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January 27, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #56 - Phantom of the Paradise

Man, when I started the Midnight Movie of the Week train rolling back in the day, I had Phantom of the Paradise on my shortlist of flicks to cover.  Somehow, it fell through the cracks until now.  Long before that, this film was one of the first two movies I ordered online when I was first learning of this newfangled website that had things for sale.  The other film was The Devil Rides Out - which was the first Midnight Movie of the Week.  Thus, these two movies are kind of like brothers in my mind.  At the very least, they're like an awesome Tango & Cash style power duo.

Personal mental connections aside, Brian De Palma's rock musical amalgamation of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera is certainly a one of a kind film.  Like many of De Palma's thrillers, there's plenty of "borrowing" going on throughout the film, and connections to Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Edgar Allan Poe - to name a few - have been made by others.  Plus, one of my favorite moments in the film - the opening of The Paradise - features a wicked background that has to have been inspired by German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. It always makes my jaw drop.
But like I said: there's no denying that Phantom of the Paradise is as unique as can be.  De Palma's vision of the classic tales he pilfers comes at the viewer from several different angles, and there's a fantastic balance of comedy, horror, and drama throughout the musical adventure.  A lot of his power comes from the unique characters, none of whom seem to fit into Hollywood conventions.  The cast, led by character actor William Finley and songwriter Paul Williams (with assists from future Suspiria star Jessica Harper and favorite side character Gerrit Graham), doesn't carry big names; allowing each actor a bit of comfort in their own skin as the dark fantasy plays out.
(It's interesting to note that Finley, who had just co-starred in De Palma's fantastic psychological thriller Sisters, almost didn't have a role in this film.  Peter Boyle was attached to the film and was going to play the rock icon Beef, while Graham (who eventually played Beef) was scheduled to play the diabolical Swan, and Williams (who eventually played Swan) was scheduled to play The Phantom.  Williams balked at the idea of playing the Phantom due to his 5'2" height and position in the record industry, and Boyle was busy - possibly with Young Frankenstein(?) -  so all the trades worked out.)

The comedic aspects of Phantom of the Paradise are something I often overlook, though it's hard to really look at the film and take what it offers seriously.  While the film is full of contracts signed in blood and hints toward the presence of Old Scratch, there's certainly an satirical tone throughout the film.  Some of the humor is blatant - like De Palma's version of the shower scene - but there are a lot of moments where the dark side of the film and the comedic side come together in an awkward manner.  The final minutes capture this well, as it's hard not to laugh while the final twists are playing out and the film picks up a slapstick pace, but the viewer will probably have the rug pulled out from under them by the dramatic final moments. 
And there is also the music, which covers a wide range of tones and topics and seems to fit perfectly into each scene.  My favorite number might be Somebody Super Like You, which captures the high point that is Swan's grand opening, and leads into the silly Life at Last which presents the overcompensating masculinity of the Beef character, who is a very feminine fellow off stage.  The Hell of It, which plays over the end credits, is also a highlight in how it wraps up the film, and should help you leave the viewing with a smile on your face.
Phantom of the Paradise won't be mistaken for De Palma's most artistic work or his most subversive work (I'd probably place the dynamite thriller Blow Out atop both lists), but it's a great example of his quirky ability to capture the viewer's attention and it certainly shines as one of his most upbeat works, despite its connections to famous tragedies.  Despite some shortcomings, it's lived long for me as one of the most infectious bits of cult cinema to come out of the 1970s, and I can't think of a movie I'd rather watch - yes, even that other '70s cult rock musical - at a One Mike Midnight Dance Party*.

Oh, and Rod Serling does the freakin' opening narration!  What more do you need from a film????

(* - I don't know what a One Mike Midnight Dance Party would look like, but I'm sure it'd be AWESOME.  Right?)


Liam Underwood said...

This movie is awesome. Nice review, you've made me want to dig this out for a rewatch.

Despite the constant borrowing, the visuals of this movie just blow me away. And the songs are surprisingly catchy, ohh it's just so much fun. Plus anything with Jessica Harper in and I'm there, yummy.

The Mike said...

Thanks sir! It really is one of those movies in which the style and energy just overshadow anything else. Infectious, I'd say.