PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE...It has achieved cult status even among viewers who might not consider themselves Brian De Palma "fans," but who still appreciate its unique mixture of genres, flamboyant visual style, and biting social satire.
Aided by an insightful song score by star Paul Williams, the movie skewers the rock music industry (and by extension, other media as well) for its constant pursuit of "bigger and better highs," however destructive those highs may become.
De Palma's screenplay, openly inspired by PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, tells the tragic story of a talented but naive composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley). Believing that music impresario Swan (Williams) wants to work with him to produce his masterwork, a "rock cantata" based on the legend of Faust, Winslow hands over several songs to Swan's talent scout, Philbin (George Memmoli).
But Swan has no intention of giving him credit or involving him in the creative process. Winslow insists on his rights, and tries helping young singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper) to get a part in the production, but he's thrown out of Swan's office and home, then beaten up and framed for drug pushing. In prison, the humiliation continues when his teeth are removed as part of a "Dental Health Research Program" sponsored by the Swan Foundation.
Upon hearing that Swan's new rock palace, the Paradise, is about to open with a bastardized version of the cantata, Winslow escapes and breaks into Swan's "Death Records" plant, hoping to rescue his material. Instead, he's shot by a security guard, falls into a record press (which destroys both his face and voice), then disappears, presumed dead. Yet rising even from this catastrophe, he makes his way to the Paradise, steals a caped costume and mask from the wardrobe room, and becomes "The Phantom" -- using murder to protect both his cantata and Phoenix, whom he deeply loves.
When he's finally able to confront Swan face-to-face, the villain deceives him with an offer he can't refuse. If he'll stop terrorizing the Paradise, FAUST will be produced just as Winslow envisioned it, with Phoenix as the lead soprano. Oh ... and one more requirement: he must sign a contract in blood, the details of which Swan keeps suspiciously vague.
De Palma follows all this in a quick, serio-comic manner that differs sharply from his more suspense driven films of the period (SISTERS, OBSESSION, CARRIE). But that's just what PHANTOM needs, and the cunning use of visuals usually associated with old-fashioned melodrama (title cards, spinning newspaper headlines, wipes between scenes, etc.) lends a frenetic energy to much of the film. In contrast, there are several quieter, more haunting moments, including Phoenix's beautiful performance of "Old Souls" -- a song that bonds her to Winslow in a way she won't immediately understand.
The production of FAUST, for which Swan of course sticks to his own twisted design, is an elaborate "homage" to death, with all the trappings of mid-seventies glitter rock. Swan's replacement for Phoenix, the sexually "ambiguous" star Beef (Gerrit Graham), is brought forth as a monster whom the audience helps create by appearing to offer up their own body parts. This echoes De Palma's early documentary, DIONYSUS IN '69, in which a play's viewers interacted directly with the performers. But soon enough, PHANTOM carries the idea to a disturbing conclusion; the audience relishes the carnage on stage, even when it's real.
Other passages marking PHANTOM as the director's work include a brief split-screen tribute to the opening of Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL (if this sequence seems less complex than you might expect from De Palma, read this 1975 interview to find out why), and a scene of "double voyeurism" involving Swan, Phoenix and The Phantom. Also, those REALLY familiar with De Palma's work might want to compare the overhead shot of Swan resting in a giant replica of a gold record while he "surfs" through auditioning performers ... with a later image of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), just as jaded, sifting through cable stations as he lounges in a circular bubble bath. There's an essay in that somewhere!
Shot independently in New York, L.A. and Texas (the Paradise auditorium is a Dallas movie theater still used today as a performance hall) PHANTOM proved to be a difficult sell when first released, but swiftly gained a reputation at midnight screenings. In the late eighties, De Palma considered directing a stage version for Broadway, and in fact commissioned Williams to expand the show's score, but these plans apparently fell through. Yet the concept itself makes perfect sense, as the trends satirized by the film have only intensified over the years.
Beef: "The karma's so thick around here, you need an aqualung to breathe!"