For my debut review at Horrorview, I felt it appropriate to choose a movie that helped make me the sort of person who would want to review for Horrorview. I first saw Phantom of the Paradise when I was 8 or 9 years old, and while I'm certain a lot of it went over my head at the time, I also recognized that something cool and unusual was going on. I credit those early years of watching Godzilla movies and films like Phantom and The Last Wave with shaping my cinematic tastes; were it not for those movies, I'd most likely be reviewing romantic comedies and Lifetime Channel original movies.
Phantom of the Paradise updates the Phantom of the Opera story to the Seventies' glitter rock scene. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a backup pianist for a band called the Juicy Fruits. Winslow has been working on a rock cantata of Faust, which catches the ear of record company impresario Swan (songwriter Paul Williams) who is looking for a special sound to open his new rock concert hall, The Paradise. Swan hoodwinks Winslow into giving Swan his score, steals the music and the credit, and has cops plant heroin on Winslow.
Winslow gets sent to Sing Sing, and when he finds out that the Juicy Fruits have released Faust as their own, gets enraged enough to bust out of the big house and vandalize Swan's record studio. In the process he gets his face mangled and burned in a record press (from back when they made vinyl records…anyone else remember vinyl?). So injured that even his voice is destroyed, Winslow dons a black leather outfit, cape, and the Coolest Mask Ever, to become the Phantom of the Paradise. His two goals are to destroy Swan, and to make sure the beautiful songstress Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her debut) sings his cantata.
Phantom of the Paradise was probably destined to be both a commercial flop and a beloved cult film. For every one thing it does wrong it does two things right, in its own unique way. DePalma's direction is highly stylized, using distorted lenses and angles, speeded-up sequences, and split-screen. The result is that while clearly set during the early 1970s, the film does not feel badly dated; it seems to exist in its own little bizarro world. The only aspect that doesn't hold up is the glam/goth band The Undead - they were probably shocking in 1974 but are positively tame in our post-GWAR world.
Music - those who create it, those who perform it, and those who profit from it - is the key driver behind Phantom. Winslow and Phoenix share a love for the cantata, not a traditional romantic love. Phoenix offers her voice to Swan for the chance to sing. Swan robs Winslow not just of his music but his ability to sing. Paul Williams was, in his day, one of the top songwriters. His Phantom songs are pop but they are intelligent and catchy, and they not only tell the Faust story but comment on the events in Phantom themselves.
The acting is strong all-around. Finley is more appealing in Phantom gear than he is as the nerdy composer, but no matter how destructive and homicidal he becomes, he never loses the audience's sympathy.Paul Williams makes for a surprisingly creepy villain with his beady eyes and peculiar way of speaking without using the sides of his mouth; he's like an evil doll. Harper has the same porcelain doll beauty and strength she would later show in Suspiria; small wonder that Winslow not only wants to have Phoenix sing his cantata, but to keep her from being corrupted. Gerrit Graham is also amusing as a gay glam-rock idol named Beef.
Phantom is entertaining and often intelligent, particularly in its depiction of the rock scene and "giving the people what they want." It's far from perfect, though. Winslow and Phoenix's relationship isn't made strong enough to support the story that follows from it. The ending of the movie is chaotic and badly rushed, almost giving the impression that a reel has gone missing. And there must be some kind of record set for continuity problems, particularly in the costumes (Watch Swan's suit change from tan to black and back again! Watch the Phantom's cape change from silver to red lining!).
The DVD is a fine widescreen transfer, allowing for the wear and tear of time and source content flaws. As for extras, all you get is trailers: one for Phantom, a bunch for other 20th Century Fox releases. And that's it. In a better world, Phantom of the Paradise would have the cult that the far less deserving Rocky Horror Picture Show has, and would get a nice deluxe DVD package like Rocky Horror's.