Brian de Palma’s 1974 musical extravaganza Phantom of the Paradise is a movie that combines completely over-the-top campness with surprising intelligence, and outrageous excess with equalling surprising subtlety. It also proves that it’s possible to include homages to other people’s movies that actually serve a purpose, rather than being mere rip-offs.
And Phantom of the Paradise, a clever blending of the basic plots of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, homages just about everything, from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to Dr Mabuse, from The Picture of Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and includes the best ever (and the most diabolically amusing) Psycho homage.
Swan (Paul Williams) is a musical entrepeneur/promoter/producer/manager/all-round music business mogul owing more than a little to Phil Spector. Winslow Leach is a struggling singer/songwriter who attracts Swan’s attention. Winslow has written an ambitious rock cantata based on the Faust legend which he intends to perform himself, but Swan has other ideas. He steals Winslow’s music, and announces that Faust will be premiered at his new club, The Paradise. Winslow’s attempts to reclaim his work gain him nothing but a series of beatings and a spell in prison after Swan frames him for drug dealing. Increasingly unbalanced, Winslow breaks into the corporate headquarters of Swan’ company, Death Records, but is horribly injured and disfigured after his head is crushed by a record press.
His face hidden by an elaborate mask, Winslow takes up residence in Swan’s club, and has now become the Phantom of the Paradise. In a misguided attempt to regain control of his work and to have the cantata performed by a promising young female singer Phoenix with whom he is infatuated he has signed a contract with Swan, not realising that he has (literally) sold his soul. It turns out he’s not the only one who has made this deal.
Swan has decided that Phoenix is too perfect and hires an extravagant glam rock singer improbably named Beef to sing the lead role. This provokes the Phantom to action, and after Beef is disposed of it is Phoenix who takes the starring role after all. She is completely seduced by the adulation of the crowd.
The movie starts in outrageous style and becomes progressively more outrageous, but de Palma retains a sure grip on his material. This is excess, but it’s excess that is exquisitely controlled. Paul Williams is eerie and creepy and exudes evilness, William Finley is great as Winslow/the Phantom, and Jessica Harper is unexpectedly fabulous as Phoenix, nicely combining naïvete, integrity, greed and out-of-control ambition. Gerrit Graham is wonderfully bizarre as Beef.
This is the movie that The Rocky Horror Picture Show aspired to be, but while that movie consistently missed the mark (mesmerised by its own cleverness) this one hits the target every time. Phantom of the Paradise has even more cleverness, but it cleverness with purpose. Brian de Palma uses every visual trick in the book, and all of them work to perfection.
Mention must also be made of the superb soundtrack provided by Paul Williams. It’s a perfect melding of soundtrack and visual imagery.
I love this movie so much. I think I’ve just become a drooling Brian de Palma fanboy.