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VINE VOICEon 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.

The review:
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.
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on April 28, 2004
The 1974 rock music film Phantom Of The Paradise is perhaps one of the most unusual and intriguing films i've ever come to know. This film was one of Brian DePalma's best films to date next to 1976's Carrie, 1983's masterwork Scarface and 1987's The Untouchables. The film is seen as somewhat as a rock and roll version of Phantom Of The Opera but it's a film about getting revenge on those who have hurt us. The hero in the film is nerdy and disgruntled composer Winslow Leach(played by William Finley) whose rock cantata about the magician 'Faust' whom was stolen by music impressario Swan. Swan had his own record label Death Records(originally Swan Song before Led Zeppelin coincidentally came up with the record label name and the producers changed the label to Death) and his own music channel(predated MTV by many years. Swan then proceeds and destroys Leach's life (steals the lovely Phoenix from Winslow, has him wrongfully framed, arrested, teeth pulled and had metal teeth in its place(predates the look that rappers and rockers like Marilyn Manson would adopt) and appearance). After being badly disfigured, Leach disguises himself as a phantom (whose Phantom outfit and make-up could easily have been the predecessor to the Goth Rock era of the 80's) wreaking havoc on the devilish (and that terms comes in quite handy here) and will stop at nothing to terrorize Swan. He tries arson (blowing up the set design during one of the 'Faust' rehearsals with a Beach Boys send-off The Beach Bums) and even murder (electrocuting over-the-top singer hard rock singer Beef mid-performance whose backing band look like what KISS would appear like a few months after this film was made. Also, the people at the door scene predicts the Studio 54 scene by a few years as does the partying/wedding scene at the end. The music in this film is great and the story proves that in the end, the nerds win over the arrogant types! Highly recommended!
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on December 23, 2003
Talk about a strange brew... a mixture of horror, comedy, rock music, unrequited love and fantasy. A songwriter's music is stollen by a promoter (Paul Williams) who has the writer thown in jail, beaten and almost killed. The songwriter returns as the "phantom" and haunts the rock palace of the promoter.
It's hard to recommend this movie to someone. If they like the music, they may hate the horror elements, or visa versa. But if you're a child of the seventies, this will probably appeal to you.
First off: the music is excellent. It was written by Paul Williams, who also sings some of the songs. It was nominated for an Academy Award (it is also available on CD).
Next: If you like Brian Depalma, with his split screens, mood lighting and quick cuts, it's all here.
Also: Jessica Harper, in her film debut as the love interest, is great, and she does her own singing. Gerrit Graham is absolutely hysterical as "Beef" the glam rock KISS wannabe.
A truely strange film that will appeal to the more adventurous, but if you like a happy ending, you'll have to look elsewhere.
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William Finley, the star of Phantom of the Paradise died earlier this week leaving his enthusiastic fans and loving family to grieve. We who knew this illusive, idiosyncratic, gentle giant mourn the loss of a truly original artist. What better time to revisit and marvel at this cult classic decades ahead of its time?
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on September 15, 2002
Although often compared to Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brian DePalma's very strange Phantom of the Paradise is not in the same genre, if only because it works so hard to define its own quirky niche. It is, perhaps, DePalma's most original film, inasmuch as his usual penchant for homage (of everything from Rupert Julian's 1925 Phantom of the Opera, to 50's nostalgia group Sha Na Na, and even Welles' Touch of Evil) is tempered with heavy doses of righteous Liberal indignation.
Composer Winslow Leach (played by DePalma regular William Finley) is a dedicated but naive artist who is ruined by his entanglement with a record producer known only as Swan (the impish Paul Williams). Swan steals his music, his would-be girlfriend (Jessica Harper), and eventually, his soul, in the Faustian developments that follow.
As dated and ham-handed as some of the material is (the 70's era slang, the costumes, the anti-establishment rhetoric), Phantom is curiously redeemed by its earnestness. In spite of what you may have heard, this film is NOT camp; it is SATIRE - the major difference (in my estimation) being that camp is self-kidding; it knows of its outrageousness and wallows in it. Satire is nearly the opposite: it adopts an external perspective, dissecting human behavior from on-high - as aliens from another planet might regard us in all our wondrous absurdity.
I approached this DVD with some trepidation. Having only seen Phantom of the Paradise once as an eight year-old in its theatrical release, I was left with an indelible impression. I missed the satire and remembered only the horrific surface elements (the disfigured anti-hero with his creepy electronic voice, the Dorian Gray-like climax, etc). But how would I see it through adult eyes? Would it hold up?
The answer, in a word, is yes. The horror elements are intact, but deepened by some smartly crafted comic-dreadful moments, scathing commentary on the music industry (such as Garrit Graham's hilariously over-the-top portrayal of an effeminate glam-rocker named Beef), and a genuine sense of almost Teutonic angst. Don't let it escape your notice that, far from being "pure", Jessica Harper's pop-singer wannabe Phoenix (the Phantom's love interest) is tainted by her hunger for stardom. She sells her soul, too, for all the wrong reasons, and does nothing to redeem herself. It's that sort of underlying dark realism that keeps this film afloat on repeat viewings.
