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He Sold His Soul for Rock 'n' Roll
on November 13, 2003
The movie synopsis:
In the 1974 film PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, William Finley stars as Winslow Leach, a very talented composer who is working on a rock opera based on FAUST. Pop composer Paul Williams plays Swan, an aloof and mysterious record producer who has made the careers of many popular rock musicians. [For the youngsters reading this, a record is, like, an antique version of a music CD.] Swan has built the Paradise, a massive enclosed amphitheater that will be used to showcase the many bands and musicians under his auspices, but he wants to find new material and new talent for the extravagant gala he is planning for opening night. Enter Winslow--who wants Swan to consider his FAUST material for the Paradise grand-opening--and an attractive and talented young female singer named Phoenix (played by the cute Jessica Harper, here in her film debut). While waiting to audition for Swan, Winslow and Phoenix meet and...well, it's love at first sight. Unbeknownst to the two lovebirds, though, is their imminent appointment with destiny--and with the evil Swan. Swan indeed wants Winslow's music for the theater debut, but he wants to present it as his own work, and with knowledge of the feelings that the composer and singer have for each other, he uses Phoenix as leverage to manipulate Winslow like marionette.
So Swan steals Winslow's work, then arranges for Winslow to get arrested on a bogus drug-possession charge. In prison, Winslow learns of Swan's manipulation, which spurs him to escape and, soon after, to break into Swan's record factory and destroy the machines cranking out recordings of his stolen music. However, in a freak accident, Winslow's head gets caught in a hot record press and his face is thereby mutilated. He flees from the scene and finds his way to the Paradise, where he swipes a really cool costume, sets up house, and then starts lurking around incognito. When he begins causing mayhem and thwarting the efforts of Swan and his theater staff, Winslow is dubbed The Phantom of the Paradise. And now the real fun begins....
He's been beaten, mutilated, maimed, and framed, but he's not gonna let Swan keep him from his music or from the woman he loves.
On the surface, Brian De Palma's excellent PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE may seem like little more than a send-up of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but it is much more complex than that. It is actually a very hip, very surreal satire of the depravity and decadence in the rock-and-roll music industry of the 1970s--specifically the two sub-genres known as Concept Rock and Glitter Rock--as well as a humorous yet affectionate homage to several classic horror stories and movies such as PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, PSYCHO, FRANKENSTEIN, FAUST, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and many others.
De Palma's directing style for this film is sometimes very unique and inventive (of course, it doesn't hurt that he is directing his own material). Especially nice is his effective use of the split-screen technique in a few key scenes, and the frenetic cuts and camera angles he uses for some scenes--especially the musical performances inside the Paradise--convey the genuine atmosphere of a 1970s-era rock concert.
The sets are outrageously exaggerated in layout and color, especially the set for the inside of the Paradise theater. In many ways, the overall look of the movie harkens back to the silent German Expressionist films, specifically METROPOLIS and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. That isn't to say that it looks too old-fashioned. Indeed, the bright sets, surreal costumes, and extravagant staging are all honest reflections of the performances and ostensibly flamboyant lifestyles of the 1970s rock artists like Glitter Rock's Alice Cooper or David Bowie and the Concept-Rock band Jethro Tull. By the way, those aforementioned sets were designed and dressed by Sissy Spacek, who a few years later would start on the road to greater fame playing the title role in the horror film CARRIE (1976).
The acting in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is also outstanding. Paul Williams exudes a perfect air of smarminess as the evil music impresario, Swan. In real life, Williams has composed and produced many successful pop songs for groups like The Carpenters and Three Dog Night, and this inside knowledge of the music industry only adds to the realism of his performance. Incidentally, Williams also wrote or co-wrote the music and score for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.
As Winslow Leach, William Finley creates a very convincing naive and nerdy musician (as well as a naive and nerdy Phantom!), and pretty Jessica Harper does a fine job in her debut role as an up-and-coming singer and dancer (the object of Winslow's love). But it is the over-the-top performance of Gerrit Graham that really steals the show. Graham plays Beef, a Glitter-Rock singer whose stage persona is that of a big, tough-and-buff Frankenstein's-monster type. Off stage, however, Beef is a stereotypical homosexual queen, and Graham really chews the scenery as he plays the character to great humorous effect. Don't get the idea that Graham is merely poking fun at homosexuals, though; he is really satirizing the misconception, especially prevalent in the 1970s, that all Glitter-Rock artists are gay. (One of the best and funniest scenes in the film is a takeoff on the shower scene from PSYCHO, with Graham's Beef replacing the Janet Leigh character and Finley's Phantom filling in for Norman Bates.)
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is one of those nearly forgotten gems that is a must-see for horror fans and admirers of director De Palma.
The DVD from Twentieth Century Fox offers a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film, but little by way of extras (in fact, the theatrical trailer only). However, it is very reasonably priced, so fans of horror & satire have no excuse for not adding this film to their collections.