by Scott David, posted 02.06.10
4 / 5 stars
The late 1960s and early 1970s gave us a wealth of American cult films. One of the forgotten gems of this era is writer/director Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a wonderfully hysterical, visually opulent tongue-in-cheek horror movie that pokes fun at the burgeoning glam rock scene while playfully criticizing the cutthroat record industry.
A mixture of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” Phantom of the Paradise stars Paul Williams as Swan, a combination Elvis, David Bowie, The Beatles, and Phil Spector wrapped up in an ultra-rock-god package. After hearing composer Winslow Leach’s new rock opera, Swan decides to steal his music and play it at Swan’s new club, The Paradise. After being wrongly imprisoned, Winslow escapes, dons a leather suit complete with dark cape and silver, bug-like mask, and plans to wreak terror and vengeance upon Swan and the newly opening Paradise.
Featuring classic De Palma direction, Phantom gives us the split-screen technique he later used so deftly in Carrie and Blow Out. With this style, De Palma gives us simultaneous events and character reactions across wide spaces, thus expanding his film frame, and creating interesting suspense and parallel imagery.
As much as Phantom of the Paradise is a vehicle for De Palma’s camera, it is equally engaging due to its cast and soundtrack. Williams wrote all the songs and music (garnering him an Oscar nod), showing off a wealth of talent with songs that range from doo-wop to folk ballad to hard rock. His performance is at once spectacularly funny and creepy. And extra kudos to De Palma for photographing Williams without drawing attention to his short stature.
Rounding out the supporting cast is Jessica Harper, in one of her first roles, excellent as a singer Phoenix who’ll do anything for fame. Gerrit Graham gives a memorable performance as hard rocker Beef, with a goofy, effeminate portrayal that’s hilariously reminiscent of Dick Shawn’s role as the hippie actor in The Producers. And William Finley does a good job making The Phantom spooky without being ridiculous.
Phantom of the Paradise remains a very watchable, critically acclaimed cult film that any horror fan, rock-n-roll listener, or student of cinematic technique will certainly find enjoyable — and maybe even inspirational. It’s even too much fun for just one viewing.
(Trivia note: Phantom of the Paradise set designer? Sissy Spacek. Also, the IMDb lists a remake on the way.)