Phantom of the Paradise: De Palma's Bizarre Rock Opera

I sometimes cannot understand 70s audiences, and how they let incredible movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Harold and Maude, Eraserhead and Phantom of the Paradise flop miserably until time granted them justice and the praise they deserved with the title “cult classic.” Very often, people can’t recognize genius if it’s staring them right across the face, all wrapped up in dream-like cinematography and a vibrant soundtrack, beautifully giving tribute and parodying a large array of fascinating subjects in perfect cohesion, and that is certainly the case with Brian De Palma’s incredible genre-bender of a Faustian tale, the 1974 Phantom of the Paradise. One of the early films by one of America’s modern masters, the man behind Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), Phantom of the Paradise is unlike anything Brain De Palma ever made. It feels very giallo with its aesthetic, screams rock and roll and glam with its sound, and combines many classic tales into one hell of a plot.

Phantom of the Paradise tells the story of Winslow Leach, a composer who is one day discovered by legendary music producer Swan. The latter in interested in Winslow’s music only, as he sees it fitting as an opening act for his newest attraction, The Paradise. He divises a plan to steal the music and get rid of its maker, and does with the material as he pleases, altering and mutilating it to fit his commercial needs. Winslow, who is thought long dead, makes a masked comeback and attempts to force Swan to cast a certain girl to sing his music, and ends up terrorizing The Paradise.

Phantom of the Paradise’s plot is inspired and gives tribute to Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Goethe’s Faust. The latter is probably the tale the film parodies the most, for just like in the classic German tale, when the dissatisfied protagonist makes a pact with the devil, offering his soul in exchange for unlimited powers and knowledge, Winslow offers his music (the equivalent of his soul) for a shot at fame. This is clearly referenced throughout the film with pacts signed in blood, contracts that completely surrender one party to another, and small false favors in exchange for so much more. The reference to Phantom of the Opera is perhaps the biggest and most obvious, and the one to The Picture of Dorian Gray comes towards the end when we discover the secrets to Swan’s undying and unflinching beauty. 

But even while the film’s plot is as interesting and rich as it is, the most compelling aspect of the film, at least for me, is its music. Composed entirely by the one and only Paul Williams (he also plays Swan in the movie!), it varies from nostalgia rock, to soft ballads and glam metal, it is one of the best scores in the history of film, and for me, rivaled only by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s. And just like RHPS, Phantom of the Paradise’s tribute to the music industry is very apparent and done beautifully. The general idea of both films is that glam’s charms and appeal couldn’t last very long, and what is older and truer always reigns superior. Beef, the glam singer in the film, is all looks and appearances, and scared very easily with simple threats, a scene that gives tribute to the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 films Psycho.

I thoroughly admire the camerawork in Phantom of the Paradise, it somehow manages to make what is essentially a B-movie look like a big budget production. It emits giallo influences, the niche Italian horror sub-genre from the 60s and 70s (the 80s too, somewhat), a genre that prioritized style over substance, and treated its audiences to vibrant, colorful and grotesque scenes that were just as frightening as they were awe-inspiring. Films like Suspiria (1997), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987) are some of the most prominent of this fascinating genre, and somehow, a film like Phantom of the Paradise, made in 1970s America, manages to feel right at home with these entrancing pictures. The camera moves brilliantly here, and De Palma utilizes his famous Arc Shot often, a technique he perfected in Carrie (1976) and Blow Out (1981), to give more life to the music performances Paul Williams wrote, and the incredible performances by William Finley and Jessica Harper (the star of the aforementioned Suspiria).

I’ve always been interested in Phantom of the Paradise but didn’t get around to watching it until last year’s October, as part of my Shocktober viewings. Its various references, both in plot and in music, its way of blending musicals with horror and comedy, and its striking visuals and performances made me fall instantly in love with it, and upon a rewatch, it is still as fun and exciting as it was the first time; I cannot wait until I watch it again.


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