Directed and written by Brian DePalma
Starring William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, & Gerrit Graham
I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of musicals, but when one is good, I have to admit it. Brian DePalma took beats from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, FAUST, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, and THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO and married them in a BIG LOVE style marriage and put it to music and somehow it worked. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is probably my favorite of DePalma’s films. It’s pretty much a flawless mishmash of classic horror set to music.
Winslow is a struggling musician trying to make it big, so he goes to hit music producer Swan with his opera. Swan likes the music, but not Winslow, so he gets the nebbish bard arrested and in a daring escape Winslow suffers an accident in a record press scarring his face and driving the musician mad with revenge. Now Winslow haunts Swan’s rock music hall dubbed The Paradise and longs to see his music sung by the beautiful Phoenix and will murder anyone who gets in the way of making her a star. The story proves to be a relentless Faustian tragedy that surprisingly resonated with me deeply. It’s one of those stories that’s been told before, but with this director and with this cast, and especially with these songs, it all works so well.
How many musicals have you seen where the story is shit, but the music is good or vice versa? Here both are absolutely phenomenal. The soundtrack is written by Swan himself, Paul Williams, and the music proves to be both melodically haunting and lyrically tragic. Sure some of it proves to be a product of its disco era time, but most of the songs are surprisingly beautiful, my favorite being Williams’ shiver-inducing “The Phantom’s Theme”, which you can hear below (though at times the vocals remind me of SOUTH PARK’s Trey Parker).
The cast is fantastic. Winslow is played by William Finley (who also appeared in DePalma’s haunting SISTERS) and though he’s not very likable as the whiney musician done wrong, he is absolutely fantastic behind the bird shaped mask of the Phantom. Though his kills are supposed to be comedic, his performance is seething with such intensity and seriousness that it still comes off frightening even when he’s killing someone angrily with a plunger. Another achievement in casting brilliance is placing musician Paul Williams (probably best known for songs like “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song”, “Rainbow Connection”, and “Rainy Days & Mondays”, but I’ll always know him as Little Enos from the SMOKEY & THE BANDIT films) into the role of Swan. He’s literally the Devil in this film, asking for contracts signed in blood. His smug and smarmy demeanor makes him one of horror’s truly memorable and original villains. Rounding out the cast is Phoenix played by Jessica Harper (best known for her starring role in SUSPIRIA) who is absolutely gorgeous and is surprisingly good at singing (although it is obvious she isn’t a pro at flexing the golden pipes). The way the three of these characters dance around with one another is operatic. Swan seduces Phoenix. Swan seduces Winslow. Winslow seduces Phoenix. Phoenix seduces the crowd. In the hands of bigger name actors, this wouldn’t have been so effective, but here, Finley is the born loser turned seething monster, Harper is the hollow eyed muse, and Williams is the devlish imp gleefully manipulating them both.
Many of the tricks one has come to expect from a DePalma film are front and center in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. There’s an over-attention to mechanics and the construction of intricately played out scenes. There’s the split screen communicating the sequence of events occurring all at once. There’s the operatic ending which takes much time to construct and all but moments to destroy. If you’re a DePalma fan, this is pretty much the perfect example of what he can do right. I have a friend who hates DePalma and even he admitted after seeing PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, that it was a good film.
I have nothing but praise to toss toward PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. It’s one of those films I can watch over and over. Though THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW has developed a massive cult following, this is the horror musical that deserves it. If you’ve seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, you know what I mean. If not, I’m jealous that you get to experience its brilliance for the first time.