Whatever the nomenclature, horror and music, like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, are two tastes that go great together. In the mid 1970’s, two such hybrid-creatures were unleashed. One, the far-inferior Rocky Horror Picture Show, went on to cult infamy, still drawing wannabe Brad and Janets to midnight screenings to this day. The other, The Phantom of the Paradise, faded into obscurity only achieving the cult-success it deserved in Winnipeg, Manitoba of all places, where it played for months on end. Still, considering there really isn’t that much to do in Manitoba, this is a dubious honor at best. Phantom may not be as famous as Rocky, but a) it doesn’t feature any permutation of Meat Loaf, and b) it’s way better. So put away your toast and rice, sweet transvestites, and check out the real deal.
An early directorial effort by the once phenomenal, now terrible Brian De Palma, Phantom tells the story of Winslow Leach, played by the late William Finley. Winslow, an aspiring composer, literally sells his soul for Rock N’ Roll. See, Winslow has composed a musical version of Goethe’s Faust, but he has his lyrics stolen by the diabolical Swan, owner of Death Records, who wants Winslow’s music to open his rock mecca The Paradise. Swan, who may or may not have made a Faustian bargain himself, steals the music and gets poor Winslow sent to Sing Sing. Winslow ultimately escapes but returns to the Paradise voiceless and grotesquely disfigured, the result of a horrific record press accident. Guess he hadn’t received the crucial “never escape from jail and run into a record pressing plant” lecture that all responsible parents are giving their over-coddled kids nowadays.
Those who have even the most fleeting familiarity with Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera can see where this is going, but it’s not the destination that’s important but rather the journey. Winslow’s version of Christine is Phoenix, played by Suspira’s Jessica Harper. When not executing the most awkward dance moves this side of Elaine Benes, Phoenix is batting her big, doe-like eyes all over the place. Why Harper never became a bigger star eludes me as, un-coordination aside, Harper is cute as a button and is a serviceable actress and singer to boot. Ironically, she did take over the role of Janet from Susan Sarandon in the equally ill-received Rocky sequel, Shock Treatment.
Phantom of the Paradise is a Technicolor marvel that also happens to be an incisive satire of the music industry of the time. Virtuoso direction, literary allusions (there’s even a little Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure) incredible songs composed by Swan himself, Paul Williams, audience dismemberment and decapitation, and Gerrit Graham: This one has it all. So next time you get the urge to do the Time Warp again, sit yourself down and watch this under-appreciated gem instead.
**** (out of 5)
LISTEN TO OUR CHAT ABOUT PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE AND OTHER LOW BUDGET MOVIES WE LOVE, ON THE PODCAST.