‘He sold his soul for rock n’ roll’
The story is a loosely adapted mixture of The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust. Initially, it was a box office failure and was panned by some critics but has since acquired a cult following.
Winslow Leach (William Finley, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse) is a frustrated songwriter, who finally makes his big break when his support act for The Juicy Fruits is seen by mysterious rock ‘n’ roll svengali, Swan (played by genuine 70’s song-writing behemoth, Paul Williams – also in The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula) who pinpoints his music as the ideal debut act for his new mega-club, The Paradise.
In a fiendish plot, he employs Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) to steal the music for his own gain. Leach visits Swan’s mansion, which also house his record label, Death Records, but is immediately turfed out, though not before witnessing an aspiring singer auditioning, Phoenix (Jessica Harper, Suspiria), whom he quickly falls for.
Swans soon realises that Leach remains a threat to his plans and has him beaten up and framed for drugs offences, leading him to be given a life sentence at the notorious Sing Sing Prison, and having his teeth removed and replaced by a metal plate. Part-way into his ordeal, Leach hears The Juicy Fruits playing one of his songs on the radio and manages to escape by hiding in a delivery container.
Returning to Swan’s mansion, he tried to sabotage Swan’s plans but is soon rumbled, becoming trapped in a record press which burns his face and destroys his vocal chords. Leach retreats, donning a bird-like silver mask and cape that will see him turn into his alter-ego, The Phantom, whose sole aim is to destroy Swan’s empire and seize back his music and Phoenix.
Swan eventually strikes a deal with Leach, supplying him with an electronic voice box so that he can complete his fabled track, “Faust”, with Phoenix as the singer. Swan reneges on the plan and instead selects gargantuan glam rocker, Beef (Gerrit Graham, Child Play 2, Chopping Mall) to open The Paradise singing Leach’s “Old Souls” – only for The Phantom to interrupt proceedings in true Lon Chaney style. With both The Phantom and Swan now realising the true intentions of each other, the pair struggle to the film’s violent conclusion, with Phoenix trapped between them…
Pre-dating The Rocky Horror Picture Show by a year (though not the 1973 stage show), Brian De Palma’s rock/horror hybrid has long been viewed as little more than folly, something the director felt he had to get out of his system without considering how many people shared his vision.
Packed with fantastic characters both in front and behind the camera (regular David Lynch production designer Jack Fisk was responsible for much of the film’s garish visual appeal – his girlfriend, Sissy Spacek, pre-Carrie, was his assistant) the film perhaps suffered for being too intricate – the plots twists endlessly and the music is elaborate and sweeping, far removed from the immediate, catchy pop of Rocky Horror.
The appearance of Paul Williams seems far more bizarre now than it would have forty years ago. In the 1970’s he loomed large of popular music in all its forms, from penning numerous Carpenters tracks (including “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”) to tracks on the smash hit Bugsy Malone, the theme to the seemingly never-ending TV show Love Boat, to the terrific “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. Undoubtedly a musical genius, his stature and appearance did not lend themselves to superstardom in front of the camera, though as the sinister and creepy Swan, he finds an unlikely role in which he excels.
Jessica Harper is a strange piece of casting but again, this is entirely fitting for a film which is all things strange. Her wide-eyed innocence adds a real feeling of pathos, in a film it’s easy to feel detached from. Finlay is sensational as Leach/The Phantom, and although he worked until his untimely death in 2012, he never achieved the plaudits he deserved. Similarly, Gerrit Graham throws everything into the role of Beef, sadly not lasting very long as a character.
Throwing everything at the picture, De Palma, hurls pop culture references at the audience from the start. Swan’s Death Records label is such a thinly veiled take on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label that it should come as no surprise that the original shots actually see the label named Swan Songs, an error which necessitated optically over-pasting Death Records in several scenes to avoid a lengthy court battle.
Elsewhere, Philbin’s character is named after Mary Philbin from the classic 1923 Lon Chaney film Phantom of the Opera. Spacek stayed behind the lens but only due to the fact that Harper beat her (and Linda Ronstadt) to the role of Phoenix. The musical merry-go-round of casting saw Jon Voight being considered for the role of Swan, Williams as Leach, Graham as Swan and Peter Boyle as Beef. Boyle went on to play is somewhat similar role to Beef in Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. Graham’s singing voice is dubbed by Ray Kennedy, the noted singer, composer and session musician.
The nature of the Phantom’s disfigurement references the 1943 Claude Rains version of the Phantom of the Opera rather more than Chaney’s classic, though other filmic nods include Faust, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as nods to television – Rod Serling, host of writer of much of The Twilight Zone TV series supplies the opening monologue.
Phantom of the Paradise opened in the U.S. on October 31, 1974 and soon flopped. The film’s only successful major market during its theatrical release was Winnipeg, Canada where it opened on Boxing Day, 1974 and played in local cinemas over four months continuously and over one year non-continuously until 1976.
The soundtrack album sold 20,000 copies in Winnipeg alone and was certified Gold in Canada. It played occasionally in Winnipeg theatres in the 1990s and at the Winnipeg IMAX theatre in 2000 and always “drew a dedicated audience”. In more recent years, it has attracted a loyal fanbase who organise “Phantompalooza” events – celebrity fans include Sébastien Tellier and Daft Punk.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
The nature of Phantom perhaps allows more deliberate high camp, but De Palma has always had a taste for excess. And Phantom still has room for subtlety, tragedy and seriousness when it’s needed – Winslow’s cry of anguish as he watches Swan seducing Phoenix is as haunting a moment as you’ll see in any ‘serious’ film. The movie is perfectly cast, too. William Finley, in a rare leading role, is adept at both comedy and pathos, and gives the Phantom both a crazed psychosis and a genuine humanity, while Paul Williams is impressively sinister as Swan. David Flint, MOV!ES and MAN!A
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