Phantom of the Paradise (1974) Reviewed
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)
Though it’s a Brian DePalma film, Phantom of the Paradise really owes everything to Paul Williams who wrote all of the uniquely catchy music. Williams plays “Swan,” the slick, smooth and very short record producer who steals a rock cantata based on Faust from Winslow (William Finley). He wants Winslow’s music to open his new music venue, The Paradise, but has no use for the songwriter so Swan has him framed and sent to prison (Sing Sing – natch.) where his teeth are extracted (?!). He breaks out, is maimed by a record press, becomes the titular antihero and seeks revenge on Swan by attempting to sabotage the opening of The Paradise. But unrequited love finds him in the form of Jessica Harper (Susperia), as a beautiful(?) young singer named Phoenix. Winslow inks a deal –in blood–with Swan (who’s already made his own deal with the devil), to finish his Faust rock opera with Phoenix as its intended star. When Swan breaks his promise and casts a screeching glam rocker named Beef (Garrit Graham – who is hilarious) in the lead role, Winslow goes off the deep end and does what he must to ensure Pheonix’s starring role, but only after she‘s already served up her soul to Swan who plans to sculpt her into his next big thing. Williams’ songwriting style perfectly serves the story and without it, PotP might have been just another early-70s misfire for DePalma. In fact, PotP was considered a huge failure upon release, but time has been kind to it and a well-deserved cult following finally sprung up and still holds strong today organizing cast reunions and fan conventions from time to time. Though it precedes The Rocky Horror Picture Show by a year, Rocky owes much to Phantom, which is equally memorable and more artfully made. It’s only dumb luck (and probably its overt sexuality) that made RHPS the runaway cult king it is, while Phantom rests comfortably in comparative obscurity, with an infinitely smaller fan base. (Though probably a coincidence, there are some scenes in Rocky Horror that seem to replicate moments from Phantom and I’m surprised I can find no reference online to the fact that both films feature a 50s doo-wop-style requiem for a dead rocker named “Eddie!”). Williams would go on to write music for The Muppet Movie, the kiddie gangster cult musical, Bugsy Malone, not to mention many of the Carpenters most beloved singles — but PotP is undoubtedly his best showcase and it changed the way I perceive the diminutive actor/singer/composer. (For most of my childhood I knew him best as Little Enos from the Smokey and the Bandit movies.) Harper has a singing voice that’s plenty distinctive and she’s up to the musical challenge but she’s just not a compelling enough leading lady. She suffered similarly in the RHPS psuedo-sequel, Shock Treatment in which she inherits the role of Janet from Susan Sarandon. Though they all have their faults PotP, RHPS and ST would make a pretty killer musical triple-bill. And as much as I love Rocky, PotP is easily the most ambitious and successful at telling a story. One can only imagine what kind of cult phenom Phantom might have been if Tim Curry had had the opportunity to belt out a few of Williams’ numbers.) Despite his spotty resume DePalma’s film fetishism works well here and references to movies like The Manchurian Candidate, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Psycho are easy to spot. The split-screen gimmick he’d use to great effect in Carrie the following year gets a trial spin here and Sissy Spacek, who had just auditioned and won the role of Carrie while PotP was in production was on set with DePalma so much that she ends up with a set-dressing credit. The very Twilight Zone-esque opening narration is read by none other than Rod Serling himself! A remake (*sigh*) is currently in development.
Watch the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise:
Brian DePalma’s Blow Out