If someone were to come up with some kind of camp measuring stick, it’s a fair call that The Rocky Horror Picture Show would probably top the list but there’s certainly nothing wrong with coming in second given the metric shit tons of campy flicks produced since the dawn of cinema and the present. What I’m getting at is that proudly chilling in the number two slot should be Brian De Palma’s weird-ass horror musical that references as much gothic horror fiction as it does David Bowie. Phantom of the Paradise is a picture that defies explanation, or at least easy explanation, which is going to make the synopsis of the flick following the jump either really short and vague or really long since the lead up to the mayhem at The Paradise is a bit drawn out but very important.
Liberty has been asking for a review of this movie for a couple of months and it’s actually one I’ve been flirting with for a long time. I caught it on On Demand one night and fell asleep within a half hour, then a boot that I had of it crapped out at around the same time, but this time I made it through. The last time I saw this movie was many years ago when it, for some reason, was getting heavy rotation on cable.
We start with a little primer on a dude named Swan, a pop master who has engineered every important wave in rock and roll since the 50’s. His label, Death Records (of which I badly want a t-shirt bearing the logo), is currently pimping these Sha-Na-Na jackasses, The Juicyfruits when the follow-up performer, Winslow Leach catches his ear. Winslow, an ultra-nerdy dude with an epic pop masterpiece, gets suckered in Swan’s Faustian game and loses the sheet music for his show. Upon trying to get into the Death Records to talk to Swan, he meets Phoenix, a struggling singer who he finds to be the perfect voice for his music, but he is tossed out, beaten severely and thrown into Sing Sing when the cops plant heroin on him. After that, he is unwillingly entered into a strange program sponsored by Swan’s foundation to have his teeth removed and replaced with metal teeth. But the final straw comes when he hears The Juicyfruits performing a doo-wop spin on a piece from his cantata, ironically entitled Faust. He flips, breaks out of jail and is shot by cops when trying to trash Death’s record press, but not before his head is smashed in the press, permanently etching The Juicyfruit’s grooves of his own music into his flesh. He throws himself into the harbor and is never found.
Obviously, the horribly disfigured Winslow finds his way back, sneaks into Swan’s rock palace, The Paradise, and starts raising hell. His plan for revenge is derailed when he foolishly makes a deal with Swan to have Phoenix sing his opera but Swan has other plans and brings in the ultra-glam Beef to do the show. Things don’t work out for Beef. Or anyone, really.
Stylistically on par with Rocky Horror, both musicals share an obsession with pop music and both make them work brilliantly, but while Rocky bends over backwards to match the high camp of drive-in schlock, Phantom goes out of its way to mix ideas from Oscar Wilde and Gaston LeRoux with AM radio hits. The sort of music present in Phantom of the Paradise is the sort of soft pop that would have appealed, in the 70’s that is, to fans of The Carpenters. Not surprisingly, the mind behind the music and the actor who portrayed the satanic Swan, was Paul Williams, the 70’s pop hit machine who wrote a lot of tunage for The Carpenters as well as Barbara Streisand and the Theme From Love Boat. While Phoenix played by cult-movie darling, Jessica Harper who also sings up a storm in the is it or isn’t it a sequel to Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment, takes on as many vocal duties as Williams with her smoky, almost Karen Carpenter voice. What makes Rocky Horror the undisputed king (queen?) of the show, though is what Phantom lacks. That is, memorable, eternally listenable songs. The central piece of Phantom of the Paradise is a cantata, so it has this winding, operatic feel to it where it’s all about narrative and not necessarily about establishing a dance number that I’ve seen at every wedding I’ve ever been to (The Time Warp). So for a musical, Phantom of the Paradise is a slightly awkward affair punctuated by the occasional bright spot, in particular, the Paradise introduction of Beef sung by The Undeads (also the same band as The Juicyfruits and The Beach Bums).
While the first half of the movie paints a picture of Winslow Leach as a guy you might want to see have his head smashed in a record press, the Phantom that he becomes is a totally awesome monster dressed in and surrounded by outstanding production design. His costume is a menacing black leather get-up with silver buckles and he hides his disfigured face beneath a silver owl mask. The already metal teeth seal the deal. For such a strange campy flick, he’s a terrifying anti-hero. It only gets worse when he is forced to speak through a mechanical talk box. It would seem that a lot of thought was put into this character. On the flipside is Swan, a midget amalgamation of Gregg Allman and Dr. Zaius who is anything but imposing. It’s no wonder he spends so much time orchestrating matters from the darkness of an elevated theater booth. His taking the role of Swan was the end-result of casting musical chairs. At one time he was to be Winslow and Winslow, played by William Finley was supposed to be Beef but it doesn’t matter. Aside from being a decent song writer, he’s not a particularly imposing character at all. His stature and pudgy appearance is anything but evil, but his acting chops reveal a snake-like scumbag who can pull it off.
Phantom of the Paradise often feels like an unfocused buckshot effect of ideas. Some come together but not all the parts which keeps this from being a perfect cult musical, not something easily pulled off. How De Palma got from here to Scarface is a fucking mystery to me but this was early enough in his career that you can see him experimenting with a lot of the techniques that would later go on to become signature styles. In particular, a baffling and challenging scene during the fate of the Beach Bums. The crossover effect of what is happening in one lens vesus the other can be difficult to keep track of but it’s a fantastic split-screen scene. I suppose that if you’re going to develop your skills on any playground, make it something like this.
Phantom of the Paradise tanked miserably back in its day and it’s not hard to see why. It’s hardly a bad film. It has strange ideas, a warped sense of humor and great characters up the ass but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would have ever appealed to mainstream audiences. The story is familiar to horror fans and the themes taken from other novels and movies aren’t hard to spot but the one thing holding it back more than anything is the music. A solid, traditional pop music approach rather than a pop opera could, quite possibly, have cemented this in a greater place in pop-culture history but fans of rock operas or just plain old Rocky Horror really need to check it out if they haven’t already.