The Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

the phantom of paradise

“Listen, Philbin – there really is a Phantom. He was just in my shower. He threatened my life!”

The Scoop: 1974 PG, directed by Brian De Palma and starring William Finley, Paul Williams, George Memmoli, Jessica Harper and Gerrit Graham.

Tagline: He sold his soul for Rock n’ Roll.

Summary Capsule: Phantom of the Opera meets the ‘70’s, and a jolly good time is had by all. Except when it isn’t.

Deneb’s rating: Two out of three Phantoms in the shower. (No, I’m not explaining; watch the darn movie.)

Deneb’s review: Let’s start this off with a question – what was your favorite thing that came out of the ‘70’s?

Everyone probably has a different answer to this. Was it Star Wars? Bellbottom pants? Environmental guilt? Disco?

To be honest, were you to walk up to me on the street and ask it of me, I’m not sure how I’d answer the question myself. For the purpose of this review, though, my answer would be Phantom of the Paradise, and I shall proceed to tell you why.

In this movie’s version of 1974, the biggest name in music is Swan (Paul Williams). He is the shadowy ubermensch of the music scene, the most powerful producer in the business, and he is about to open (as the movie puts it) “his own Xanadu, his own Disneyland – the Paradise,” a rock concert hall devoted to his genius. Only trouble is, he needs some really good musical talent to inaugurate the place, and he’s yet to find it.

Enter Winslow Leach (William Finley), aspiring songwriter, wannabe musician, and about the most guileless fellow you’ll ever meet. He’s been working on an epic ‘rock cantata’ (yep, it’s the ‘70’s, all right) based on the story of Faust, and when Swan hears his music, he reckons this is just the sound he needs. He doesn’t care for Winslow himself, however, so he just sends his head goon Philbin (George Memmoli) to lay his hands on the score with a few airy promises of “getting back to him in a couple of months.”

Well, you can imagine how well that works out for Winslow. When he tries to claim credit for his work, he’s beaten up, framed for drug possession, and thrown into Sing-Sing for life, although not before meeting the lovely Phoenix (Jessica Harper), the only singer who does justice to his work and brings a sparkle to his eye. There, he has to suffer having his teeth replaced by shiny metal choppers (he ‘volunteered’ for a new Swan-backed dental program, you see), and hearing his life’s work being reduced to dreck on the radio. Finally, he snaps, breaks out, and tries to destroy Swan’s record company, only to get shot by a guard and get his face horribly disfigured by a record press (he’s a clumsy fellow).  Bleeding and disfigured and hunted by the cops, he throws himself into the river, and you’d think that’d be the end of it, wouldn’t you?

Maybe in the real world, but here, no. He survives, and is born anew as ‘the Phantom’, sworn to wreak terrible vengeance upon Swan for what he’s done to him. So he moseys on over to the Paradise, steals a mask and costume from the wardrobe department, and starts a campaign of destruction against the place. But Swan, you see, is a wily devil, and quickly devotes himself to messing up Winslow’s life even more. He offers him a deal – he’ll put him under contract as a songwriter and let him choose who he wants to sing it (Phoenix, natch), and in return, the Phantom will stop blowing things up. Fair enough? Excellent. Just sign here…

Oh, Winslow, you poor, deluded fool.

That’s the first 23 minutes. I won’t go into the rest, but suffice it to say that Winslow Leach’s subsequent musical career is not one of glittering, shimmering stardom.

PotP is often compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came out the year after, and it’s a fair enough comparison – both are heavily influenced by old horror movies, have a rather campy outlook on things, and involve plenty of music. The difference is – well, OK, there are a lot of differences, but the main difference is that, having seen Rocky Horror, you lean back in your chair (I’m assuming a home viewing here), brain boggling, and think “OK – what did I just watch?” With Phantom, you know exactly what you’ve just watched – unlike the somewhat more fragmented Rocky, it has a very definite identity of its own – but you wonder just how on Earth you would classify it. It’s too funny to be a tragedy, too tragic to be a comedy, not scary enough to be horror, but with too many horrific touches to count as a straight-ahead rock n’ roll flick… What is this thing?

Well, the promotional material calls it a “horror Phantasy,” and I guess that’s as good a way of putting it as any. It’s a Phantasy, the one and only example. Like any good cult movie, it is its own beast, and proud of it.

There aren’t a lot of big-name actors attached to this, but that’s a good thing, really – it allows you to appreciate the characters more, instead of going “Hey, there’s Harrison Ford! Hey, there’s Jack Nicholson!”

