Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Garrit Graham, George Memmoli, Archie Hahn

Written by: Brian De Palma

Running Time: 92 mins

Original UK Cert: AA

Original US Release: 31st October 1974

Phantom of The Paradise is one of cinema’s more curious objects; a rock musical horror that borrows from The Phantom Of The Opera and Faust, to name a few, that is written and directed by the king of thrillers and, for all its style and flair, failed to ignite the box office and has all but become forgotten thanks to a similar film released a year later, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Winslow Leach is a composer working on a piece based on Faust. His music is heard by mysterious Musical mogul, Swan and is stolen, under the belief that Leach’s score will make him famous. Leach, so angered by Swan’s treatment and the release of a song he wrote, Leach tries to stop the pressings but becomes involved in an accident, leaving him disfigured. Donning a mask and cape, he becomes The Phantom, a creature who stalks the backstage area of Swan’s new music venue, The Paradise. The Phantom wants his music back and only wants the beautiful Phoenix to sing it.

The first thing that surprises about this film is the involvement of De Palma. Known for his Hitchcock homages (there is a nod to the shower scene in Psycho here) and films like Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface and The Untouchables, De Palma would be the last person you would think of when discussing musicals but Phantom isn’t a normal musical. First off, it clearly plays homage to a series of early horror films and novels, from The Picture Of Dorian Grey to The Cask of Amontillado and even Frankenstein, as well as the two obvious choices.

Then there’s the film’s style. It is loaded with the tricks that De Palma is so highly regarded for; split screen, slow motion, spinning cameras and long shots without a break. This is brilliantly shown in a split screen sequence involving the Phantom planting a bomb in a mock car while a rehearsal is happening on stage. You follow both actions in perfect unison as the car is slowly pushed into position on stage. It is a master stroke of cinema.

It is also a piece of its time. A rock musical set during the height of glam rock, with the whole setting capturing the mood and vibe perfectly, from the outrageous costumes and make-up, to the music, all composed by star, Paul Williams, who also performs most of them, like he did a few years later in Alan Parker’s acclaimed Bugsy Malone.

If everything else is over the top and outrageous, so must the performances be. Actually, they are somewhat refined. Paul Williams, as Swan, is quietly villainous as he sits in his ivory tower watching everything and manipulating those who need to be manipulated. It’s a very cool and calculating performance and works very well. William Finley does occasionally lose the subtlety as the maniac Phantom but he has plenty of time bring his performance back in order to make him believable and so we can emote to his predicament.

Jessica Harper has always been, for me, one of the underrated actresses of her time, with her child-like, wide-eyed face, she manages to pull a few punches and her singing voice, which she got to show off later in the Rocky Horror sequel, Shock Treatment, is deep and mature and sounds like it shouldn’t be coming out of this tiny thing. In her first main role as Phoenix, she is terrific, mixing that toughness needed in the music business with that of nativity.

If there is a misstep in the performances, it comes from Gerrit Graham as glam rock star, Beef, whose larger-than-life camp performance seems to sit uncomfortably among the others. Even his comic moments fall flat on their faces, including the scene where he falls…flat on his face.

De Palma’s film deals with stardom and fame in a quite spectacular way, showing the pitfalls and questionable characters involved in the world of show business. From signing your life away and getting nothing in return to “the casting couch”, it’s a dark vision of a world that most don’t know exists, hidden behind a loud 70’s rock musical.

It’s a shame it hasn’t had the popularity of other rock musicals, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as they are both similar in capturing a time and period in musical history. It does have its followers but it would be nice to see it back on the big screen as a companion to Rocky Horror. Yes, it’s bizarre. Yes, it’s dated but it also has plenty to like.


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