De Palma’s Best Film Ever: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Brian De Palma’s splashy, cynical cartoon horror comedy of a rock opera is much more than it appears

Brian De Palma’s rock opera within a rock opera (possibly the world’s first) is a bright, loud, brash, fast and funny live-action comic book, a vicious little satire of the music business, and a head-on collision between Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and early ‘70s glam .

At first splash, that seems to sum the whole thing up as neat and tidy as a Leonard Maltin capsule review. You wouldn’t think you’d need to know anything more about it. But every time I go back to the film (and I go back to it maybe a little more often than I should) I catch some new little nuance or reference I never caught before. A performance or design detail that slipped past me in all those other viewings. Although it bombed on its initial theatrical release (except in Winnipeg for some reason), I’ve since come to the conclusion that there’s a hell of a lot more to Phantom of the Paradise than its reputation as a goofy one off De Palma cult weirdie would allow.

Although he’s generally known today for his thrillers, his sprawling, big-budget reboots, and his sleazy, cartoonish Hitchcock homages, De Palma first made a name for himself in the late ‘60s with social satires like Greetings and Hi Mom! in which he took on the media and the counterculture. They were broad, kinda dumb, and to contemporary eyes probably haven’t aged very well, but they’re still remembered today for showcasing a very young Robert De Niro. After trying his hand at a few thrillers like Murder a la Mod and the excellent Siamese twins mystery Sisters (I’m always a sucker for those), he returned to hard satire. The music business, long known to be Satan’s stomping ground, seemed prime for the plucking, so Sisters co-writer Luisa Rose wrote another sharp, funny, and dark original script entitled The Phantom of the Fillmore. Then the owners of the actual Fillmore threatened to sue, so the title was changed to Phantom of the Paradise, and somewhere along the line Rose’s name was dropped off the script.

From a commercial standpoint, it seemed a fantastic idea. Both on stage and film, rock operas like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar were huge in the early ‘70s. But times had changed. All that free love, dirty hippie crap had gone the way of the dodo, replaced with cynicism and paranoia, with flash and heroin, empty style and cocaine. Dylan no longer mattered when you had Alice Cooper and Black Oak Arkansas. So why not a new kind of rock opera that reflected the times through horror, satire, and real bite? Although Rocky Horror was playing off-Broadway, it was still a year away from the screen at this point, which meant De Palma had the jump on everyone. 

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He hired the great Paul Williams to compose some dark, catchy numbers. He also signed Williams to star as the film’s demonic villain. Songs aside (the soundtrack is pretty fucking awesome), it was an inspired bit of casting. At that point Williams was not only the best known songwriter in the country, he was also a beloved celebrity, a short, pudgy, cherubic little man with long blonde hair who had become a talk show regular. Everyone loved that Paul Williams. As a kid, even as I was fascinated by him, there was something about him that frightened me. He seemed nice enough, but I always had the sense there was something sinister going on behind those tinted shades he always wore. It caught most audience members a little off guard at the time to see him playing such a deeply malevolent character, but it all made perfect sense to me.

As Rod Serling’s opening narration explains, Swan (Williams) is the most powerful producer the music business had ever known, and his label, Death records (it had been Swan Song in early drafts of the script until Led Zeppelin sued) had more gold records than they knew what to do with. At present, he’d single handedly brought about the ‘50s nostalgia craze even before American Graffiti with his doo-wop band, The Juicy Fruits. My god how I love The Juicy Fruits, and it’s no accident that the film’s opening number concerns a singer who commits suicide in order to become famous.

Well, Swan’s about to open the greatest rock palace the world has ever known, The Paradise, and is looking for a new sound, a new kind of music to christen it. Enter gangly, dorky songwriter Winslow Leach (De Palma regular William Finley). It’s also no accident that the film’s second song contains repeated references to selling one’s soul, especially considering Winslow has written a 200-page cantata based on Faust. It’s just the music Swan’s looking for, but he has no use for Winslow (quite possibly because Finley is the worst lip-syncher in film history) so has his thuggish henchman Philbin (Scorsese regular George Memmoli) steal it for him.

Later, as Winslow naively attempts to find out what’s happened to his music and why Swan is auditioning female singers, he’s beaten, framed, and sent to prison. After hearing a news report that the Juicy Fruits would be performing “Swan’s Faust,” he escapes, storms back to the record company, and is deformed in a record press (when the record press didn’t work quite as intended during the shoot, Finley’s skull was nearly crushed. the scream you hear in the final film is real). Now really, really pissed, Winslow sneaks into the Paradise, dons the silver and black Phantom costume (waiting conveniently on a rack in a dressing room) and begins killing off anyone who would dare sing his music. Anyone, that is, except Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her film debut), a young singer he met at one of Swan’s auditions and with whom Winslow is smitten.

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The first to go are those damned Juicy Fruits, blown up with a car bomb during one of those irksome split-screen sequences, a technique De Palma was a little too fond of in his early days.

Poor Winslow, though. For all the sabotage and killing, most notably the onstage electrocution of the flaming glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham, another De Palma regular), he remains suicidally naive.

In simple stylistic terms, it’s a film quite unlike anything De Palma had done before or since. The action clips along from scene to scene quite deliberately like the frames in a comic book, the acting is intentionally over-the-top, and the colors are almost painful. If it’s reminiscent of anything, it would be a Ken Russell film, though interestingly Russell’s own oddly ponderous Tommy wouldn’t come out for another year.

As the story unfolds, the references add up as well. A quick and none-too-thorough checklist still reveals nods not only to Phantom of the Opera and Faust, but also Oscar Wilde, Poe, Frankenstein, All About Eve, Touch of Evil, A Star is Born, Psycho, and The Godfather. What’s interesting here is that while De Palma’s references are usually obvious, heavy-handed groaners (while watching the likes of Body Double I’ve found myself saying “if the camera starts circling them right now I’m gonna fuckin’ puke.” And of course the camera does), here the references, if not exactly subtle, do fold neatly into the story. They make sense, and often on several levels. Faust for instance is not only the subject of the rock opera within the rock opera; it’s also the film’s overarching story as well as Swan’s back story.

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Once De Palma hit the ‘80s he left subtlety behind all together.

Then there are all those weird bird motifs throughout the film. From the names Swan and Phoenix, to the feathered clothes, to the dead bird on the Death records logo, to the Phantom himself, whose mask resembles a stylized falcon. I don’t know what the hell to make of all that, unless taken together they’re intended to be another Hitchcock reference.

Notably in this most recent viewing I also caught a number of variations on a theme. Along with all the echoed versions of Faust, songs from Winslow’s cantata keep returning through the film in increasingly cheapened versions, from country, gospel, even one that sounds like Kate Smith, until finally his rich and heartfelt music has been reduced to a shrieking heavy metal monstrosity before being redeemed at the end by Phoenix. Apart from the music we also get variations on characters, my favorite being the assorted incarnations of the Juicy Fruits. although no member of the band actually speaks, they reappear in different form: first as the Juicy Fruits, then the Beach Boys knockoff The Beach Bums, and even after being blown up they return one last time as The Undeads, whose job it is to introduce the Next Big Thing.

So there’s a lot to watch out for here, and in future viewings I suspect I’ll find more. For the splashy, silly surface it’s richer and more intelligent than you’d expect, and much darker than the more popular ‘70s rock operas that would follow thanks in no small part to that Rose/De Palma script. Visually it’s also the most unique film De Palma ever made. Ultimately though I must confess that I still prefer the Juicy Fruits over Winslow.

Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars


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4.5 out of 5