Before Rocky’s horror, there was the Phantom’s cantata
Film | Stephen Whitworth | Oct. 27, 2022
Phantom Of The Paradise
“Life’s a game where they’re bound to beat you and time’s a trick they can turn to cheat you, and we’ll only waste it anyway and that’s the hell of it.”
—Paul Williams, “The Hell Of It”
In the fall of 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show hit theatres like a Ford Pinto slamming into a brick wall. Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman’s classic, campy musical opened to critical contempt and miniscule audiences. It wasn’t until midnight screenings the following year that it found its fans and became the phenomenon we know today.
A year earlier, another odd horror-movie musical was on its own brick wall trajectory. But unlike Rocky Horror, Phantom Of The Paradise still skulks in the shadows on the fringe of fame.
He Sold His Soul For Rock And Roll
Phantom Of The Paradise is a 1974 horror-comedy-satire directed and co-written by Brian De Palma (Scarface). It’s a wonky and wild (but PG-rated!) ride of sex, drugs, and rock and roll ruin stitched together from Goethe’s Faust, The Phantom Of The Opera, Psycho, The Twilight Zone, The Cask Of Amontillado, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and The Picture Of Dorian Gray, among other sources.
Like Rocky Horror, Phantom flopped in theatres — aside from, famously, Winnipeg, where it played on and off until 1976. But Phantom Of The Paradise has nevertheless clung to life as a zany-ass surprise waiting to be randomly discovered on late-night cable TV by somnambulistic viewers.
Phantom Of The Paradise is the story of Winslow Leach (William Finley), the obsessed composer of a cantata about Faust’s pact with the Devil (foreshadowing!). When his life’s work is stolen by Swan (Paul Williams) — a famed but secretive record producer who plans to rewrite it for his new music palace, the Paradise — the betrayal sends Leach into a downward spiral of beatings, prison, experimental dental work (!!??) and face-melting disfiguration.
After a brief, vengeful bombing rampage, Leach — now reborn as the masked, mute Phantom — agrees to finish his cantata for Swan in exchange for a voice box and on the condition his music only be sung by the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Swan agrees, then gleefully betrays Winslow almost immediately, giving the score to the flamboyant, antler-pants-wearing Beef (Gerrit Graham) to sing. “He’ll love it,” smirks the evil Swan. The Phantom does NOT love it.
Immuration, electrocution, heartbreak, shocking revelation and a final showdown on the Paradise stage ensue. And, curtain.
What makes Phantom Of The Paradise special? For one thing, it mashes up concepts and film techniques like a chainsaw maniac trapped in a potato silo. Do you like jerky, handheld-camera chase scenes? Smooth, slow-circling shots? Sped-up slapstick? Film-school-inspired montages by Oscar-winning editor Paul Hirsch? POV skulking? It’s all here! No need to pick a cinematography lane, this Phantom’s car is triple-wide.
For another, the casting is straight out of Bonkersville, U.S.A. Big names? Who needs ’em when you can pack your pic with bug-eyed, scene-chewing character actors with a human muppet for your villain. Phantom also launched Jessica Harper’s career — if not quite to outer space (she lost out on Princess Leia), at least to Italy and Dario Argento’s Susperia. She remains a much-loved actor who’s still working today.
As for the music — mostly written by Paul “Swan” Williams — it’s all over the place in a good way. Phantom opens with a ’50s-style song about medical fundraising by suicide then swerves into a maniacal piano piece about lost love and loneliness. A couple pop numbers later and suddenly we’re at an Alice Cooper-meets-German Expressionism-meets-Frankenstein’s laboratory rock concert that would make Tim Burton’s head spin.
All this weird alchemy makes Phantom Of The Paradise super fun to watch despite its very clearly and firmly articulated conviction that everything is terrible, there’s no hope and we’re all doomed to die and go Hell.
It’s rare and special to find movies this cheerfully miserable.
Life At Last
Phantom Of The Paradise might not be well known but it’s had a big impact on culture. Watch the scene where the Phantom gets his mechanical voice box, then remember Darth Vader’s breathing regulator. Also, the “swing on a rope” bit — I dare you to convince me George Lucas, who was writing Star Wars in 1974, wasn’t inspired by his friend De Palma’s movie.
Phantom is also a favourite film of The Sparks Brothers, Last Night in Soho and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright, who had it in mind when he made Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Italso shaped music, inspiring Daft Punk’s motorcycle leather-wearing robots and convincing Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider to switch from power rock to glam metal. There are obvious parallels with KISS, too.
Phantom Of The Paradise might be too weird, too dopey or too un-PC for some viewers. Fair enough. But for fans like me, it’s a slice of fried cinematic gold. Give it a chance this Halloween — it’s looking for somebody super like you. ■