A year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show flopped on movie screens in the first step of its journey toward becoming a cult classic, another rock-and-roll musical did the exact same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. Written and directed by Brian De Palma, whose work on the picture bridges his early efforts at counterculture-themed satire with his future identity as a suspense maven, Phantom of the Paradise is an intentionally funny but still deeply weird morality tale about the inevitable problems that arise when art gets into bed with big business.
William Finley, a gangly and bug-eyed college chum of De Palma’s whose film career mostly consists of strange characterizations in his friend’s movies, stars as Winslow, a sensitive composer finishing his masterpiece, a rock cantata adapted from Goerthe’s Faust. Winslow’s music catches the ear of megalomaniacal producer/executive Swan (Paul Williams), who steals Winslow’s magnum opus. Winslow seeks revenge, which triggers an insane series of events that leave Winslow disfigured and presumed dead.
Thus, Winslow becomes a masked maniac called the Phantom, wreaking bloody havoc on Swan’s lavish new theater, the Paradise. Undaunted, Swan strikes a deal with his nemesis, because it turns out Swan’s in league with supernatural forces—and not above manipulating poor Winslow by threatening the life of the pretty young singer Winslow loves, Phoenix (Jessica Harper). To say that all of this comes to a bad end isn’t giving anything away, since violent climaxes are in the nature of these things, but the devil, pun intended, is in the details.
De Palma fills the screen with bizarre costumes, sets, and props that blend everything from futurism to leather fetishism to pop art to transvestitism, so Phantom’s visuals are a crazy quilt of flamboyant signifiers. The Phantom’s guise, for instance, includes a strange biker helmet with some sort of bird-beak protrusion over the face and a gigantic eyehole that accentuates one of Finley’s abnormally large orbs. And then there’s the offbeat look of the movie’s real villain, Swan.
Diminutive singer-songwriter Williams, of “Evergreen” fame, was often cast in ’70s films and TV shows as freaky characters because his tiny body and long blonde hair lent him a childlike look that he undercut by portraying creeps. In Phantom, Williams’ appearance is exploited in an especially playful fashion: His character is sexual catnip to every woman in sight. Yes, Phantom really does include (chaste) orgy scenes in which beautiful women writhe in ecstasy at the thought of bedding Paul Williams.
The picture gets more outré when priceless B-movie actor Gerrit Graham shows up as Beef, a muscular glam-rock singer who’s a macho monster onstage and a prissy queen offstage; Graham is hysterical, the movie’s energy flags the minute he leaves the story, especially since his exit is such an outrageous high point.
Despite being a quasi-horror picture, Phantom of the Paradise isn’t scary. It’s so over-the-top ironic that it’s impossible to take anything seriously, and in fact the picture’s incessant wink-wink strangeness makes the whole thing feel like a did-I-really-just-see-that dream. However, thanks to a breathless pace, nonstop cartoonish imagery, and the peculiar potency of Williams’ music (he composed the tunes himself, and shared an Oscar nomination for the background score with George Aliceson Tipton), Phantom of the Paradise is never boring.
Phantom of the Paradise: FREAKY