Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

It’s inevitable that attempts to watch nothing but horror movies for an entire month will result in a few views that aren’t exactly horror films. Such is the case with Day 10’s selection, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a twisted, rock version of The Phantom of the Opera (with a little Faust and Dorian Gray thrown in) starring Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, William Finley and my favorite, Gerrit Graham.

Paul Williams plays Swan, a mega-music producer and the owner of Death Records. He is responsible for the “nostalgia-wave” musical craze that is sweeping the nation. His hallmark band, The Juicy Fruits, dress up like greasers and sing music reminiscent of the 1950’s, while he rakes in the big bucks. But being the savvy music producer he is, Swan knows he can only ride this nostalgia wave for so long; it’s time for something fresh and new. And what better way to market the opening of his new music venue, The Paradise, than debuting a new star? But who could it be? And what song will they sing? The search is on.

Swan is such a charmer. What a trustworthy face...

Swan is such a charmer. What a trustworthy face…

Winslow Leach (Finley) makes the choice of song easy; he performs part of his rock version of Faust where he knows Swan can hear it. Poor Winslow optimistically believes that he will get credit for his music when he hands it over to one of Swan’s goons. But more than a month later Swan is holding auditions for singers who are to perform Winslow’s song, with no mention of Winslow’s name on the piece. While investigating the audition line, Winslow meets Phoenix (Harper), a woman whom he believes is perfect to perform his music. And though he tries to use her to get in to see Swan, Winslow is not only violently turned away, but sent to jail (Sing Sing, no less) where he can be out of Swan’s hair (and is also subject to several medical “experiments,” all of which the evil Swan is behind!).
Swan stole his music! William Finley as Winslow Leach.

Swan stole his music! William Finley as Winslow Leach.

Not to be so easily disposed of, Winslow escapes prison, and in the process is maimed and scarred almost beyond recognition. It isn’t until he makes it to the under-construction Paradise where he finds a mask befitting his new look. And that’s when the haunting begins! But Swan is not about to let a disgruntled, maimed phantom ruin the opening of his Paradise, so he makes a deal with Swan: finish writing his Faust and Phoenix, and only Phoenix, will sing it. After signing a contract the size of War and Peace, Winslow is holed up somewhere deep in the Paradise, working on polishing his masterpiece, while Swan plots his final destruction. Not only is he planning on sealing Winslow up in a secret spot of The Paradise, he’s going to relegate Phoenix to back-up singer and replace her with a glam-rock, speed-popping hot mess named Beef (Gerrit Graham)! As I’m sure you can guess, Winslow doesn’t take kindly to the change in plans…
Jessica Harper belts it out as Phoenix

Jessica Harper belts it out as Phoenix

I’ve seen Phantom of the Paradise three times now, and I must conclude that it is just an all right movie. It is one of Q’s favorites, and has a pretty strong cult following, but to be honest if Gerrit Graham weren’t in this, I wouldn’t really get the attraction. It is interesting to me that this is a De Palma film, though. Honestly I haven’t seen much of his stuff, but this is just about the last thing I’d have ever expected out of him. It is light-hearted, goofy, and funny – not like anything else of his I’ve ever seen (and quite a surprise given the subject matter he’s covering!). I wanted to like it a lot more than I actually did; it just seems to drag a bit at points and I found it a little boring. Somehow, it’s never really left much of an impression on me. This might have something to do with the fact that musicals, even tongue-in-cheek ones, have to be really good or really over the top for me to give them the time of day.
The "Phantom" sings.

The “Phantom” sings.

All that being said, everyone’s performances are pretty great. Paul Williams does an excellent job of playing a despicable music-industry devil. I love William Finley’s phantom, too: his constant look of surprise, disappointment and anguish all rolled into one is just about perfect. Then there’s Jessica Harper, who can do no wrong in my book. But, as I already said, Gerrit Graham is the real winner here. The movie is worth watching just for him! Long live Beef!

Gerrit Graham as BEEF!

Gerrit Graham as BEEF!

In the end, I think it’s the musical numbers (except Beef’s, of course) that really kill this movie for me. Whenever they come on I kinda start tapping my foot a little bit faster, waiting for them to be over. After hearing me say that you may be wondering: why the hell are you watching this to begin with? Ask Q. It’s always his fault! I’ve seen The Apple and I think it is Phantom’s crazier counterpart. The Apple I really like, because it is such a wretched, messy train wreck how couldn’t I? I can tolerate Rocky Horror Picture Show, at least it’s pretty to look at and Tim Curry is amazing. But Phantom of the Paradise occupies this weird middle-ground territory between those two crazy musicals and, well, normal ones. It just doesn’t do it for me, I guess.

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