Welcome to The Paradise
What if I were to describe a film that inspired the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, Daft Punk, and Edgar Wright? What if said film was like Rocky Horror on steroids, mixing fantastical horror, quirky and outlandish comedy, heartfelt passion, and beautiful music together into one experience? What if it were directed by Brian De Palma, of Carrie, Blow Out, and Dressed to Kill fame? But, most importantly of all, what if I told you there is such a film, and it goes criminally unknown by the masses at large?
Well I am, and that movie is Brian De Palma’s 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise.
Initially, Phantom of the Paradise (PotP), sounds like an impossible hodge-podge of genres, elements, and inspirations. PotP is a rock opera horror comedy, inspired by works such as Faust, Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, released a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and starring frequent De Palma contributor William Finley, a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper, and the masterful musician Paul Williams. It sounds like a fever dream, and yet, it got made.
As a brief synopsis, PotP concerns a struggling singer/songwriter, Winslow Leach (Finley), who mistakenly signs his masterpiece, a cantata based on the story of Faust, over to the powerful and duplicitous record executive only know as “Swan” (Williams). Because of actions taken to try and get his music back, Swan has Leach imprisoned. However, in an escape that leaves him deformed, Leach finds his way into Swan’s newest, highly anticipated theater, “The Paradise,” where he takes to the shadows as his new vengeful persona, “The Phantom.” With Swan’s new muse, Phoenix (Harper), set to perform the Faust cantata to open the Paradise, the stage is set as Leach seeks retribution against Swan.
I’ll spare you a retelling of PotP’s production process, which you can find better written and more thoroughly documented elsewhere, however I will note two interesting points. The first being that Swan’s record label in the movie was initially to be called “Swan Song Enterprises,” however, due to a threat of lawsuit from Led Zeppelin’s label of the same name, it was changed to “Death Records” in post-production. Additionally, it is rumored that De Palma had the initial idea for the film after hearing The Beatles “A Day in the Life” played in an elevator. Apparently, hearing such a banal and disrespectful commercialization of a piece of art, along with his own experiences of the commercialistic corruption of art in the film industry, inspired him to write a movie that critiqued such culture.
Above all else, I’m writing this piece (my first article for this site, so hi by the way) to communicate the love and admiration I have for this film, and share it with you, so to hopefully inspire you to seek this film out as well. So, why do I love PotP?
On Genre Filmmaking
I love genre filmmaking. I’m writing for a horror website, so that should be obvious. You’re reading from said website, so I feel as if I can predict that you love genre films too. As compared to the normal fair of dramas and comedies, genre filmmaking adds a level of the fantastic, be it through sci-fi, horror, fantasy, or any other kind, that has always elevated the conflicts and themes of our world to a new level of not only entertainment, but introspection.
I’m specifically such a fan of horror because I’m a fan of the extraordinary and the imaginative set against a dark backdrop, and PotP undoubtedly scratches that itch, as it’s an all-out embrace and celebration of the strange, horrific, bizarre, and weird, done with tons of passion and skill. From the Phantom’s futuristic costume, terrifying appearance, and vocoder voice, to the flashy, fantasy-esque world the film lives in, to the horror based effects, themes, and references (including a fun musical number that pays homage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), PotP is steeped in fantastical and dark elements of horror and genre filmmaking.
A Style Both Classic and All Its Own
If you’ve viewed any of De Palma’s other films, you know that a unique style is a key aspect in his filmmaking. However, while Phantom sees the use of some of De Palma’s classically influenced style, it also bursts forth with a unique originality unseen in his other works. A perfect example of this is a scene which references A Touch of Evil with a one-take Steadicam shot that then goes split screen, revealing a second Steadicam shot, creating a fusion of the past technique of Wells and De Palma’s modern style and love of split screen. Another example could be PotP's parody of Psycho’s shower scene, done in a hilarious way only it could. The originality also continues through the film’s use of a vibrant color pallet and dramatic lighting.
And, while speaking of style, one cannot gloss over the costumes and sets, as the film exudes the feeling of 70’s glam rock. With the costumes, be it in The Phantom’s leather outfit with chrome helmet, which is said to have inspired Daft Punk to create their robot personas, to Swan’s groovy tunics and disco vests, the characters are physically consumed by the Rock Opera Horror aesthetic. Then, from the futuristic and complex composing suite of the Phantom (filmed in real life LA recording studio “The Record Plant”), to the grand balconies of the theater, the sets provide the perfect place for such a wild and original tale to be performed. The film’s style just exudes fun and unique liveliness in every way.
