The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Phantom of the Paradise

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE!

THE STORY: A singer song-writer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), has his life’s work stolen from him by demonic rock impresario, Swan (Paul Williams). Framed and sent to prison, Winslow, in a escape attempt, is horribly disfigured, taking refuge in Swan’s newly Christened palace, “The Paradise”. There, he strikes an uneasy deal with Swan, in the interest of helping his unrequited love, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) build her career.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, William Finlay. Music by Paul Williams. Directed by Brian De Palma.

THE HISTORY: In the early seventies, the “rock opera” was in vogue. The Who’s album, “Tommy” was a pioneer in the genre, and in 1975, director Ken Russell turned it into a star-studded film. The same year, another rock opera, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, came out and, while a flop initially, it became a phenomenal cult hit, and over forty years later, it’s never been out of general release (around Halloween 35MM prints often play packed rival houses with audiences famously participating). Pre-dating the TOMMY film and ROCKY HORROR is Brian De Palma’s THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

Featuring more of a story than other rock operas, and less singing (it’s maybe more of a rock musical than an all-out rock opera), it’s a wild retelling of Faust sent in the drug-fueled seventies, with characters constantly popping pills, snorting speed and coke, and being treated as disposable commodities by superstar producers - which was a thing then and is a thing now (think back to the Dr. Luke/Kesha case).

De Palma’s follow-up to SISTERS, it was a big flop everywhere in North America except, oddly, Winnipeg, Manitoba, where it stayed in release for over two years due to demand. Eventually, it picked up something of a cult following, especially once it started playing late night TV in the eighties/nineties, and in recent years, when renewed interest in singer/songwriter Paul Williams led to a series of rival screenings (I’ve seen it twice theatrically in Montreal several years a part and underground-style rep screenings).

"I met a woman in Los Angeles who is one of the Winnipeg 'Phantom-oids,' and she said she had a very abusive mother. She would take this poor girl to the theater where the movie was playing, leave her there, go off, and get drunk. Then pick her up eventually. So this poor child was babysat by our film. Interestingly enough, Phantom became her solace. It's where she went to feel safe. And she was really gripped, emotionally, by this movie, needless to say." - Jessica Harper - Esquire Interview

WHY IT'S GREAT: While I like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and, to a lesser extent, TOMMY (the album is 100x better than the film), THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a far superior film. Directed by Brian De Palma at his most playful, it’s at once a scathing satire of seventies rock commercialism (with fictional band, “The Juicy Fruits” a nasty send-up of Sha Na Na, and Gerrit Graham’s Beef seemingly a knock on Alice Cooper), and a gorgeous musical in its own right. The songs are arguably better than anything in ROCKY HORROR, thanks to the contributions of Paul Williams. While a cult figure now (who still tours and recently recorded with Daft Punk), he was everywhere in the seventies, regularly showing up on variety shows (he was a favorite of Johnny Carson and The Muppets) and writing hit after hit, as well as theme songs for shows like “The Love Boat.” At his height, he won as Oscar for writing Evergreen for Barbra Streisand in A STAR IS BORN (he has got nominated for “The Rainbow Connection” from THE MUPPET MOVIE).

THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is his show all the way. Short-statured, but with a deeply resonant voice, his personality turns his Swan into a villain for the ages, a kind of Dorian Grey as a record producer. By contrast, the tall, gawky William Finley makes for a heartbreaking hero, while Jessica Harper (who later starred in SUSPIRIA) should have become a huge star as the likable Phoenix, the object of Leach’s affections, and Swan’s machinations.

"If Phantom of the Paradise had been a hit when it was released, even a modest one in 1974, it might not have grown the legions of fans we see today. I think that's because it hung around a while. And people still get that thrill of discovery, a certain pride of ownership about this movie when they find it. They feel like it belongs to them. And the big spiritual lesson for me? It's sort of simple. Don't ever write something off as a failure too quickly. You never know what is going to happen down the line." - Paul Williams - Esquire Interview

BEST SCENE: There are a lot of great scenes in THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE that show-off Brian De Palma’s directorial prowess and pionnering use of split-screen, but it’s the musical numbers that make this a classic. One of my favorite things about the movie is Gerrit Graham’s performance as Beef, whose on-stage horror show antics clearly took a page from the Alice Cooper playbook.

SEE IT: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is best enjoyed in a theatrical setting, but failing that, Scream Factory recently put out a gorgeous Blu-ray loaded with special features that’s a must-buy.

PARTING SHOT: Even if musicals aren’t your thing, I feel like THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is still a movie most people reading this column will love. It’s just infectious fun, with some surprisingly gripping horror beats mixed in. To me, it’s one of De Palma’s finest, as Williams is a treasure (track down a recent doc about him, PAUL WILLIAMS: STILL HERE).

Source: JoBlo.com



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