Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) review

Phantom Of The Paradise posterDirector: Brian De Palma

Starring: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham

“Look, Philbin. I am a professional. I have been in this business a long time. Now, if I don’t want to perform, it’s not because I got stage fright. It’s because some creature from beyond doesn’t want me to do the show. Now gangway.” (Beef, Phantom Of The Paradise)

This ’70s beauty from Carrie director Brian De Palma is undoubtedly what you’d end up with if you were somehow able to execute a bizarre four-way cross-breed between The Phantom Of The Opera, Faust, The Picture Of Dorian Gray and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Now, this one has a hell of a lot going on during the first 45 minutes so bear with me here, because my plot summary’s going to be longer than usual.

The film stars lanky, pop-eyed William Finley as Winslow Leach, a singer and composer trying to make it big in the music industry.

One night, while performing as a support act for doo-wop rock & roll nostalgia act The Juicy Fruits – who he despises, incidentally – Winslow catches the ear of famed record producer Swan (played by singer-songwriter Paul Williams).

These are the Juicy Fruits. Dig their fresh beasts, daddio. Or something
These are the Juicy Fruits. Dig their fresh beasts, daddio. Or something

Swan thinks Winslow’s music would be perfect to open his new concert hall, the Paradise, but he doesn’t think Winslow has star quality. The solution? His right-hand man takes Winslow’s sheet music, fobbing him off with a promise that Swan will get back to him regarding a possible record deal.

After hearing nothing for while and eventually deciding to gatecrash Swan’s mansion to see what’s going on, Winslow meets Phoenix (Suspiria‘s Jessica Harper), who is auditioning to sing his song at the opening night of the Paradise.

Unhappy that his song is being used without his credit, Winslow tries to complain but is beaten up by Swan’s henchmen and, framed for drug possession, is given a life sentence(!) in Sing Sing prison.

Maybe the fact Swan's record label is called Death Records should have been a hint it wasn't exactly the most ethically-run company
Maybe the fact Swan’s record label is called Death Records should have been a hint it wasn’t exactly the most ethically-run company

This is where it starts to get a bit silly. After six months in Sing Sing – during which time all his teeth have been removed and replaced with steel ones as part of a Swan-funded experiment – Winslow hears one of his songs on the radio being sung by the Juicy Fruits.

Going berserk, he attacks a guard, breaks out of prison, and heads to Swan’s Death Records label HQ where he starts destroying the Juicy Fruits’ albums.

An accident with a record press, however, results in Winslow melting half of his face and, fleeing from the police, he plunges himself into a river, presumed dead. But obviously not actually dead because that would be a bullshit movie (not to mention an extremely short one).

Eager for revenge, the hideously scarred Winslow (now wearing a helmet) heads to the balcony of the Paradise and tries to kill the Juicy Fruits with a bomb while they rehearse for the opening night. Swan confronts Winslow and cuts him a deal.

He actually gets Winslow to sign the contract in blood. As if that's above board
He actually gets Winslow to sign the contract in blood. As if that’s above board

Winslow has to agree to two things: firstly, don’t be a dick and try to sabotage the Paradise’s opening night. Secondly, write Swan a whole new concert in time for opening night.

In return, Swan will not only let Phoenix sing the songs (which is what Winslow wants), he’ll also give Winslow the recording contract he wants, promising to use all manner of electronic gizmos and doo-dahs at the studio to restore his original singing voice.

Phew. I could go on, but that’s really still the first act and I don’t want to spoil much more of the craziness that ensues.

Without going into too much detail, Phantom Of The Paradise continues to introduce a variety of mental plot points and other bizarre asides, including a deal with the devil, a vampire-themed band who cuts off fake limbs while performing, magical ageing photographs and a glam-rock junkie singer called Beef.

This is Beef. What he lacks in subtlety he packs in comedy
This is Beef. What he lacks in subtlety he packs in comedy

All of this is presented in typical Brian de Palma fashion, with all manner of weird and wonderful camera angles and, at one point, his signature split-screen effect (more famously used later in Carrie).

Being a musical, the film also packs a number of songs into its 90-minute runtime. These songs (all written by Swan actor Paul Williams) aren’t quite as catchy as they are in other musicals, and some kill the film’s pace by going on a little too long.

However, there isn’t a true stinker in there and things are kept relatively fresh by the fact they’re performed by a bunch of different acts throughout including Phoenix, Winslow, the Juicy Fruits, the aforementioned Beef and said vampire band.

"I take your point, Steve. I'll put it on the record. Anything else you want to put on the table? By which I also mean the record"
“I take your point, Steve. I’ll put it on the record. Anything else you want to put on the table? By which I also mean the record”

Acting-wise, the performances are fairly solid throughout, with the star of the show undoubtedly being Gerrit Graham as Beef. He’s only in the film for 15 or 20 minutes but is consistently hilarious during this time with his overblown ultra-camp acting leading to numerous laugh-out-loud moments.

It’s the Phantom who remains in the memory after the film ends though, albeit not necessarily for all the right reasons.

William Finley puts in a solid stint as Winslow, but as soon as the helmet goes on he starts putting on the most overly dramatic performance you’ll ever see in a film, with the viewer asked to endure continuous shots of him looking aghast and agape at the drop of a hat.

The Phantom couldn't believe it when the chap in the cubicle next to him started whistling
The Phantom couldn’t believe it when the chap in the cubicle next to him started whistling

Still, there’s no denying that there’s nothing quite like Phantom Of The Paradise, and while it may not have developed the same cult following as the likes of Rocky Horror it’s still a fantastically eccentric film that you really have to see.

Interestingly, as a side-note, the film did inspire two young boys who, after becoming friends when they were thirteen, ended up seeing the film more than twenty times in the cinema.

Enamoured with the Phantom’s costume of a leather jacket and helmet, they adopted a similar outfit for their electro house music performances. You might have heard of them: they’re a little-known French duo called Daft Punk.

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Phantom Of The Paradise’s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see which other films have made the grade.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT?
Phantom Of The Paradise was recently released on Blu-ray in the UK by the ever-reliable Arrow Video, complete with nearly three hours of interesting extras including an hour-long interview in which Paul Williams is questioned by fan of the film Guillermo Del Toro. There’s currently no DVD version in the UK.

As for America, it’s only currently available on DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

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