Phantom of the Paradise (1974) Review

imgres-2Blood, guts and gore horror and the sweet sound of vocal and orchestral harmony, on paper you would think it was a blend that wouldn’t work but hells bells it does!

From the grisly popularity of West End smash hit Phantom of the Opera to stage adaptations of Re-Animator, Evil Dead and recently Dr. Who’s Matt Smith in American Psycho the Musical to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s pre-South Park Cannibal! The Musical to Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd to Repo! The Genetic Opera starring Anthony Head and Phantom of the Opera star Sarah Brightman it is clear to see that the Devil most definitely does have all the best tunes.

One of the most famous of all of these is Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show which was released in 1975 and still runs today on stage and in cinema’s filled with toast throwing, fishnet wearing Frank-N-Furter’s and Magenta’s.

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Interesting the year before Brad and Janet dammed it genius director Brian De Palma brought Phantom of the Paradise to life. This mental macabre musical movie mashes up the classic stories of The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust with a satirical take on the music of the time and the dark side of the record industry packed full of musical horror hits.imgres

The film centers around Mephistopheles music mogul Swan (singer and songwriting supremo Paul Williams) who whilst looking for an act to open his new venue The Paradise stumbles upon composer Winslow Leach (The Fury’s William Finley) a nerd with no charisma who happens to have penned the perfect sound.

Tricking him into giving away his masterpiece based on the tale of Faust Swan sets about finding someone that isn’t Winslow to sing it and when the confused and abused composer tries to get his music back Swan has him locked away in prison for life.

Driven mad and obsessed by vengeance Winslow escapes only to have a horrific accident while trying to destroy a record press for Swan’s label Death Records leaving him without vocal cords, terribly scared and disfigured.

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Donning a disguise Winslow becomes the Phantom and attempts to kill off Swan’s acts but when Swan recognizes him they strike up a deal exchanging the Phantom’s musical talent for a chance to see his songs performed by the girl of his dreams.

However Swan has his own devilish plan and soon he has once again perverted all the Phantom’s dreams taking away his true love and his songs for himself all of which drives the mad music making genius further towards insanity and a desperate last attempt to have his real revenge.

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With its crazy sprawling story penned by De Palma Phantom of the Paradise plays out like a classic archetypal tragedy full of desire, despair and deals with the devil except looking like a psychedelic 70’s nightmare made real.

Full of fantastical sets and massive musical set pieces De Palma’s stylization is in full effect however the heightened and hallucinatory look of Phantom of the Paradise only intensifies the jet black satire of the music industry where bands are literally interchangeable, musicians are cash commodities and female singers line up for cattle calls allowing themselves to be used and abused by every roadie and hired muscle just for a shot at the big time.

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The central cast are all excellent with Finley filling Winslow with misguided innocence that turns to tragic twisted pathos when he becomes the Phantom. Suspiria’s Jessica Harper is great as Phoenix the every day girl turned object of everyone’s desires and Gerrit Graham pops up as a proto Rocky Horror with a ton of camp attitude.

Best of all is Paul Williams who not only plays Swan as a deeply evil and charismatic character that is somehow sympathetic but also penned all the songs for the film. From pop parodies to poignant power ballads Williams crafts some wonderful music not surprising considering he was the author of many hits including the Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun and Rainy Days and Mondays as well as songs from Bugsy Malone.

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Most recently Williams feature on mechanical dance masterminds Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories writing and singing both Beyond and Touch a song which starts with a strange robotic voice very similar sounding to the Phantom’s electronic voice box in the movie.

A classic cult curiosity featuring an album load of catchy tunes Phantom of the Paradise pleases on a visual and aural level with a story that is both entreatingly engaging and a dark nasty swipe at the music industry. De Palma’s movie is further proof that horror and music are a match made in heaven or should that be hell.

Movie Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Trailer:

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