February 15th, 2008

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974) ***

Phantom of the Paradise is the best horror/comedy/musical that Paul Williams ever wrote.  Yeah, I know he only did one, but he did it so well that he didn’t have to do it again.  Imagine if Phantom of the Opera and The Rocky Horror Picture Show were congenital Siamese Twins and you’ll have some idea of what the movie is all about. 

 

Williams stars as Swan, a midget Phil Spector like music impresario who hides behind two way mirrors and has orgies with beautiful women.  Swan steals the songs of an up and coming songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley) and when Leach goes to get them back, Swan frames him for heroin and sends him to prison where all his teeth are plucked out and replaced with metal ones. 

 

When Leach’s songs become a hit, he escapes from jail and tries to destroy all the records, but his face inadvertently falls into a record pressing machine, turning half of his face into baked ziti.  Leach then hides out in Swan’s new musical hall, The Paradise, and dons a bird-like motorcycle helmet and a Darth Vader get-up, before blowing up Swan’s latest bubble gum group, The Juicy Fruits.  (They’re like Sha-Na-Na, but even worse.)  Swan signs a contract with Leach that if he doesn’t blow up any more singers, he can rewrite his songs so that a hot ingénue named Phoenix (Jessica Harper from Suspiria) can sing them. 

 

Predictably, Swan cheats Leach out of his music AGAIN and he attempts suicide.  Swan humbly informs him that he can’t die because Swan’s in cahoots with the devil and he’s got one of them Dorian Gray clauses where he’s actually 100 years old but still looks like Paul Williams.  (Which doesn’t make any sense to me, because at the end of the day you’d STILL have to look like Paul Williams.  That doesn’t seem like much of a bargain.)  Being immortal kind of gets the Phantom steamed, but when Swan replaces Phoenix with a fey glam pop star named Beef (Gerrit Graham), it REALLY cheeses the Phantom off. 

 

I guess you all know what time it is then.  Time to blow up Gerrit Graham, wreck the Paradise, and turn Paul Williams’ face into yesterday’s meatloaf. 

 

You know, Phantom of the Paradise is kind of a mess, but no one films wretched excess like Brian DePalma.  While his style isn’t as confident as it was in Sisters, there’s still enough of DePalma’s trademark cinematic touches (unbroken takes, split-screen, etc.) to make it worth a look for DePalma fans.  Like all of DePalma’s flicks, there’s that one shot where he invariably rips off Hitchcock, and this time out he spoofs the Psycho shower scene except instead of a kitchen knife, the killer uses a toilet plunger.  It’s not a pretty sight. 

 

Finley (a DePalma regular) is excellent both as the tortured artist Leach and the vengeful Phantom.  He manages to make what at first would seem like a cumbersome mask work and is able to show both hatred and sympathy by only using the lower portion of his lip.  Harper is pretty decent, and if you have to listen to her sing, I’d rather you see her in this than say, Shock Treatment.  Williams is quite memorable as Swan, though it would take three more years before he truly would become comfortable enough in front of the camera to deliver his defining performance as Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. 

 

Williams’ songs are OK at best, but they serve their purpose.  (Let me put it to you this way, it’s been twelve hours since I saw the movie and I can’t remember a single one of them.)  I guess that’s just as well because if they WERE catchy, that would mean I’d be running around humming Paul Williams songs, which is a sure sign of insanity. 

 

If Swan’s logo “Death Records” seems jumpy or odd looking in some parts of the movie, it’s because it was originally called Swan Song, but that also happened to be the name of Led Zeppelin’s label.  When they sued, DePalma had to go back and change everything.  If you look real hard, you can see the original logo is some scenes. 

 

Phantom of the Paradise isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a lot of fun.  (Any rock opera narrated by Rod Serling is worth a look in my book.)  Any lover of camp 70’s cinema will eat it up (it would make a perfect double feature with The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and if you’re a die hard DePalma fan, you definitely need to check it out.