Phantom, Phoenix, and Beyond: The Characters of PotP
The characters that populate PotP are as relatable as they are bizarre and original. For instance, take Winslow Leach/The Phantom (Finley), who underneath his ghastly mask and robotic voice is an artist, fallen victim to a predatory, capitalist thief. He not only embodies our struggle to be noticed and accepted for our talents, but also presents us with a deformed anti-hero wearing a bird shaped chrome helmet, leather jumpsuit, and matching cape. Then there’s Swan (Williams), the power and image obsessed record executive, who’s ego and vanity tower above his small stature. He is the darkness inside us all, the greed that claws to get out at any, even deadly, costs. Phoenix (Harper) is the timid but talented singer, who is corrupted by the powers of stardom; the vulnerable innocence inside us all that we fear to lose.
However, one can’t overlook the host of fantastic and memorable side characters either, from the ridiculous glam rocker “Beef” (Gerrit Graham), Swan’s sleazy assistant, Philbin (George Memmoli), or the reoccurring band that goes from 50’s rockers, to Beach Boys mock-ups, to gothic rockers (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Peter Elbling). Oh, and there’s even a brief Rod Serling cameo. Also, it’s a travesty that the Phantom’s robotic voice hasn’t gone down in the annals of history as one of film’s most memorable voices, right alongside Darth Vader and HAL 9000.
Songs of the Paradise
And, what would this article be if it didn’t mention the MUSIC in the ROCK OPERA? With how great PotP’s music is, crazy is what it would be.
Paul Williams, in addition to starring in the film, also provides the music and lyrics, much of which he performs himself. If you weren’t aware of who he is, Williams is responsible for writing such famous hits as Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song,” David Bowie’s “You and Me Against the World,” and “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet movie. In more recent years, you may recognize him for being a contributing artist to Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories, namely co-writing and singing “Touch” and co-writing “Beyond.” It’s clear that Williams brought his expansive and expertise musical knowledge and ability to PotP, as its catchy songs, while ranging in tone, genre, and style, are all wonderful pieces of music. The film features everything from heartfelt ballads to glam rock to show tunes. William’s music for PotP even netted him an Academy Award nomination for Original Song Score and Adaptation. While all of the soundtrack is great, some of the personal standouts are the tongue-in-cheek Beach Boys-esque “Upholstery,” the Phantom’s haunting and melancholy theme, and the lively and irony-tinged end credit track, “The Hell of It.”
The Modern-Day Phantom
When PotP was released in 1974 it was mostly panned by critics, and was not the box office success the studio hoped it would be (save for in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played in theaters for four months straight, then on and off again all the way until 1976, and sold 20k copies of its soundtrack album, which was certified gold in Canada). With some critics using terms like “childish” (Gene Siskel) and “bloated” (Richard Combs), it can be wondered if the film, both for audiences and critics alike, was too ahead of its time. Only around a year later, The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be released, and while also panned by critics at first, it quickly gained a massive cult following, much larger than PotP ever would. In regard to this, filmmaker Edgar Wright proclaimed, “I always thought [PotP] was like much much better, but less famous than Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
However, not all has been lost for PotP, as today it is often praised and recognized by a group of devoted fans and industry figures alike. The aforementioned Wright goes on to explain how PotP is, “really well structured, has a great rhythm, [and] has amazing camera shots,” calling it, “an absolutely incredible film.” Acclaimed modern monster movie director Guillermo del Toro considers PotP one of his “most beloved films ever,” saying how it is a “deranged, romantic, unique film with a perfect soundtrack.” Recently, fans have gone on to stage PotP related celebrations and events, such as Winnipeg’s “Phantompalooza” festival, which has featured appearances of William Finley, Gerrit Graham, and even a concert by Paul Williams, as well as a 2018 New York based concert production of the show. In 2014, Shout Factory even released a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray of the film, which features a slew of bonus features. As someone who owns a copy, I wholeheartedly recommend you pick it up.
So please, if you’re a fan of off the wall, crazy, fun horror, bizarre, quirky, and dark comedies, or macabre musicals, please do yourself a favor and seek out this movie. Maybe even grab some drinks, popcorn, and friends and have a movie night, as the fun of PotP is only enhanced in a group setting. This film deserves much more attention and recognition than it’s gotten, and while there are those of us working to spread it’s wonder, it’s still up to film and horror fans like you to watch it for yourselves and experience all it has to offer. As of now, it sits in the shadows, much like it’s titular phantom, waiting for the appreciation it deserves.
Phantom of the Paradise: an overlooked 70’s classic of unique, creative, fun, and memorable proportions.
Well, those are my thoughts about a rock opera horror comedy from about 25 years before I was born. I hope my passion translated and that my writing was semi-coherent. I look forward to bringing this site more articles about the bizarre horror movies that I have a passion for.
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