"What's the best horror-comedy rock musical of the 1970s?" It's not a question that comes up very often, and the answer seems so obvious that it seems even less likely to come up. But just before everyone starts rushing towards The Rocky Horror Picture Show (good as that may be), it's worth taking a gander at its close cousin, Phantom of the Paradise. Brian De Palma's early effort may be ramshackle, uneven and rough around the edges (as was Rocky Horror), but it's also bounding with enthusiasm and in places is really rather good.
There are of course many similarities between this film and Rocky Horror. Both were made and released around the same time, even sharing a double bill on American college campuses in late-1975. Both are essentially collections of horror, sci-fi or other B-movie references, bundled together into an outlandish plot with even more outlandish characters. Neither of the films take themselves very seriously, and both have seen their tongue-in-cheek nature rewarded by large cult followings. Perhaps the relative recognition of Rocky Horror lies more in the continued success of the stage show than any real cinematic merit.
De Palma's films, and especially his thrillers, have always been unashamed in their references to other films or directors. Dressed to Kill and Body Double drop in Hitchcock motifs like there's no tomorrow, while the train station scene in The Untouchables is a very conscious homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Occasionally these references have been so overt that he has been accused of having no real style of his own, but with an early effort like this, when he was still learning his craft, this can be easily forgiven.
Phantom of the Paradise, as the title suggests, is primarily a reworking of The Phantom of the Opera. The touchstones of Gaston LeRoux's novel are plain to see: the central character (played by De Palma regular William Finley) is a composer whose work is stolen by a jealous impresario (Paul Williams), and in trying to recover what is rightfully his, the composer is horribly disfigured. The Phantom, as he now is, becomes infatuated with the young lady who performs his music (Jessica Harper), and struggles to balance these new-found feelings of love with a murky desire for vengeance and redemption.
In the later stages of the film, De Palma draws on the archetypes of Faust and The Portrait of Dorian Gray to flesh out the enigmatic character of Swan. The character is interesting in that he exhibits aspects of both Faustus and Mephistopheles: he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal youth (hence Dorian Gray), but he also acts in a diabolical fashion towards all who sign his contracts. There are also fleeting references to Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the stage show, and a very witty restaging of the shower scene from Psycho: the Phantom corners Beef in the shower, cuts through the shower curtain... and then shoves a toilet plunger over his mouth to prevent him from talking.
What distinguishes Phantom of the Paradise from Rocky Horror is the purpose to which these horror references are put. In Rocky Horror, the B-movie dialogue and horror imagery was largely a celebration of scary movies of the past, and by extension the pleasure and entertainment that comes from being scared. The plot eventually became secondary to "giving oneself over to absolute pleasure", with the film's unique identity coming from the extent of its madness rather than a conscious attempt to retune these conventions into something more modern.
Phantom of the Paradise, on the other hand, takes all these horror conventions on board and gives them a 1970s sensibility. It recognises the moral lessons and warnings in these stories, and re-moulds them into some kind of analysis of the music industry in general and rock music in particular. Some of De Palma's re-mouldings are witty or make a crazy kind of sense: if Dorian Gray had been pouring out his narcissism today, he would have made a video recording of himself rather than gone to the trouble of painting a portrait. While the original Phantom's mask was rather modest, this Phantom's mask is as ostentatious as the costumes of the rock stars performing his music.
The film is a fairly scathing depiction of the music industry, with the executives and management coming under fire from all sides. Swan is clearly inspired by Phil Spector, the enigmatic producer who created the 'wall of sound' recording technique and produced some of the biggest hits of the 1960s. The film takes the concept of 'selling one's soul' to another level, characterising the industry as the embodiment of evil, pilfering other's creativity to keep the gravy train rolling. Considering that Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here was released not long after, one can't help wondering what would have happened had the two collaborated.
Phantom of the Paradise also sheds light on the excesses of 1970s music, both on and off the stage. Swan spends much of his screen time in the company of beautiful women, many of whom he has promised fame in exchange for satisfying him. Phoenix becomes a victim of this dark world after covering for Beef; Swan gets her drunk and seduces her, promising her the world if only she will give him her voice. The excess is also present in the sets used for the rock shows: the elaborate costumes and incorporation of theatre recall the kind of unconscious pomposity that would be sent up so brilliantly in This Is Spinal Tap.
The music of De Palma's film is both a big strength and a telling weakness. In recreating or capturing a period in time or particular genre, Paul Williams' score is very good indeed. The opening number, 'Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye', is a very convincing recreation of 1950s greaseball pop, while 'Upholstery' has the same tinny, irritating quality that the Beach Boys had. But with the possible exception of 'Old Souls', sung mournfully by Harper, the songs are not as memorable as those in Rocky Horror or even its sequel Shock Treatment. Because the songs are there for context rather than for breathing life into the characters, they can feel like well-written wallpaper as opposed to anything more personal.
The real unmitigated strength of Phantom of the Paradise lies in its technical aspects. De Palma's penchant for camera trickery, and split-screen in particular, has often compromised his films by causing us to lose focus, but on this occasion the creative decisions pay off. We see via split screen the Phantom put a bomb inside the boot of a prop car, and then watch it ticking down as the number goes on, blowing up the stage and the various reactions thereafter. Hitchcock famously said that the key to creating tension was giving the audience information that the characters don't have. The split-screen works because we know what we are looking for, whereas in the pig-blood scene in Carrie we do not.
There are other impressive technical features too. One of the Phantom's first scenes, as he walks through the Paradise planning his vengeance, is shot on a combination of crane and dolly. We see the corridors of the Paradise from the Phantom's POV, and look up with him as his vision round 360 degress rises up the spiral staircase, leading to the box from which he will observe the carnage. Later on we have further impressive shots of him fleeing down a corridor, the intensity and speed of which recall Ripley's later scenes in Alien.
The film has any number of moments which are purely and simply weird. Beef's entrance, coming out of a coffin standing up on the runway of an airport, ranks among the strangest in cinema. His entire character is a compelling bundle of eccentricity, from his diva-like complaints about the score to his shocking demise (pun intended). The final scene sees all the horror references come together in a car-crash of make-up, madness, fake blood and scantily-clad backing singers. The film eventually runs out of steam, collapsing into a horror-ridden heap in place of a proper ending.
Phantom of the Paradise is an interesting if heavily flawed oddity which finds Brian De Palma rummaging around for the kind of film he was truly brilliant at making. The perfomers give their all, with Paul Williams excelling as Swan and 'the Queen of Cult Films' Jessica Harper setting herself up nicely for her subsequent brilliance in Suspiria. While Rocky Horror is funnier and has much better songs, it scores over Rocky Horror as a piece of narrative, if only because its references are so clear that you always know roughly where it's going. But in the end both are lovably bonkers and will reward the attention of any film fan.