July 03, 2009

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974) - De Palma's rock horror show


(1974, USA)

Another review from Brian De Palma's decade of horror.
Another favourite of mine - its images, dialogue and music are scored into my memory. I don't tire of it and I hope it will interest some of you. Phantom of the Paradise is almost unique. It's directed by De Palma, but with horror movie in-jokes worthy of Joe Dante. It's like Phantom of the Opera revamped as a glam-rock musical, with the legend of Faust and many other influences woven in. All presented in a style that mixes comic strip pacing, movie brat homage, and new wave film-making.

At the time, I even thought that further remakes of Phantom could only go forward musically, until Andrew Lloyd Webber sent it all reeling backwards, a couple of years later.

Winslow Leach is a meek composer who has his music ripped off by Swan, a powerful record producer. When Winslow persists in getting his credit, Swan has him disposed of. After being driven to the point of madness and being hideously disfigured, Winslow returns for revenge, hiding his face under a silver birdlike mask, to haunt Swan's new rock venue, The Paradise...

After seeing repeated exposes of the machinations of the music industry, I was staggered that anyone still wanted to get involved. Breaking Glass, Stardust, That’ll Be The Day, Tommy, Pink Floyd's The Wall all warned that you’ll stitch up your friends, get rolled over by your contract, lose all your money and be replaced by the next big thing, if you don't go insane first.

Throughout the film there's a trio of singers who get recycled and relaunched by Swan in different musical genres. First as rock n rollers, then as beach boys, finally as glam rockers. They're always new, but they're the same guys. Swan manipulates the whole game through bribery, sex, drugs, legal fineprint, and the promise of immortal fame.

I saw it in a UK cinema, once on a double-bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the only film with which it could possibly be compatible, but I'm sure I saw it before that paired with a different film.

This was also one of the first films where I could read behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, that added an extra layer of understanding and appreciation, thanks to in-depth articles in Cinefantastique and Photon magazines. Until then, few serious interviews were done for horror films, and only the biggest movies would get 'making of' publications. At the time I can only remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Exorcist and Earthquake having such books.

The film hasn't been widely celebrated as a cult, and never had a special edition in the UK or US. But there was a recent French 2-disc release, which includes a wonderful 50 minute documentary with all the key cast members, director De Palma, producer Ed Pressman and editor Paul Hirsch (who soon after cut a little film for George Lucas called Star Wars). It's loaded with interesting stories and some juicy theories - Finlay reckons that his chest-mounted voice box and black leather-clad costume (with cape) directly inspired Darth Vader's outfit! A great documentary, like a reunion with old friends. There's also a spoiler-filled trailer that includes a censored shot of Finlay's face emerging from the record press, freshly scarred and smoking.

The movie starts off with a mysterious voiceover, delivered by none other than The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, who's not credited. One of his last jobs before he passed away. Most of the rest of the cast live on...

The songwriter turned Phantom was written for William Finlay, a role he makes completely his own. A great, great performance. He was also memorable in De Palma's Sisters, but after these, I only spotted him briefly in The Fury and Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse. Again, I felt that all the main actors would only get bigger parts after this. I feel that Finlay's talents have subsequently been wasted.

Jessica Harper plays the seemingly innocent Phoenix, a new singer that Swan is cultivating. Harper reveals in the documentary that while she was a confident singer and dancer, her first scene in the film was also her first time in front of the camera. After Phantom, she got the starring role in Dario Argento's opus Suspiria, and replaced Susan Sarandon as Janet in the Rocky Horror sequel misfire, Shock Treatment.

Besides starring as Swan, the mysterious producer/Svengali, Paul Williams also composed the many songs for the film (before his hit soundtrack for Bugsy Malone). The music has recently been commemorated in two 'cast reunion' concerts - Phantompalooza! The soundtrack is still available on CD, though I'm still listening to my original vinyl copy. Williams' lack of stature is barely noticeable in the film, where it could easily have been exploited (as it usually is, in the comedy roles he normally gets). There's a subtle gag where everyone else has to duck to get through one of the doors in his mansion. In the documentary, Williams reveals that his character was inspired by record producer Phil Spector.

Gerrit Graham is another memorable character as Beef, the outrageous bisexual rock star. While it's a familiar lisping queen sterotype, Graham keeps it funny, confusing the audience with his butch onstage persona. You won't forget Beef in a hurry. His grand stage entrance, to the opening night at The Paradise, is to be stitched together from body parts harvested from the audience!

De Palma's direction includes the customary split-screen sequence (also used in Carrie, Sisters and Dressed To Kill) showing a musical number simultaneously from the front and behind the scenes (the suspense coming from a bomb planted in the set). But he uses many other techniques. Furious handheld chases, some steady circling single takes,
a classically composed optically composited montage, and the climax is a long musical number filmed with multiple cameras in a one-take event.

The end credits music is a cruel elegy called 'The Hell of It' (written by Williams for an unused scene) for which editor Paul Hirsch creates an impeccably edited 'highlights' reel that replays the key scenes from the film, perfectly timed to the song.

It's all very rich cinema, but hard to categorise. Horror, comedy, musical, satire, tragedy, romance - take your pick.

The US DVD release looks much the same as the French transfer, presented in widescreen anamorphic, but is of course missing the second DVD of special features, only available in France. Which is a shame, because it's almost entirely in English (Gerrit speaks briefly in French at one point). France has also released this edition as a blu-ray.

Be sure to also check out The Swan Archives - a Phantom of the Paradise fansite.


  1. A terribly under-rated, and under-appreciated film. While it's a bit cheesy, and very 70's, it is such fun to watch, and has so many memorable scenes.

    I thought that Paul Williams was the stand-out - He was delightfully over-the-top, yet believable within the context of the film. "Ink's no good to me, Winslow"... What a great line!

    Of all the OTT scenes in the film, I think the shower scene was my favourite, and one of the best of all of DePalma's many, many "compulsory" shower scenes. It was, for a long time, the most fun part of watching any of his films... Just waiting to see how he'd work a shower scene into this one! Right up there with John Landis' constant references to "See You Next Wednesday".

    Another enjoyable aspect is that the songs performed by the "interchangeable trio" are always the same, musically - The lyrics and style change, but the basic melody is identical every time. This always cracks me up.

    I thoroughly recommend this film to anyone who wants to just have a bloody good time. It definitely has something for everyone!

  2. William Finley also did the voice of Bobbi, Michael Caine's razor weilding alter ego in De Palma's Dressed to Kill.

  3. Thanks, Frank! I honestly didn't know that. Knew it wasn't the actual one whodunnit....

  4. Excellent review.

    To Reg: Those guys crack me up too, but they don't play the same melody every time. 'Upholstery' is the same melody/chordal structure as 'Faust', and 'Somebody Super Like You' is the same melody/chordal structure as 'Phantom's Theme/Beauty and the Beast'.