That's the Hell of It...

by Arthur B

The Phantom of the Paradise is the horror-comedy glam rock musical you didn't know existed.
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The mysterious Mr. Swan (Paul Williams) is a legendary record executive and producer - Mephistophelian in his bearing, Svengali-esque in his powers of persuasion, and Phil Spector-esque in pretty much every other respect. His current hit group, the Juicy Fruits, have spearheaded a nostalgia wave to the top of the charts, and his Death Records label dominates the industry. Now he wants to open the Paradise - his very own deluxe concert hall - and he wants the perfect music to open it with.

Enter humble Winslow Leach (William Finley), a skilled pianist and songwriter who’s written an epic rock opera based on Faust. Overhearing Leach performing some of his material, Swan sends his thuggish agent Philbin (George Memmoli) to acquire it - having done so, Swan and Philbin cut Leach out of the process entirely. As Leach tries harder and harder to get them to listen to him, Swan’s empire wrongs him more and more - first they throw him out, then they beat him up, then they have him arrested on trumped-up drugs charges and sent to Sing Sing, where the governor arbitrarily has his teeth removed and replaced with steel teeth. Flying into a rage when he hears a news report that Swan intends to have the Juicy Fruits perform his material, Leach escapes and goes on a rampage against Swan’s business interests, during which he incurs further horrible injuries, loses his voice entirely, and is thought to have died.

Under the circumstances, there’s only one thing to reasonably do: sneak into the Paradise, cobble together a spooky costume from the props cupboard, and do the whole Phantom of the Opera thing to terrorise Swan. Trouble is, Swan is difficult to scare - and very persuasive. On encountering the transformed Leach he offers to put on Faust the way Leach wants it, once Leach has rewritten it to suit a new vocalist. Having fallen in love with showbiz hopeful Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her first movie appearance), Leach agrees and signs a contract - in blood, naturally - on the condition that Phoenix be the lead singer.

Swan, naturally, reneges on the deal - leading to an escalation of the conflict between them that reveals supernatural twists to Swan’s history and culminating in a chaotic final sequence which is a triumph of carefully choreographed chaos. Characters die and hearts are broken - but the party’s so good and the music’s so hot that barely anyone notices. All this is naturally set to a great soundtrack - penned by Paul Williams himself - concluding with perhaps the best song of the lot over the credits, a catchy Elton John-esque number about how the fallen characters’ lives were totally meaningless and they’re better off dead.

Written and directed by Brian De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise is most obviously a glam rock mashup of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, but it takes in various nods to prior literature and movies of a gothic and macabre nature and blends them together in a delicious mashup of horror and comedy - a rare example of the form where the comedy doesn’t detract from the horror and vice versa. The sheer mass of little references and homages is a joy to unpick. For instance, the stage scenery for Faust riffs on the visual look of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Swan’s own deal with the devil riffs on The Picture of Dorian Gray, Leach’s rampage after he escapes jail takes place with almost no dialogue, and backing music reminiscent of the silent film era, the sequence in which Leach and Swan tinker about in the studio to try and calibrate Leach’s artificial voicebox reminds me a lot of Vincent Price’s cumbersome voicebox arrangement in The Abominable Doctor Phibes, and the part where Swan orders his men to brick up the Phantom’s hiding place once the revision of Faust is completed is rather Cask of Amontillado.

The contract signing scene is a particularly interesting example, because it’s clearly a take on Faust (right down to Swan’s signature making his surname sit right at the halfway point between “Swan” and “Satan”) - but the Mephistophelian Swan looks like an ordinary human, whilst the Faustian Leach looks more devilish. This is no mere reversal for reversal’s sake, of course - Leach looks like that in part because of the things Swan has done to him, in part because of his own reactions to that. There’s something poetic in the idea that the Devil succeeds when he makes us devilish ourselves, and that’s what makes all of these references that De Palma draws on works - he doesn’t just throw this stuff in for the hell of it but makes it serve a wider purpose.

