“My music is for Phoenix. Only she can sing it,” says Winslow Leach to a startled Beef. “Anyone else that tries dies!”
I recently walked into the IFC Center (located in Greenwich Village here in New York City) for a midnight showing of this film not really knowing what to expect (besides a good film). I often try to find out if a film will actually be good or not, but I won’t really read what it’s about in detail. Unless it’s a film I’ve already seen on TV or on Blu-ray/DVD, I want to keep the viewing experience as fresh as possible.
So, what do you get when you mix together The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Faust, and writer/director Brian De Palma? You get 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, of course. The story centers on young composer/singer Winslow Leach (William Finley), whose music (a cantata about Faust) is stolen by record producer Swan (Paul Williams) of Death Records. After a freak accident at a record pressing plant leaves him disfigured and without his voice, Winslow sneaks into the new concert hall known as the Paradise (where his music will be performed). Donning a black leather costume and helmet to become the Phantom, he commits an act of sabotage that leads to Swan deceptively signing him to a contract (signed in blood, naturally). The Phantom believes that Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a talented singer he met prior to his disfigurement, will be performing his music. When he learns that Swan has other plans, he takes matters into his hands.
There are a lot of things to like in this film. For instance, when the Phantom tries to sabotage a rehearsal at the Paradise, De Palma uses split screen to show the Phantom planting the bomb while the singers are rehearsing. The planting of the car bomb and the suspenseful build-up to its detonation echoes the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. De Palma also comically references the shower scene from Psycho (foreshadowing the Hitchcock influences that would show up in his next films like 1976’s Obsession and 1980’s Dressed To Kill). The singer Beef (Gerrit Graham, who is just phenomenal in this film) is taking a shower before the first show when the Phantom enters the bathroom with a raised knife. However, instead of stabbing Beef, he tears the shower curtain open with the knife and threatens him not to perform. The first show at the Paradise itself looked amazing, with costumes and make-up that reference 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1931’s Frankenstein. I was also intrigued by the sound design, particularly for the Phantom’s voice. Swan attaches a device to the Phantom and uses studio equipment to modulate the Phantom’s voice so that he could be able to speak. The sound design in this film also foreshadowed De Palma’s use of sound in his 1981 film Blow Out.
I didn’t realize that the film would be a rock musical when I sat down for the midnight screening, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying it. The cast was terrific (I must also mention George Memmoli, who plays the slimy Philbin, Swan’s right-hand man). The songs were excellent (Paul Williams would receive the film’s sole Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song Score and Adaptation), and the story was captivating (kudos to De Palma and editor Paul Hirsch for keeping the film at a brisk 92 minutes). The production design by Jack Fisk was amazing, as was Larry Pizer’s appropriate cinematography. John Chambers did a terrific job with his make-up design, as did Rosanna Norton with her costume designs (the one for the Phantom is my favorite).
Watching the film, I kept thinking for some strange reason that The Rocky Horror Picture Show must have influenced it in some way until I remembered that Phantom of the Paradise came out the year before that film. Coincidentally enough, both films were distributed by 20th Century Fox, flopped during their initial theatrical runs, and have developed into cult classics over the years. While Rocky Horror might have the bigger cult following, Phantom of the Paradise is definitely the superior film (and this is coming from someone who’s seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show 15 times on the big screen!).