Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #495
Number of Views: One
Release Date: October 31, 1974
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: Edward R. Pressman
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Special Effects: Greg Auer
Cinematography: Larry Pizer
Score: Paul Williams
Editing: Paul Hirsch
Studio: Harbor Productions
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: William Finley, Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Gerrit Graham, Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, Peter Elbling, Colin Cameron, David Garland, Gary Mallaber, Art Munson, Mary Margaret Amato, Rand Bridges, James Bohan, Herb Pacheco, Rod Serling (Narration)
Suggested Audio Candy
 Paul Williams “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye”
 Paul Williams “Faust”
 Paul Williams “The Hell Of It”
 Paul Williams “Old Souls”
If you are going to enjoy any film by Brian De Palma, then you will be required to tune into its wavelength. This can vary wildly between one feature and the next but you’ll normally receive a clue as where things are leading before you’ve even settled into your seat. When I recently sat down to experience Phantom of The Paradise for the first time, I was filled with the normal trepidation I feel before watching any musical. I make no secret of the fact that most of them don’t move me and, with the exception of Ken Russell’s Tommy and Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, most of the time they just leave me cold. Bizarrely, I didn’t have that same feeling of dread this time, particularly given that De Palma’s output during the seventies and eighties was so strong.
Phantom of The Paradise flopped rather spectacularly upon its release and was largely dismissed by both audiences and critics alike as one big elaborate mess. Falling to the wayside faster than a drunk in a chorus line, it was however a big hit in Winnipeg, Canada, where its theatrical run lasted months, and also in Paris. To this day, the French people consider this to be one of his finest works and it wasn’t long before it began to amass its cult following. Arriving a year before Dr. Frank N. Furter hitched up his/her stockings, it actually makes an ideal companion piece to Sharman’s camp classic, and a huge chunk of the credit simply must go to Paul Williams.
American composer, singer and songwriter Williams penned the entire soundtrack to the film and quite a playlist it is too. If a musical is to stand any chance whatever of raising my pulse then it has to be on-point and, the tunes, memorable. From the very moment that The Juicy Fruits belt out opening number Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye, I had my jockeys off and was waving them above my head like a rabid teenage girl at a One Direction concert. The bastards had me in the palms of their greasy hands and, once again, De Palma had managed to secure my undivided attention within two minutes flat. Similar to when compiling any good mix tape, the second track is the clincher and must build on the opener to keep its listener hooked. Suddenly, William Finley takes his seat at the center stage piano and I promptly cancelled any prior appointments for the next hour and a half.
Findley plays Winslow Leach, voice of an angel, face of a gargoyle. This guy couldn’t get laid in a hen-house and appears to have hit every conceivable ugly step on his tumble to the bottom of a nine floor winding stone stairwell. Actually, he’s rather dashing, in his own Leach-like way and his tonsils are something else. Winslow opens his lungs and a thousand jaybirds come rushing forth in dazzling unison. I’m not the only one standing in ovation as tyrannical record tycoon Swan (Williams) also sips the raw juices from Leach’s deluxe musical cocktail and is conjuring up a master plan before the spotlight can fade. After deciding that Winslow looks better shrouded in darkness, he invades his dressing room to seal the deal. As is always the case with recording contracts, you really need to be reading that small print, particularly when the price is your soul.
From rags to promises of riches, it’s rags nonetheless for poor Winslow as his concerto is stolen and Swan prepares to use it to unveil his sparkling new concert hall The Paradise, while Leach receives absolutely no credit. Desperate to get to the bottom of his snubbery, he sneaks into the mogul’s private mansion, The Swanage, and it is here that he meets aspiring singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and is promptly blown away. With auditions already underway and Swan looking to cut him out of the deal, no other can be permitted to sing his songs than she. Before Winslow can turn the tide in his direction, he is beaten to a pulp, framed for dealing drugs, and handed a life sentence at Sing Sing Prison for his troubles. There his teeth are extracted and replaced with a grillful of alloy. You see, it’s rags all the way.
Had I mentioned that the hapless Winslow also has his head compounded by a record press? Or that he hurls himself into the East River canal shortly afterwards? This guy is carp meal. Fortunately it’s one-in, one out. Winslow Leach may be no more but somebody else has emerged from the embankment and this dude ain’t going out like a chump. The Phantom is born and he’s hell-bent on justice being dealt. Leaner, meaner, and concealing any unsightly scarring, it is time to go and claim The Paradise as his very own. Alas, as is usually the case, Swan is two stumpy little steps ahead.
Enter glitter-strewn Frankenstein’s monster Beef (Gerrit Graham), the man now wearing the platforms and a most unwelcome obstruction to The Phantom’s fast-fading dream. Graham has always been one of my favorite comic performers and here he is super-charged baby. With plenty of glam, a whole heap of rock, more than a dash of camp, and those marvellous bulging peepers of his, he owns the stage and our affections too, although The Phantom is far less grateful for the intrusion.
The whole cast is on-key. Wide-eyed willow Harper actually managed to snag herself the leading role in Dario Argento’s Suspiria on the strength of her performance here and I’m with Dario all the way. Exhibiting just the right blend of timid innocence and ballsy determination, she is simply outstanding sugar. Finley almost ended up playing another role entirely but I’m glad De Palma had faith as his facial posture is perfect for Leach and he still has the swagger for his suit up. However, Williams is something else entirely. Considering the fact that every word sung originates from his mind and that 50% of the intellectual property on display is his, nobody else in the world could have played slippery Swan and it seems most poetic that he be the jewel in our crown.
The songs themselves cover such a wide variety of genres, from uptempo crowd-pleasers, to haunting ballads, and nitroglycerin infused rock operas, while still managing to hang together beautifully as a cohesive whole. Moreover, De Palma is clearly playing air guitar behind the lens. We all know that he loves a bit of Hitchcock, his A & H cuff links attest to this. Here, Psycho gets glammed up for the purpose of affectionate spoof and, while Graham is no Janet Leigh, it’s an uproariously gay homage. There’s plenty more where that came from too with Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari all being paid tribute.
Of course, any good musical needs a crescendo and the operatic center piece of the final act is truly grandiose. We’re ready to punch the air come the encore but De Palma can’t resist a little melancholy and throws a scabby cat amongst the pigeons. Mischievous little sprite. The way in which he fuses light and shade is staggering and, make no mistake, this is every bit as dramatic and suspenseful as it is gut-shreddingly hilarious. Is it quite as good as The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Musically undoubtedly but as an overall spectacle, perhaps not quite. However Phantom of The Paradise does make for one helluva warm-up act.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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