Brian De Palma, 1974
Starring: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper
Winslow Leach, a nerdy composer, has his music noticed by famed producer Swan. Swan then steals Leach’s music to use for the opening for Swan’s new venue, the Paradise. Leach figures out what Swan is doing and meets Phoenix, an aspiring singer rehearsing one of his songs. She and Leach develop feelings for each other. When Leach tries to stop Swan’s plans, Swan has him framed for dealing drugs and badly beaten. He is sent to Sing Sing for a life sentence.
While in prison he is badly mutilated and his has teeth replaced with metal. After he learns that the Juicy Fruits, Swan’s top band, have recorded his songs, he escapes from prison and smashes up Death Records, Swan’s studio. During this tirade, his face is mangled and he decides to become the Phantom of the Paradise and get revenge on Swan and the Juicy Fruits. Swan tricks him into rewriting his score for Faust and traps him in the studio. He breaks out to get bloody revenge.
Phoenix, meanwhile, is a success and is soon promised stardom by Swan. The Phantom tries to tell her that he is actually Winslow Leach and what Swan is really like, but she refuses to believe him and runs right into Swan’s arms. Devastated, the Phantom tries to kill himself by stabbing himself in the heart, but Swan tells him that he can’t die until Swan himself is killed. The Phantom tries to stab Swan, but it has no effect. He learns that Swan made a pact with the Devil and races to destroy the contract and prevent Swan’s impending wedding with Phoenix.
Stylistically, the is De Palma’s most impressive film. It is packed full of color, imaginative set and costume design, and De Palma’s customary use of fish eye lenses, interesting angels, split screens, and other cinematography tricks from Larry Pizer. Interestingly, Pizer worked on Alice Cooper’s live film, Welcome to My Nightmare, immediately after Phantom. I’ve heard Phantom compared to the colorful, highly stylized work of Ken Russell (The Devils) and Russell’s Tommy would only come out a year later.
Though Phantom is my favorite film of De Palma’s, it may be an acquired taste. A blend of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, there are also elements of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, ‘70s glam rock, a number of other films, and a pretty wide range of musical styles. I love Paul Williams. There’s something undeniably creepy about him, but the songs he wrote for the film are perfect and he is excellent as Swan. People from my generation or a bit younger might recognize his voice from Batman: The Animated Series, where he had a reoccurring role as Penguin. He also wrote music for a number of popular films, including one of my personal favorites, The Muppets. His songs for Phantom cover a wide range of music from glam to pop to ballads and more typical musical fare. Though the movie was initially a flop, the music was nominated for an Academy Award.
William Finley is perfect as Winslow/The Phantom and also worked with De Palma on Sisters, among other of his films. Another of De Palma’s reoccurring actors, Gerrit Graham, appears here as the hilarious and memorable Beef, lead singer of the Juicy Fruits and Swan’s constantly changing band. Martin Scorsese regular George Memmoli (Mean Streets, Rocky) has a side role as Philbin, Swan’s right hand man. Genre fans will recognize Jessica Harper in her first role as Phoenix. She would go on to star in Suspiria and Shock Treatment. There’s also opening narration from Rod Sterling (Night Gallery), though I believe he went uncredited.
Even if you don’t enjoy musicals, Phantom is well worth watching. There are some truly memorable scenes, including one of my favorite, which involves a hilarious Psycho shower scene satire/reenactment with a plunger instead of a knife. Though, like De Palma’s other films, this borrows liberally from throughout cinema and literature, it is also oddly prescient and includes a deep running discussion about art and fame, music and stardom, and the demon of success. Swan, for instance, was inspired by legendary producer Phil Spector. He rose to fame by producing ‘60s girl groups like the Ronettes before moving into many other genres of music including rock and punk. He ended his career with a jail sentence after murdering actress Lana Clarkson.
Despite the often bleak tone, a lot about Phantom is hilarious or delightful. The comic book visuals mixed with over the top glam and the grand, enormous scale of Phantom of the Opera are used to perfection here and anyone who likes Tommy or The Rocky Horror Picture Show will immediately want to seek this out. On the other hand, it is not simply a rock musical and, as I said before, is one of De Palma’s most accomplished films.
Phantom may not be for everyone, but it is one of my favorite films and expertly blends satire, horror, musical, comedy, and much more. Fans of unusual cinema will want to check this out at least once, if not for multiple viewings. The film is available on DVD and on a fancy new Blu-ray full of special features.