Phantom of the Paradise: Brian DePalma’s Horror Rock Musical Turns 40

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Phantom of the Paradise opened on Halloween 1974 to utter silence in a handful of movie theaters.

It was only later, and without the fanfare of its farcical cinematic cousin The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that this Brian DePalma film attained cult status. Witness a sold-out 40th anniversary screening held this past summer at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood. After the screening, a panel, moderated by Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright, featured Phantom stars Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, Peter Elbling, Jeffrey Comanor and film editor Paul Hirsch.

They discussed a plot combines elements of Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Phantom of the Opera. A doomed songwriter (Winslow Leach, played by William Finley) falls in love with beautiful singer Phoenix (Harper) and promises her that she’ll sing his music at the opening of the Paradise, rock impresario Swan’s (songwriter Williams) new concert palace. Unfortunately, the charming but fiendish Swan has other plans.

Swan sends his rough-hewn henchman Philbin (George Memmoli) to retrieve Winslow’s music after a performance. Winslow explains that his cantata is based on Faust: “Who? What label’s he on?” Philbin replies. Swan steals Winslow’s music, and dispatches Winslow to Sing Sing by framing him for drug possession. Winslow escapes from prison and confronts Swan. After being disfigured by a record-pressing machine, he turns into the mask-wearing Phantom. He gets one final chance to reclaim his music, however, by signing his soul to the devil, aka Swan.

The Paradise opens as Beef, played by Graham, sings Winslow’s songs instead of Phoenix. Gerrit is the film’s comic relief, camping it up as a transvestite horror-rock singer. He has some of the most enduring and hilarious lines from Phantom of the Paradise — including “I know drug real from real real,” and “the karma around here is so thick you need an aqualung to breath.” Beef suffers the indignity of dying onstage, due to the Phantom’s handiwork.

Alas, there’s no MAC line of cosmetic or Glee episodes honoring Phantom of the Paradise, just a cadre of loyal fans. That includes directors Edgar Wright and Guillermo Del Toro, not to mention the techno duo Daft Punk. (Williams would later work with them on the Grammy-award winning album Random Access Memory.)

A schizoid mashup of comedy, drama, kitsch and romance, Phantom of the Paradise’s genuine performances make it much more than a curiosity piece from the early 1970s — even if it never turned into a box office smash. The film received a half-star from the New York Daily News upon its release, and quickly disappeared from theaters. Well, except for fans in Winnipeg and Paris — where the film’s been popular with Midnight Movie fans for decades. Winnepeg has been home to several “Phantompalooza” events celebrating the film.

Among the notable groups on Swan’s Death Records label was the Juicy Fruits, a ’50 revival group similar to Sha Na Na. That was part and parcel of a nostalgia craze for 1950s music and culture that swept through the early ’70s, just as the 1970s wore lovingly recreated in That 70s Show in the early 2000s. Sha Na Na were considered to play the Juicy Fruits, but couldn’t commit as they had a TV variety show on at the time. Instead, actors Peter Elbling, Jeffrey Comanor and Archie Hahn took key roles as members of the the Juicy Fruits, a Beach Boys parody group called the Beach Bums and the horror rock Undeads — a spoof on Alice Cooper and glam rockers popular in the early ‘70s. (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired the Undead’s painted faces, by the way, not Kiss.)

Phantom of the Paradise‘s comically grotesque finale foretold reality TV, where real-life violence becomes entertainment. The faux wedding spectacle that spells doom for all the characters might seem tame to most first time viewers in 2014. To an audience in 1974, however, it must have seemed like bad science fiction.

This quirky gem of a movie is now available on Blu-ray. There was talk for awhile of a remake, but that appears to have been shelved for the time being.

Jade Blackmore

Jade Blackmore

Jade Blackmore has written about classic rock, hard rock/metal and indie films for EarCandy Mag, Rock Confidential, Cinema Sentries, Perfect Sound Forever and Entertainment Today, among others. Her past day jobs in the entertainment industry included stints with Mix Magazine, Bourne Music and Boxoffice Magazine. She lives in Los Angeles. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Jade Blackmore
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