Finley is equally convincing as the gullible sad-sack Winslow and the hissing, screaming electric-voiced Phantom, gnashing his metal teeth and swirling his cape – who, in many ways, is still very much the naive boob he’s always been. Paul Williams is obviously having a good deal of fun being the purring embodiment of satanic menace – he just oozes evil from every pore, but he has a charisma about him that helps one understand how the little backstabber made it this far. Jessica Harper doesn’t have a lot to do as Phoenix except to be gorgeous and lovely and be tempted down the dark path, but that’s enough – she is gorgeous and lovely, and considering this is her first film, she does a pretty good job. (Also, she nails the songs – she’s got a beautiful voice.) And Gerrit Graham is hysterical as Beef, a preening queen of a glam rocker who at one point wears the most insane pair of pants ever created. Seriously, he’s funny enough on his own, but just try and look at those pants (you’ll know them when you see them) without bursting out laughing. You’ll fail. Trust me.

As for the rest – well, the film looks great, sounds great (Williams also did the songs), and this is early De Palma we’re talking about, so the camera work and so forth is gosh-darn purty. It’s not a perfect film – the beginning is a bit slow, and there are a few plot points that are a bit rushed – but who needs perfection? Not me.

Really, though, I don’t want to say too much more about this flick. It’s good, weird, entertaining stuff, and you should discover it for yourself. I urge you to do so.

Intermission!

  • Phantom was a flop on its native continent when first released, except for one place – Winnipeg, Canada. It has yet to be determined why, but Winnipeggers LOVED this movie – it stayed in theaters for a whole year, and still has a devoted fan-following there. Perhaps due to the Canadian connection, it did still better in France – it played in Paris for a whole decade.
  • Sissy Spacek was the set designer for this movie. Yes, that Sissy Spacek.
  • Check out the antics of the Juicy Fruits backup singers during the opening number. They… do some things that are not PC.
  • There is one heckuva lot of pill-popping going on in this movie. ‘Breakfast’, indeed.
  • Your ears haven’t failed you – that is indeed Rod Serling doing the opening narration.
  • Winslow’s sound-mixed singing voice as the Phantom is actually that of Paul Williams.

Groovy Quotes

Rod Serling: This film is the story of that search, of that sound – of the man who made it, the girl who sang it, and the monster who stole it.

Beach Bums lead singer: Carburetors, man! That’s what life is all about!

Swan: Get this fag out of here.

Repeated song lyric: All my dreams are lost, and I can’t sleep/Sleep alone would ease my mind/All my tears have dried, and I can’t weep/Old emotions, may they rest in peace, and dream…

Winslow: Sure, I’d love to help!
Phoenix: You’re not just doing this to be nice, are you?
Winslow: I would never let my personal desires influence my aesthetic judgment.
Phoenix: Um… what’s that mean?
Winslow: It means I think you’re terrific!

Swan: Tasty, Winslow. Tasty.

Winslow: But I’m innocent! Swan stole my music and FRAMED ME!

Swan: Why, Winslow! Good to see you. Been looking for you everywhere.

Swan: TRUST ME! Trust me.

Beef: Dry up, tubbo.

Phoenix: Do I get to sing this time?
Philbin: Oh, you mean you’re really a singer?
Phoenix: Yes, I’m a singer.
Philbin: Well, try to forget it. We’re not lookin’ for singers, we’re lookin’ for screamers.

Swan: Ink isn’t worth anything to me, Winslow. Now sign.

Beef: The karma’s so think around here, you need an aqualung to breathe!

Swan: What would you give me to sing?
Phoenix: Anything you want.
Swan: Anything? Would you give me… your voice?

Phantom: (reading contract) ‘The party of the first part gives the party of the second part and his associates full power to do with him, at their pleasure, to rule, to send, fetch or carry him or his, be it either body, soul, flesh, blood or goods’… What does that mean?
Swan: Oh, that’s a transportation clause.
Phantom: ‘All articles which are excluded shall be deemed included’. What does that mean?
Swan: Oh, that’s a clause to protect you, Winslow.

Beef: Look, Philbin – I am a profess-sional. I have been in this business a long time. Now if I don’t want to do a show, it’s not ‘cause I got stage fright – it’s because some creature from beyond doesn’t want me to do the show; now gangway!

Swan: And now we’re in business. Together. Forever.

Song lyric: To work it out, I let them in/All the good guys and the bad guys that I’ve been/All the devils that disturbed me, and the angels that defeated them somehow/Come together in me now.

Philbin: I thought you liked her.
Swan: I do. She’s perfect. But you know how I abhor perfection in anyone but myself.

Beef: Man, you’d better get yourself a castrato for this, ‘cause it’s a little out of my range.

Beef: You don’t know how right you are, Goliath.

Phantom: Swan! AaaAAAAAAAA!

Beef: That was something trying to get out of its premature grave, and I don’t wanna be here when it does.

Phantom: Never sing my music again! Not here, not anywhere; d’you understand? My music is for Phoenix – only she can sing it. Anyone else who tries, dies!

Beef: Listen, Philbin – there really is a Phantom. He was just in my shower. He threatened my life!

Philbin: Speed, that’s what it is!
Beef: Speed? What do you know about it? You just pass the stuff out; I take it! I know drug real from real real!

Swan: I’m under contract, too.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Shock Treatment
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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