Vintage Viewings: Phantom of the Paradise

Emma Wise, artist

The 1970s came to be remembered as a renaissance period of cinema whose works shaped the modern world and continue to fascinate us to this day. While the 70s birthed the first Blockbusters (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, etc.) and cemented proper fandom culture, this decade is special for its innovation. Opportunities opened for independent filmmakers to try their hand at the art and get weird with it, this 70s-new-wave-weirdness is especially prominent in the horror scene. Among titles like The Exorcist, The Omen, Suspira, House, Eraserhead, etc. there are films that slip the mind or are not in mainstream circulation, but even then the lesser-known staples continue or begin to thrive with their cult following and underground niche years later. Phantom of the Paradise is one of the famously unfamous films.

The simplest way I can put it is; Phantom of the Paradise is to Phantom of the Opera the same as The Rocky Horror Picture Show is to Frankenstein. The two films are associated together because of their similar visual elements, aesthetics, musical thriller aspects, and overall strange/outrageousness of the time, but don’t have any actual connection. Believe it or not but some -including a favorite filmmaker of mine, Edgar Wright- would argue Phantom is better than Rocky! But you didn’t hear that from me! I love both and want nothing but to lift up weird movies, I’m not here to compare the two but you can read more about The Rocky Horror Picture Show on The Watchdog here!

I also want to clarify a bit since we run a family-friendly show here at FHS, despite Phantom of the Paradise being rated PG, the film does contain some obvious sexual content and spooky imagery, just a heads up!

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) follows a brilliant and passionate composer, Winslow Leach, who longs to perform his original musical rendition of the German legend Faust. He auditions for the legendary “Death Records” producer Swan, who loves the music but is not impressed by Winslow’s showmanship. Swan begins holding chorus girl auditions with Winslow’s music without his permission, on his way to confront him about this Winslow passes a hundred auditioning girls but is enamored by one, in particular, the only one singing his song perfectly as he wrote it, a beautiful and simple up-and-comer named Phoenix. But quickly Winslow realizes Swan is a devious thief who exploits his women and refuses to meet with/or give any recognition to Winslow for his work, in fact, just to get rid of him Swan frames him for a crime he never was a part of to get him incarcerated. After having his life (and teeth) viciously torn from him, Winslow is in mental shambles and breaks out of prison going on a rampage through the Death Record factory he is tangled up in machinery, his face grisly deformed by the record press and assumed dead. Little does everyone know, that Winslow is alive, a shell of what he once was but alive. Horribly disfigured, losing his voice and mind, he seeks refuge in Swan’s soon-to-open opera house “Paradise” where he dorns an incredible spooky outfit and ultimately becomes more a malevolent spirit than a man now haunting the theatre as Swan forces him to finish writing his sonata. In return, all the Phantom asks is for Phoenix to lead his show. Anyone would meet a horrible demise if his request was not met.

Written and directed by the iconic Brian De Palma- who went on to direct Carrie, Scarface, and Mission impossible- he uses the art of film to theatrically exploit the dark and grisly side of the music industry, the idea of this story came from his observation that the industry will twist artist’s works to fit the generic market instead of letting heartful creative soul show through, just as Swan adapted Winslow’s heartfelt ballads into a glam rock extravaganza. Phantom is a diegetic musical, meaning when the characters sing, they are literally singing to each other, not just the audience. Every character is solely driven by some aspect of music; an effective way to tell the story that feels natural for the environment. The film is an epic horror/comedy-musical-rock-opera whose European literature inspirations show through in the best way possible, those works being Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Goeth’s play Faust. Faust perhaps is the most obvious as it is referenced in the film and resembles the character Swan, the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and pleasure.

Paul Williams’ brilliance is prominently displayed in this film in front and behind the camera, not only does he star as the infamous Swan but also composed all of the music. Williams has quite the prolific career of singing and writing, most notably he’s written for the likes of the Scissor Sisters, Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and most importantly Kermit the Frog. In Phantom of the Paradise Williams plays a surprisingly captivating villain and entertaining caricature of a grimy music producer, the set/costume designs and cinematography do well to frame the 5-foot-tall blonde as a malevolent presence from the very beginning. It’s visually appealing as well, the brightly dressed swan being able to bounce off the eerie dark phantom, Swan’s reign is never undermined even when the Phantom is such a looming presence in the Paradise, Swan is all-powerful. Swan imprisons him in a (very iconic & sick) tonto synthesizer where the phantom slaves over a multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer (I feel very cool typing all those fancy words) as he completes his sonata. Swan is able to connect a modulator to Winslow’s voice so his speech is comprehensible and freaky. Swan makes Winslows voice his own, I mean from now on when the phantom sings it is Paul William’s voice, Swan controls everything.

A few of my favorite details in the film include;

  • The cinematography is masterfully done, as a genuinely good storytelling technique while encapsulating the strange aesthetic of the 70s. Many references to classic movies are made through the camera work like Psycho’s shower scene and the split screen effect used in Touch of Evil.
  • Jessica Harper makes her film debut as the radiant Phoenix, beating Linda Ronstadt for the role. Jessica went on to star in Suspiria and -ironically- the Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment
  • During the frantic prison-escape-rampage scene Winslow tries to destroy records & equipment in the Death Records warehouse which causes him to fall into a record-pressing machine, a pivotal moment in his transformation into the phantom, melting half of his face to resemble the grooves of a record- which stands as a physical depiction of the music industry destroying him.
  • The film opens on a blank screen slowly revealing the Death Records logo (a dead sparrow) accompanied by a chilling and classically retro narration by Rod Serling, the host of The Twilight Zone, as he relays the sinister record producer, Swan’s, mysterious origin.
  • The film’s use of birds. I don’t believe this was an intentional symbol, so it can just be a theory of mine, but the imagery of birds is used throughout the film, on clothes, as the Death Records logo, various backup dancers, the phantom’s mask, and even Swan & Phoenix’s names, all these things become staples of the Paradise theatre. As I like to think of it, they are literally “birds of paradise”

Being on the “underground” side of cinema, Phantom’s impact on modern culture is real but unappreciated, by most anyway. The Daft Punk guys recognize Phantom’s impact on their lives saying it’s their favorite film that they both watched over 20 times in their childhoods. They took great inspiration from the film for their art, from their use of techno music & sick stage presences to their eventual collaboration with Paul Williams in 2013. Williams was featured on the song “Touch” off the Grammy-winning album “Random Access Memories”.
Another filmmaker idol of mine, Guillermo Del Toro, deems Phantom of the Paradise as one of his favorite movies of all time, so much so that he bought the actual phantom’s mask that was used in the film. Del Toro holds a most impressive collection of oddities & memorabilia in his LA home, if you know me in real life you know I could gush on and on about him for a while but I’ll spare you. For now.

Like many of the best pieces of cinema, Phantom of the Paradise was a massive failure at the box office upon its release. Nevertheless, it was nominated for an academy award and golden globe, not to mention the evergrowing praise and cult following that would materialize in its response. Phantom of the Paradise is a passion project of weirdness and frights that – even though is not intended to be – is a solid watch for the Halloween season or for any 70s/horror enjoyer