Director Brian De Palma has helmed several classic movies including Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Dressed to Kill. Given his proclivity for stylish violence and sexual content, De Palma has frequently courted controversy. In addition, his penchant for flashy filmmaking and melodrama means that De Palma has made a few divisive oddities including Raising Cain. Arguably, one of the oddest entries in De Palma’s filmography was one of his earliest efforts, the 1974 rock-opera Phantom of the Paradise. Though it was a box office dud that critics initially derided, no one would ever accuse De Palma of being lazy. Mixing bits of The Phantom of the Opera with Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray, while also adding horror, comedy, and musical elements, De Palma made a truly one-of-a-kind oddity.
Winslow Leach, an awkward singer-songwriter, is something of a musical genius. But Leach doesn’t have the look that legendary, and mysterious, producer Swan wants in his next big showcase. However, Swan loves what he hears so he tricks the naive Leach and steals his music. After he’s horribly disfigured, Leach takes on a haunting new person – the Phantom – and terrorizes Swan’s new Paradise rock palladium. But when a young, beautiful singer named Phoenix catches the Phantom’s eye, he makes a deal with the devil and agrees to write more music for Swan.
Phantom of the Paradise Finds Brian De Palma Finding His Distinct Visual Style
Anyone familiar with director Brian De Palma’s work will immediately recognize early precursors to what would eventually define his filmmaking style. Look no further than the audition scene with The Beach Bums and you’ll be immediately impressed with the long, uninterrupted tracking shot and the stylish use of split screen. Regardless of how odd it may be for contemporary audiences, Phantom of the Paradise is undeniably stylish. In fact, De Palma often sacrifices narrative cohesion for style, which was pretty common for the director. Plenty of choppy editing abounds, which immediately confuses how much time passes between one scene and another. However, these are small quibbles for a movie more focused on style and a very focused effort on turning the Phantom into a rock opera.
Anyone familiar with director Brian De Palma’s work will immediately recognize early precursors to what would eventually define his filmmaking style.
Nearly 50 years removes from its original release date, Phantom of the Paradise immediately stands out for just how wildly it mixes different source materials and styles. Nothing about this movie is intended to be taken too seriously. From its prison scene to the introduction of Gerrit Graham’s over-the-top ‘Beef’, Phantom of the Paradise is clearly aiming for satire of the music industry. By today’s standards, its horror elements will look more than just a bit quaint. Aside from its mixing of genres, De Palma doesn’t just re-imagine The Phantom of the Opera – he borrows liberally from a handful of literary sources. Much of the narrative borrows from Faust, but De Palma also manages to sneak in a bit of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Phantom of the Paradise Features Eccentric Performances and Fun Musical Numbers
Neither William Finley nor Paul Williams will be immediately recognizable to contemporary audiences. As the meek, but talented, Winslow Leach, Finley does a good job at conveying a certain sense of naiveté, making the character both pathetic but worthy of pity. Finley was an odd-looking man who collaborated on a handful of movies with De Palma. While he’s perfect as Winslow, Finley isn’t nearly as convincing as the ‘Phantom’. Of course, Phantom of the Paradise never intends to be anything but a garish updating of the original tale. In this regard, Finley’s ‘Phantom’ strikes just the right amount of cheesy for this over-the-top cult classic. And the ‘mask’ worn by this ‘Phantom’ is visually distinct.
De Palma’s take on the classic story requires Williams’ “Swan” to be an enigmatic figure, which the songwriter most certainly accomplishes.
Better known for his songwriting and musical composition, Paul Williams is such an odd choice for the movie’s Faust. Yet he’s also perfectly in keeping with everything else that defines Phantom of the Paradise. De Palma’s take on the classic story requires Williams’ “Swan” to be an enigmatic figure, which the songwriter most certainly accomplishes. Despite a great singing number, Jessica Harper (Suspiria, Bones and All) gets very little to do here and feels wasted in an incoherent character arc where’s little more than a plot a device. Conversely, Gerrit Graham (Chopping Mall) makes the most of his short screentime playing what be the movie’s most outrageous character, ‘Beef’. Several fun musical numbers, and the very distinct Juicy Fruits, will likely win over fans of B-movies.
Phantom of the Paradise Offers Up a Slab of 70s Rock Opera Cheese
They definitely don’t make them like this anymore. Phantom of the Paradise is almost too many things to list. Part horror, part rock opera, and part comedy – taking notes from several literary classics from Phantom of the Opera to Faust, to name just two sources. Coupled with eccentric performances and Brian De Palma’s bombastic visual style, it’s immediately a product of its era. Yet it’s also still pretty fun stuff today. And yes, its soundtrack is pretty epic stuff that’s just missing that one big, familiar tune to put it on par with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Otherwise Phantom of the Paradise should be essential viewing for anyone who’s a fan of 1970s cheesy cult movies.