All of this is done with De Palma’s eye for dramatic scenery and imagery in full effect - Leach’s manic attack on Death Records’ head office is a great example, as is the wonderful scene in which Swan is sat in the centre of a circular desk designed to look like a gold record, taking various auditions for a replacement vocalist for Faust. Musically, Paul Williams does a fine job as well, benefitting from great performances from the onscreen musicians and lip-synchers. In the service of the various musical parodies on offer, the trio of Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling do a fantastic job playing three of Swan’s different acts - the doo-wop nostalgia throwbacks The Juicy Fruits, the Beach Boys-esque Beach Bums, and Biff’s band the Undeads, who appear first at a press conference looking like Alice Cooper’s backing band and then go full KISS during the Faust concert.

Of course, it’s Brian De Palma and it’s a 1970s comedy, which means that the film has its share of dated and problematic aspects. Most prominently, the casting couch culture around the music industry is played for laughs, and indelicately so. It isn’t as flat-out rapey as it could be - Phoenix gets chucked out of the audition once it’s clear she isn’t going along with it - but it still errs towards suggesting that women succeeding in the music industry do so because they’re willing to be sexually exploited (and also suggests that in this willingness they’re a bit vapid). (Even Phoenix seems to be kind of addled once she consents to have sex with Swan - I think she’s supposed to be on drugs but it reads more like De Palma thinks sex makes women stupid.)

On top of that, Gerrit Graham’s hyper-camp performance as glam rock idol Beef seems to verge on being a homophobic cartoon. De Palma’s never been brilliant about gender and sexuality, despite being very interested in both subjects, see Dressed to Kill for a seriously problematic take on it - and whilst the emphasis on Beef’s effeminate bearing makes for a fun gender-flipped take on the Psycho shower scene (De Palma wouldn’t be De Palma without overt lifts from Hitchcock) I’m not sure that’s enough to stop the performance seeming somehow mean-spirited.

Despite these issues, as far as hyper-camp 1970s glam rock operas go Phantom is actually much more tightly plotted and artistically interesting than The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it’s hard not to desire comparison with it. Its release actually preceded the cinematic Rocky Horror by a year, and De Palma had been batting about the idea since the 1960s - but the way De Palma sprinkles the movie with up-to-the-minute relevant musical ideas, and includes a plot point in which, after being given creative freedom to muck about with the musical, Beef turns it into a riff on Frankenstein in which he plays a decidedly Rocky-esque stitched-together beefcake feels like there’s at least a nod to the stage show, which had opened the previous year.

Either way, the two movies make interesting companion pieces because they have a similar horror-comedy glam rock approach, but aim at different targets; whereas Rocky Horror takes glam’s exploration of gender and sexuality and really goes to town with it in a celebration of personal exploration, Phantom is a vicious stab at the heart of the music industry itself. In retrospect, it was well-timed: the glam rock bubble, having been a breath of fresh air in 1972 and 1973, had quickly become a cog in the classic rock machine, with the bandwagon teetering with also-rans mimicing Bowie, Alice Cooper and T-Rex without any appreciation of the thought underpinning their work. Bowie himself had embarked on the Diamond Dogs tour, the colossally overblown theatrical implosion of his glam rock period, as he descended into a dark mid-1970s period of cocaine overuse and occult obsessions. For that matter Bowie’s rendition of Cracked Actor as captured by Alan Yentob during the filming of the documentary of the same name could fit right into Phantom, but would be a bit of a party-pooper if thrown into Rocky Horror.

That said, both end with a streak of pessimism which leaves them not too far apart from each other in the end - the dramatic deaths at the end of Phantom go basically unnoticed by a crowd too self-absorbed to worry about others, whilst in Rocky Horror no matter how spiffing the floor show is, it doesn’t save Frank from a backlash that, distracted as he was, he never even realised was happening. If you're planning a Rocky Horror viewing for Halloween this year, consider this for a double bill.
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Comments (go to latest)
Craverguy at 01:05 on 2017-10-04
I own this on Blu-ray. I plan to have them play "The Hell of It" at my funeral.
Arthur B at 11:03 on 2017-10-04
Same here, it's a great funeral song.
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