I categorized it as a guilty pleasure because I don't fall in the typical audience demographic that enjoys so-called "camp classics" (I wouldn't be caught dead watching Surf Nazis Must Die). But since Phantom of the Paradise rises above its only half-deserved reputation, maybe I don't feel so guilty, after all. And if your teen-aged kids ask you what the 70's was like, it's a stylish and entertaining way to introduce them to the social dynamic of one very strange decade!
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on March 14, 2000
This film really spoke to me as a kid. As an adult, after working in the music business for ten years, I can appreciate its often brilliant satirical insights. The film features great talents that went on to do more recognized works, and they are at their very best here. Paul Williams has never evoked such powerful emotion than with this original score (he was robbed if he didn't get an Academy Award), and Jessica Harper will capture your heart as the quintessential heroine. Far more humorous than "Rocky Horror," and at the same time more dramatic than "Velvet Goldmine," DePalma's approach to the archetypal drama of Faust is deceptively simple in the way it is presented, yet deftly does justice to the classic story by drawing its overwhelming energy from several genres at once! Too bad they don't make films like this any more. "Immortalize" it on VHS, or better yet, wait for the DVD.
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on February 27, 2005
I think that those people who pan this film simply did not get it, or having heard it's a satire of the music business, were perhaps expecting something like Spinal Tap. The movie is a terrific satire of the music industry, mixing Goethe's Faust and Leroux's Phantom of the Opera (which probably drew on The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to tell the story. Like several other reviewers have noted, the film almost eerily predicts music trends to come (one wonders if Kiss got their idea for the makeup from this movie). It is also worth pointing out that Paul Williams can write music and lyrics that go well beyond "Rainy Days & Mondays" and "Evergreen". Just note the different styles he uses to adapt Winslow's "original" song for the other groups that performed it after Swan stole the music. And some of the lyrics are amazing, and not at all what one tends to think of when one hears Paul Williams' name attached to a song - "good for nothing, bad in bed, nobody likes you and you're better off dead" - hardly what the Carpenters or Barbra Streisand would have recorded.

While I'm on the subject of Paul Williams, his acting in this film is so beyond that for which he is better known (Smokey & The Bandit). He portrays a man who sold his soul to the devil to attain incredible success and eternal youth. Swan is an awful person, yet Williams manages to convey the man's misery in the short scene where he watches the videos that he is compelled, by the deal with the devil, to view every day.

Jessica Harper has a great singing voice and does a nice job; William Finley is fine; but Gerrit Graham is really fabulous as Beef - the scene where he leaves the theater after being accosted in the shower and asserts that he knows "drug-real" from "real-real" is priceless.
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on December 17, 2000
I saw this movie because it had the word "phantom" in the title but now I watch it all the time! It certainly is different than most film adaptions of the "Phantom" legend. The cast is wonderful especially Paul Williams as the sleezy little Swan. The music is great! I love the "Phantom's Theme". I think my favorite part is when Swan persuades Winslow to sigh the contract despite that has clauses like "All articles which are excluded shall deemed included". This is must have for people who like music, Paul Williams, William Finley, the phantom legend, and the Faust legend!
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on September 21, 2001
Phantom of Paradise is an interesting time capsule film. It was briefly ahead of it's time, but then dated itself very quickly. It was influential, yet forgotten or passed over by many. It's a campy rock musical, dark cynical satire, and tragic love story. It contains some wonderfully staged musical sequences (even if you don't enjoy the music all that much). There's some very varied but fun and worthwhile performances to be enjoyed here as well. You'll also see a very different type of film than one you normally associate with Brian De Palma. The DVD package is bare bones, but the film looks and sounds as good as it ever has before. I'm a long time fan of the film and this looks and sounds much better than old VHS copy of the film I obtained a while ago. It's priced under 20 bucks and a film I'm glad to put into my DVD collection.
Phantom of Paradise combined several types of music, from a satire of the early 70s 50's revival which had just past its peak in 1974 (but would return with even more fervor following the success of Grease just a few years later) to folk-rock to a hybrid of Glam and hard rock. It took a little bit from Faust, a whole lot of Phantom of the Opera, a sprinkle of The Picture of Dorian Grey updated them all and set itself in the world of modern pop music so it could add a few twists and make some satiric cynical comments about the entertainment industry. . It featured narration by Rod Serling, introduced future Suspiria star Jessica Harper, and had an Academy nominated song score that was written by (stick with me now) Paul Williams and George Aliceson Tipton.
Today, in this age of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, the once somewhat shocking and far-fetched rock concert in Phantom of the Paradise looks positively old fashioned and not particularly abnormal. It's still very enjoyable as camp of course, but I'll bet new viewers will fine it difficult to fathom how it was once considered somewhat shocking and viewed as an utterly over-the-top exaggeration of a rock show.
