To be quite honest, I was more than a bit surprised by the inclusion of this film in Fox’s 75th Anniversary Collection. Sure, I had heard of it, knew of it, am thoroughly familiar with he canon of its director, Brian DePalma, whom I admire very much, particularly for his early work. But Phantom always seemed to me to be a small, esoteric cult film – hardly of the caliber represented by nearly every other selection in this set.
So I approached this film with some incredulity; my only familiarity with it came in the form of Paul Williams song score. I adore Williams; he is one of my top-five all-time favorite songwriters, and his compositions for this film are astoundingly beautiful. I’d bought the CD soundtrack years ago, and hummed along to every tune with gusto and fervor, the kind of gusto and fervor you only reserve for inside the car. You know what I mean.
So along with the incredulity came excitement. I was jazzed to finally hear these songs I context. But there was one thing I wasn’t ready for.
Phantom of the Paradise is a completely f**ked-up movie.
And I mean that in the most admiring way. I really do. Because as f**ked up as it is, it’s also probably just as brilliant. DePalma has written a challging, quick-as-a-whip script, and his ability to pick fresh and original hots, as well as bold theatrical techiques, keeps the ball rolling from start to finish. The film challenges the viewer; there are times even when the story is so brisk yet clockworky that I wasn’t 100% sure where I was during a few moments. But De Palma lets you catch up during the musical numbers (which are fantastic), and one thing is for sure: the film is never dull. And you can absolutely say that about any De Palma film from the 60s and 70s, an era during which he was in his absolute prime.
Phantom of he Paradise can best be described as a demented pairing of Phantom of the Opera and the story of Dr. Faustus, you know, the story of a dude who sells his soul to the evil for immortality. That individual takes the form of a record producer named Swan (Paul Williams), owner of a music club for which he needs a constant supply of audience-attracting music. That isn’t happening with the retro-50s group The Juicy Fruits, but when he hears William Finley singing his own composition, a musicalization of the Faust story, he’s interested. He swipes Finley’s work, “auditions” a bevy of beauties to sing it, and finally picks a shy but talented girl named Phoenix. Finley likes her too, but Swan, along with his assistant Arnold Philbin, banishes Finley from any future associations by framing him with drugs and sending him to prison, where his teeth are knocked out. Finley escapes, but gets his face burned and disfigured in the process, leading him to do the only sensible thing: don a weird, metallic bird-like mask and black cape and ensure that Phoenix sing his music using whatever means necessary.
But after the Phantom’s attempt to sabotage a show with a car bomb fails, Swan confronts the masked man and offers a deal: signs your soul over (in blood) and Swan will perform his Faust cantata respectfully, and with Phoenix in the lead. But Swan just as quickly enlists the nightmare glam-rocker Beef to perform instead; when the Phantom fries Beef onstage, Phoenix steps quickly steps in, to a rousing audience reception. Swan now has a headliner – and a lover – and a very jealous Phantom attempts suicide after spying, but Swan informs his that death isn’t possible as it violates the contract; as long as Swan lives, so does they both. Moments before a staged (or not) wedding between Swan and Phoenix (who signed over her voice in her own pact), the Phantom discovers that Swan himself had sold his soul to the Dark Lord for immortality as long as the tapes which recorded the agreement are safe. But the Phantom burns them, hen kills Swan, and himself in the process.
If this wedding finale is at once blisteringly rocking, bloody and freakishly bizarre, then it perfectly represents the underlying tone and vibe of the entire movie. And all the while a sort of indie-film spirit pervades, what with all the ragged edits and gonzo camerawork. But somehow it all gibes remarkably well, once you settle into it. It cheekily sends up he rock of the 50s with several campy but respectful numbers, while at the same time embracing the then-current trend of nightmare-glam, represented mostly by the performance art of Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. And, of course, since it’s De Palma we get plenty of wacky horror (replete with Psycho homage) that alternates between elegiac and genuinely shocking.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it also describes the far more familiar Rocky Horror Picture Show, which Fox would release the following year (it could be the next selection). But somehow that one took, and became the cult classic Phantom no doubt was hoping for. Of course, the question persists: why? I think it’s likely because Rocky is more carefree – it has a communal quality about it, and is edgy just to a point. Phantom is downright dangerous; it’s only moments of solace come during Williams’ songs; their beauty often transcends the ugliness that surround them.
If the film has any flaw, it’s just that – a slight disconnect between some of the songs and their nightmarish context. But others fit nicely in, particularly the concert numbers, and they feel positively electric, just like a blaring concert would’ve felt like in 1974, back when they had no noise restrictions, but better-written music.
I also think of Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, another campy, iconoclastic work from the 70s with hallucinogenic rock mixed with 50s tribute. This could be a whole sub-genre of music in and of itself.
By and large, great fun, but be prepared for a real freakshow. A freakshow still freaky after 43 years. That’s how it is with a great writer/director.