First, the trailer, shown below.

Okay, so for someone who watches a lot of trailers, like myself, this is an excellent example of something I like to call Seventies Syndrome (another great example of this is the exceedingly weird trailer for Rollerball, which you’ll remember from my highly informative article about sports from a few months back). This kind of trailer, while attempting to make sense of what, when you come down to it, is not a very complicated story, adds untold complication of its own by being way too indulgent. The film’s called a Gothic horror story, a beautiful love story, and a “cinematic odyssey through the rock universe”. This isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s maybe a bit much to start off with. So then it moves on to sort of introducing all the characters in the movie, complete with title cards and a shout-out to Paul Williams in particular. He’s probably the most well-known person in the movie, apart from maybe de Palma himself, which as you’d expect didn’t do the box office any favours and is probably the second aspect of its failure.

While Phantom tanked almost everywhere, there were two unlikely enclaves that accepted it in all its weird glory. Paris, where it was beloved by two young men who eventually became masked musicians themselves as Daft Punk, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the movie played continuously for four months, and off and on for the following two years. The Canadian Phantom fan page has a great examination of why this weird little movie captured the hearts of one of our most eccentric cities, but the short version is that it probably appealed to most children, who were on winter break when it started, and became hooked on the weird intersection of pop music, celebrity and over-the-top love story at the film’s core.

So why haven’t you watched Phantom of the Paradise yet? Well, it never really reached anything other than cult status, and even then nothing near to that held by Rocky Horror, unless you lived in Winnipeg. I think Brian de Palma’s star has somewhat fallen in recent years, and apart from attracting Paul Williams fans, there wasn’t really much in the way of star power in the film to hold onto peoples’ hearts. But the cult yet lives. When the Metro Cinema programmed Phantom of the Paradise as the second film in its Metro Bizarro series in 2012, there was a very healthy crowd of fans, old and new. The movie has just been released in a beautiful Blu-ray/DVD combo set, so there’s nothing else standing in your way.

CC Photo Credit: Harbor Productions

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