De Palma experiments with his fluid camera, and uses split screen quite effectively. He explores several themes including the growing interest and fascination with death. The film shows how the attraction and desire to be a celebrity is very much like a moth to a flame. How being naïve and less sophisticated can make you a stepping stone for someone else's greed and desire. We see artistic delusion. We see how almost anything can be turned into a temporary disposable entertainment for an unsophisticated crowd.
If all this sounds very dark and cynical--you're right. It is an extremely dark and cynical tale that is wrapped up with an extremely illusory wrapping of high camp.
I can not predict how people who grew up watching MTV will view something like Phantom of the Paradise. In 1974, the general public was not nearly as media savvy as it is today and not everyone seemingly had an opinion about the manufacture of pop trends. We were just entering the first wave of disco, and seeing Glam rock's influence spread. We had not yet experienced the disco explosion of the late 70's, punk rock, New wave, LA hair bands, speed metal, world music, or grunge yet. Heck, cocaine's popularity was barely beginning and Studio 54 wasn't even a pipe dream yet.

Fans of the film will of course want to proclaim how it incredibly predicted some musical trends and styles (Alice Cooper, Kiss, bigger wilder rock shows, new wave, Goth) and how influential it was in being a trail blazer so that The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Little Shop of Horrors and perhaps even Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera (a big stretch of course) could be successful. It's an influential film, but how much so is very difficult to say.
The story of how a songwriter is ripped off and abused still works pretty well, but William Finley's (Winslow) performance is uneven. He's pretty convincing as a milquetoast but as he becomes part martyr, part avenging Phantom he's not as convincing. Paul Williams' (Swan) presence is a strange one. He's almost too self consciously playing a somewhat melodramatic villain--though it's a performance I've always enjoyed. He's at times winking at the audience and at other times he's too convincing in the role. Jessica Harper as Phoenix is a slightly aloof, natural beauty. We can believe that Winslow sees an honest soulfulness in her when she awkwardly auditions for a role in the stage show. I found her a captivating believable presence but the script gives her character that makes an abrupt transition few actresses could navigate flawlessly. Some of the supporting players give nearly perfect performances. Archie Hahn as one of the members of the clone Beach Boy group the Juicy Fruits is wonderful. He's a face you'll probably recognize from dozens of films and television shows and was a member of San Francisco's the Committee (a famed improvisational comedy group). Gerritt Graham is another recognizable actor whose turn here as "Beef' an Ozzie Osborne type lead singer (his singing voice was dubbed by Ray Kennedy) is priceless. You might remember him from Used Cars or as Bud the Chud.
I'm way too close to the film to be able to venture a worthwhile guess of it's potential to connect to a new audience today. A sensitive 12 or 13 year old is likely to consider the film a very mean-spirited and somewhat sad film with really mediocre music. There's a suggested orgy scene in the film which while within the bounds of a P.G. rating might be considered a bit too strong for some.
Christopher Jarmick,is the author of The Glass Cocoon with Serena F. Holder a critically acclaimed, steamy suspense thriller.
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on June 22, 2003
I just re-watched "Phantom of the Paradise" again and it's every bit as entertaining as it was when I saw it in 1974. Only now, of course, it has that bittersweet nostalgic edge to it. It reminds us what a brilliant talent Brian De Palma was when the 70's were hot times. A mix of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Faust", it follows "Phantom" fairly close bringing the Faust legend in as both the stage show Swan (Paul Williams) is trying to get off the ground and as a plot element where Swan has sold his soul to the devil and persuades others to join him.
Swan is an evil megalomaniac music producer who wants to open the ultimate rock club---the Paradise. He needs the right music for the opening and finds it in luckless songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley) from whom he promptly steals it. He has poor Leach sent to prison on a phony heroin charge and opens the Paradise with Leach's updated pop contata "Faust". When Winslow hears the news he breaks out of prison, dons a costume and begins terrorizing the Paradise (getting his face scarred in a record press in the process). Film introduces the lovely Jessica ("Suspiria") Harper as soulful singer Phoenix who captures the heart of Winslow and the greed of Swan. Swan wants to make her a star (and take her soul). Also there's Gerritt Graham as queeny glam-rock idol Beef, who Swan sets to star in "Faust". He practically steals the film hands down with his hilarious performance. "Phantom" works as a satire, musical, horror film---all rolled into one. The performances are good, the music (by Williams) is good, it's fast-paced and very colorful (the costumes are great) and it's an eye-filling extravaganza. Sissy Spacek is even credited as set dresser---her husband Jack Fisk also worked on the film. De Palma even uses split-screen at one point (as he would do in later films). The DVD is very well done. It looks and sounds wonderful. No fancy extras...just the theatrical trailer. For those who want a good look at the real 70's, this is the ticket. For those with fond memories of a gaudier era, here it is. And it's recommended very highly. Enjoy.
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