Sunday, September 18, 2011

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

Several people had recommended this movie to me, but when Jake claimed it was better than Rocky Horror, I finally rented it just to prove him wrong. And while it is a wonderfully strange and kickass movie in many ways, he is incorrect in his declaration, and I'm right as usual. Anyway, Phantom of the Paradise (my first De Palma film, so... just know that I guess) is a wild mash-up of Phantom of the Opera, Faust, a little bit of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and a lot of glam rock. Winslow (William Finley), a mild-mannered musician who's composed a lengthy piece about Faust, finds his life's work stolen by renowned record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and given to a hack boy band [and later a hack shock rocker (Gerrit Graham)] to perform. Facially scarred by an attempt to destroy his corrupted music, Winslow signs a deal with the devil so that he can finish composing and hear it sung by the one person meant to sing it: up-and-coming young star Phoenix (Jessica Harper).

Where to start? With its half-recognizable, half-ludicrous story, awesome glammy costumes, eclectic soundtrack, and great cast, Phantom of the Paradise is easy to like. It's a bitingly satirical take on record companies and the perils of fame in an amoral, egotistical culture. It's a clever update of multiple horror/fantasy classics. It's a MUSICAL! All I ever want, really.

Most of the characters are boiled down to one-dimensional cliches, which works for the over-the-top atmosphere of it all. The super-talented, not-famous-enough Jessica Harper is alluring as Phoenix, the wide-eyed singer who easily caves in under promises of excess, while Gerrit Graham is hilarious and strangely sympathetic as the effeminate rock star known as "Beef". Winslow is adorable at the start but sort of devolves into a growling jerk with a goofy mask after he gets stuck in the record pressing machine. There's just not much personality there, but I was transfixed by his metallic teeth. The real star of this movie is one hundred percent this guy (aka Little Enos in Smokey and the Bandit HOLY SHIT DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND). I'll admit I didn't really know anything about Paul Williams, despite the fact that he's a super successful and prolific songwriter, but he totally won me over in this movie. He is funny, odd, adorable, impressively coiffured, and ambiguously accented: the perfect villain.

Though the music is excellent and catchy, I think the visuals are the strongest aspect of the film. The crazy montages, high-concept stage shows, glitter-fueled wardrobe, and retro-futuristic technology leave quite an imprint. There's a lot of bird imagery, including Swan's "dead bird" logo, Phoenix's feathery outfits, and the Phantom's beakish helmet. I imagine this is a metaphor for something.

Phantom of the Paradise is exceptionally entertaining, even if its titular character strangely fades into the background for good portions of the story and the script is cheesy beyond belief. I really dug it and will likely ask for it for Christmas.

Buuuuuuut it's still not as good as Rocky Horror! That's just crazy talk!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Uh yeah so many choices! Certainly Rocky Horror makes the most sense, but also various versions of Faust and Phantom of the Opera. I also imagine this works well with Tommy, if you like Tommy. I was pretty disappointed with Tommy but it's up to you. Follow your double feature dreams.

6 comments:

  1. In all the cheesy glory I found this film to be very entertaining and enjoyable.

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  2. Paul Williams wrote the music for 'The Muppet Movie,' if that helps.

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  3. Ok. This is one of the early De Palmas I never got around to seeing (this and Home Movies) so I'm really interested in seeing this one now. Especially now I know Jessica Harper is in it who was just so good in both Dario Argento's Suspiria and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories. I sense a purchase coming on.

    Great review. You really sold me on it.

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  4. DJ: Yes wonderfully cheesy!

    Rich: I know I was so surprised to see all that Paul Williams had done that I recognized, though his name wasn't familiar to me. He did the songs for this movie too, appropriately.

    Nuts4r2: Yay I hope you dig it!

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  5. I vote PHANTOM as my favorite over ROCKY HORROR because I like Paul's music far more than the Broadway stuff in ROCKY H.

    That said, our town's been playing ROCKY HORROR for 37 straight years, always with a full-costume party every Saturday night, and PHANTOM's only been playing for the past couple of months, stoked by Finley's recent passing and a Gerrit appearance.

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  6. At first I didn't think it was as good as Rocky, now I think it's at least equal. I'm not sure I'd say 'better', but definitely NO lesser.

    Also, I believe I am not alone in thinking that William Finley is excellent as the Phantom - never has so much hilarity, horror and maudlin tragedy been expressed through only one eye and a mouth and a lanky leatherclad body. He reminds me of silent film actors, or Christopher Lee as the mummy or Frankenstein's creature.

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