Sunday, 4 January 2015

Phantom of the Paradise

Title: Phantom of the Paradise
Director: Brian De Palma
Released: 1974
Starring: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Archie Hahn, Rod Serling

Plot: Winslow Leach (Finley) is a mild mannered composer / singer whose music is stolen by the record producer Swan (Williams), which he plans to use to open his new concert hall “The Paradise”. However while attempting to destroy the record he is left horribly disfigured which leads to him turning himself into the Phantom while also nurturing an obsession with the singer Phoenix (Harper) who is the only one he will allow to perform his songs.

Review: When it comes to established directors such as De Palma, there is a tendency to enter into their films with a sense of expectancy. However here with this early film he pulls the rug from under our feet by giving us a flamboyant rock opera adaptation of the Broadway classic, which honestly is the last thing I expected going into this film with nothing but a recommendation to watch it. Surprisingly upon its original release this was a commercial failure with the exception of Canada (well Winnipeg, Manitoba to be exact) who for some reason much like Germany and David Hasselhoff really took to this film which unlike Hasselhoff’s musical career is actually rather good.

Seemingly not content to rework the classic “Phantom of the Opera” story into a 70’s disco setting let alone working in a rock opera soundtrack, De Palma also works in elements of “Faust” with elements of Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontilldo” to add additional colour to what is already a barmy plotted film to begin with. For a start you only need look at Winslow’s journey to becoming he Phantom largely at the hands of Swan’s doing, which not only sees him being beaten up, framed and sent to prison (funded by Swan no less) were he has his teeth replaced with shiny metallic ones and if that wasn’t bad enough he also gets his head caught in an industrial press before being shot by a security guard….and you thought that “Darkman” went through a lot.

As the Phantom, Winslow is at first unable to speak thanks to his face being melted on one side and his vocal cords being destroyed as the result of his accident and soon leads him to making a deal with Swan, who through the use of an electronic voice box is able to restore his voice while at the same time giving him access to his futuristic looking recording studio to record his cantata. Surprisingly this isn’t just another cool looking set but rather an actual studio dubbed TONTO and which was used on several albums by the electronica duo “T.O.N.T.O.’s Expanding Head Band” (or so IMDB informs me at least).

At the same time Paul Williams is fantastic as the Phil Spector esc Swan while pulling double duties as he handles the singing duties for Winslow aswell. In possession of a devil like cunning, let alone the ability to twist any deal he makes so it plays in his favour, he’s not content to only take Winslow’s music but also changes it seemingly based on his own whims, first trying to give it to his in house band “The Juicy Fruits” before finally setting on the flamboyant and egotistical singer Beef (Graham). At the same time despite being responsible for Windslow’s disfigurement he shows little remorse and even though he hires him to write the cantata which he plans to open his concert hall with. It is of course a highly destructive yet fascinating relationship that they share with Swan keeping Winslow hopped up on pills to keep him working on the cantata with the ultimate bastard moment coming when he attempts to brick Windslow inside the studio and this is before he seduces Phoenix using promises of stardom knowing full well how infatuated Windslow is with her, even going as far to rub salt in the wound by filming his anguish as he watches them together through the skylight.

Windslow though manages to cause Swan his own share of problems in return as he takes great offence to anyone performing his songs other than Phoenix who he deems the only one worth of such an honour. As such he’s not beyond killing anyone he deems not worthy in a variety of highly theatrical ways including a hammy looking Bomb that couldn’t look faker if it had the words “BOMB” on the side. The real highlight is the death by the lightning bolt sign which in any other film would seem out of place but here it strangely works.

The soundtrack for the film is incredible to say the least with perhaps the exception of some of Beef’s screaming attempts at singing and makes the film a worthy companion piece to the likes of “Streets of Fire” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” even more than its own sequel which wasn’t exactly a hard film to beat as anyone who has actually dared to watch “Shock Treatment” will attest to and which interesting Jessica Harper would go on to appear in. Still there are some great fantastical moments during these musical moments, such as “Somebody Super Like You” which sees a trio of skeleton make up wearing singers performing mock vivisection before sewing the assorted body parts together to create their Frankenstein creation which in this case is Beef.

A film brimming with interesting and fun ideas and despite the fact it bombed on its initial release it still clearly highlights a talent in the making, especially as he would follow it up with his breakthrough hit "Carrie". Fuelled by a frenzied energy this is a lot of fun and only makes me wish that I'd watched it sooner.

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