|Phantom of the Paradise|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 04 September 2001|
Better and hipper than "Rocky Horror Picture Show," the movie to which it's often compared, "Phantom of the Paradise" has a cult following, but a minor one compared to that of the better-known "Rocky Horror." It's not likely that this DVD release is going to significantly increase the number of "Phantom" fans; the disc has, essentially, no extras at all, the cover is uninviting (particularly ridiculous considering the great John Alvin poster), and Fox has done no promotion. They don't even tie it in with the mini-flood of other Brian De Palma DVDs recently released ("Carrie," "The Fury," "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out"), though it's one of the key entries from his most creative period as a director.
There's never been another movie like "Phantom of the Paradise;" it remains sui generis. It does combine rock and horror, as many films have done, but it does so from a completely different perspective, partly because neither De Palma nor his composer/star Paul Williams knew much about rock 'n' roll, but mostly because it's so fiercely creative and imaginative. Yes, it takes off from "Phantom of the Opera" (specifically the versions with Claude Rains and Herbert Lom), and hits some of the same marks, but the tone and approach are radically different.
The movie's a veritable smorgasbord of themes and references: "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "Psycho," "The Manchurian Candidate," the style of Stanley Kubrick. This helps give it a strange richness and a continual feeling of surprise: you just don't know what's coming through the door next. It can spin your head and upset your expectations like few other movies. Brian De Palma wrote as well as directed, and tossed in everything that seemed related to the ideas and story.
Its own DVD case describes it as a "send-up of the glam rock era," but it's nothing of the sort; glam rock is represented briefly by one costume. It's a comedy, but it's very serious about its characters, and ends in a scene of death and destruction. It's a musical, but it's not about the songs -- some of which are excellent. It's a horror movie for sure, with scarred faces, bloody retribution and even the Devil himself involved.
Mostly, though, it's just itself, and that self is fascinating. Seeing it the first time can be an electrifying experience; you're hit by surprise after surprise even in the context of this familiar plot. Is that Rod Serling announcing the premise? (It is.) It mixes New York, Texas and Los Angeles locations. The sheer bravado of the moviemaking, with split screens, undercranked shots, mirror shots galore, hurtling hand-held cameras, animation, montages, dizzying crowd scenes and an emphatic use of color keep you suspended above your seat, afraid to react for fear of missing something, anything.
Swan (Paul Williams) is the mysterious king of rock 'n' roll; not a performer himself, he's an entrepreneur, a womanizing reclusive millionaire, who packages acts. He's just giving up on the retro-50s group The Juicy Fruits (Harold Oblong, Jeffrey Commanor, Archie Hahn) as the movie opens, looking for a new sound to open his rock palace The Paradise. Overhearing Winslow Leach (William Finley), a minor singer/composer/pianist between Juicy Fruits sets, Swan has found his sound.
Instead of dealing directly with the eager, naive (but bad-tempered) Winslow, Swan takes over the uncompleted rock cantata based on "Faust" that's Winslow's life work. When Winslow objects, Swan has him framed and sent to Sing Sing. There his teeth are pulled and replaced with steel dentures, but the deranged Winslow escapes. He tries to blow up Swan's record producing factory, but his face is caught in a record press (his own song is burned into his cheek). Wounded, he escapes, then turns up at the Paradise, where he adopts a black-leather disguise, complete with cape and bird-like mask.
Winslow himself was already charmed by Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young singer as ambitious as he is -- all three are linked by ambition. After he makes himself as the Phantom known to Swan, Winslow insists that Swan hire her as the lead in "Faust," and agrees to finish the score.
But Swan, as before, has other ideas, involving the extremely flamboyant Beef (Gerrit Graham), a singer, and the revamped Juicy Fruits.
The movie hurtles from one plot development to the next, so fast that often you miss editing glitches until you've seen the film a couple of times. By that time, they don't matter. You're still sorting out everything else, like the bird references (Swan, Phoenix, Winslow's mask), the shortened doorways, the revisions of Winslow's songs (his "Faust" solo becomes the surf-toned "Upholstery"), all those damned mirrors.
At times, De Palma uses the print-the-first-take style of his experimental films and early features, like "Hi Mom" and "Greetings." At other times, he's more formal. Scenes can shift from comedy to horror and back again before you can take a breath. The split screen work seems a pointless flourish until it pays off with an explosion, and you realize how hard it was to set up. Some of the plot elements don't bear close examination -- why does Swan betray Winslow twice? Is that a plot element from "Phantom of the Opera" or a parody of the rock music scene of the time, or both, or neither?
But it's amazing how all the disparate elements mix together so well. Gerrit Graham's astonishing performance as Beef -- his career highlight -- is so funny and yet so real that whenever he's on, he takes over the film completely. But he's matched by William Finley as the romantic, dreamy but unstable Winslow, and by Jessica Harper as the graceful, sexy but steel-hard Phoenix. The movie should have launched them all on major careers, but it didn't. They're still around, though Finley rarely turns up in movies these days, Graham has been relegated mostly to minor roles, and Harper has more of a career as a singer of children's songs than as an actress.
Paul Williams is perfectly cast as the sardonic little Swan, but he's very hard to cast; he turns up now and then, but always in supporting roles. His songs here aren't so much parodies of rock styles as vaguely recalling the styles -- and they mostly work in context very well. Finley disappears so far into "Faust," rolling and swaying with the music, that he scarcely seems aware of being photographed. Harper's "Special to Me" is a perfect match of performer and number, especially in her sexy little dance as she leaves the stage. The Juicy Fruits, now the Undead, have a great Gothic number "Someone Super Like You," with Harold Oblong (now working as Peter Elbling) as the lead. But the standout number is "Life at Last," performed by Graham (but sung by Ray Kennedy) at the opening of the Paradise.
The songs in this and "Bugsy Malone" are so good -- witty, melodic, evocative -- that it's a shame that Williams has had so few opportunities to do similar scores. He understands rhythm and rhyme (even if he doesn't really understand rock), and his range is very broad.
Technically, the DVD is adequate, but only that. The print is in excellent shape; the sound is stereo, but not digital or 5.1. This is no problem, though, since the original mix was good in the first place. Chapter 15 has a scene that audiophiles in particular will find both exciting and funny. Winslow's various problem have left his voice a croaking wreck, so Swan plugs him into state-of-the-art (for 1974) sound equipment, and by use of a well-equipped mixing board, "repairs" Winslow's voice. (If you listen closely, you'll notice the capper of this joke.)
This movie deserved far lusher treatment than it gets here. The only extra is a strange text-less trailer; there aren't even the IMDb-derived filmographies typical of low-end discs like this. "Phantom of the Paradise" is a significant movie; it deserved a commentary track, biographies, a making-of documentary, the script (which changed many times), etc. etc. There's not even a mention of why Sissy Spacek was a set dresser on the film. Far less interesting, less entertaining, less important movies have had fabulous treatment; it's a damned shame that "Phantom of the Paradise" has been treated by Fox Home Video as a poor relation. But at least it is on home video again. Life at last.