Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Phantom of the Paradise


This movie has the distinction of being one of only two that I saw at a science fiction convention. (The other was The Terminator.) It was in Oakland, at a WesterCon, actually my very first SF con. It hadn’t gotten much distribution—it was a flop when new; now it’s a cult favorite—and I really wanted to see it. Other than that, I’ve never much seen the point of going to a con to watch movies.

I loved it from the very first frames. The structure is so perfect, being a blend of The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” with references to many other stories such as Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Brian De Palma has always been an over-the-top sort of guy, operatic in his themes. This one plays like an opera. The music is almost constant, and some of it is very good. I don’t think any movie has ever savaged the music “industry” as badly as this one. It also lampoons pop culture in general.

We start out with a surfer-style group called the Juicy Fruits (after a brief narrative introduction by Rod Serling, uncredited). Looming over the concert hall is the Emperor of Pop, one Swan, no other name, played wonderfully by Paul Williams. (When I saw him once in Eugene, Oregon, he referred to himself as “Your Pillsbury Doughboy of song.”) I think he might have been partly based on Phil Spector, but there have always been a good supply of makers and shakers with not a single scruple in that business.

He’s looking for the “next big thing,” and hears it in the music of Winslow Leach (William Finley), who has composed a rock cantata based on Faust. Swan easily bamboozles the totally innocent Winslow into signing away all his music, which Swan wants performed by the Juicy Fruits. Swan won’t see Winslow and so, still thinking there’s been some mistake, Winslow tries to get in to see Swan, at the same time meeting Phoenix (Jessica Harper). He is thrown out, finally understands how completely he has been screwed, and sneaks into a record-pressing factory where there is an accident. His head is pressed by the machine.

Stumbling from the factory, horribly disfigured, voiceless, he finds his way into the Paradise Theater, where Swan is rehearsing the upcoming show. He finds a disguise, and sets out to destroy Swan. He blows up the Juicy Fruits. But Swan is not so easily defeated. Unlike the Phantom of the Opera, he is easily taken in again with empty promises, and finishes his cantata under the condition that only Phoenix will sing his music. He signs a contract in blood, without really reading it.

But—horrors!—Swan gives the music to a disgusting group called The Undeads, very reminiscent of Kiss, headed by a glam-rock queen called Beef (an amazing, hilarious performance by Gerrit Graham). Though Winslow’s studio has been walled off in brick, he displays supernatural powers and breaks out, then electrocutes Beef onstage. The audience loves it! If any number of fading rock stars of today saw how well the people would respond to seeing them burning alive onstage, they would serious consider self-immolation. I look at these scenes of a bloodthirsty rock audience and realize that people thought this was unbelievable, even as satire, and that’s why the film flopped. If only they had known. If only we could show those naïve audiences in 1974 just how far into the gutter of despair, hatred, and death worship pop culture could descend to.

And once more the devious Swan strikes back, seducing innocent little Phoenix with promises of divadom as the new star of Faust. Winslow sees them making love, and kills himself … but it’s not that easy. Swan pulls the dagger from his chest and says the terms of his contract state that he belongs to Swan. He can’t die as long as Swan is alive. So Winslow kills Swan … but again, it’s not that easy. Swan pulls the dagger from his own chest and tells Winslow that he’s under contract, too. He has signed a deal with the devil to be eternally youthful …

If the film has any weakness it is that the non-satirical music, the actual rock cantata which needed to be something really special, is rather bland and impossible to see as music that anyone would get excited about. When Beef dies and Phoenix is shoved out onto the stage—you’re going out there a nobody, but you’re coming back a star!, a la 42nd Street—it’s ludicrous that she could somehow turn a literally bloodthirsty hard metal rock audience into a quiet, respectful group of folkies with the insipid little song she sings. Paul Williams wrote all the music, and it varies in quality. I wondered if Harper did her own singing, and can’t find anything to say she didn’t. If she did, she sounds eerily like Karen Carpenter, and in fact the stuff she sings sound like Carpenters songs. I’m not a fan of The Carpenters.

The ending is what we would soon become used to as the traditional De Palma Grand Guignol, but at the time it hadn’t become quite the cliché it is by now. At least he didn’t use any of his trademark slow motion. It worked for me at the time, and it’s still pretty good. This is a classic.