Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was our Halloween 2016 screening. Here, journalist Patrick Harley takes a closer look at “the most highly acclaimed horror phantasy of our time.”
There’s a scene in Phantom of the Paradise where the maniacal music mogul known only as Swan makes a point of gifting talented songwriter Winslow Leach (by this point deformed and forced to live in the shadows as the film’s titular Phantom) a contract the size of a phonebook. Flicking several pages into the tome, the Phantom’s one functioning eye chooses an article at random and proceeds to read aloud:
“The party of the first part gives the party of the second part and his associates full power to do with him at their pleasure. To rule, to send, to fetch, or carry him or his, be it either body, soul, flesh, blood or goods” – what does that mean?
The satirical implication that the Phantom is being fooled into quite literally signing his life away later takes on a darker edge, when, distraught with grief, he contemplates suicide, only to discover that the same contract has also voided his right to death.
Yet death is a recurrent motif in Brian De Palma’s musical horror. Swan’s unscrupulous record label is even named after it: Death Records, its logo a once chirpy songbird, now flat on its back. It’s a journey to which the Phantom could relate; particularly since by the end of the opening act, he’s already been declared deceased. What really perishes in the film’s first thirty minutes though is Winslow’s identity – most of all, his innocence.
Played by the late William Finley, one early sequence sees Winslow trying to secure a meeting with Swan, confused as to why the producer would have taken hold of his life’s work without crediting or paying him. Having gained access to Swan’s home, he finds out that not only has his music been stolen, but the label is in the midst of vetting potential singers. One such hopeful, and soon to be the object of Winslow’s affection, is the talented Phoenix (Suspiria’s Jessica Harper in her first cinematic role). Whisked into a room and the doors firmly closed behind her, Phoenix immediately screams in terror, swiftly emerging to exclaim that she only came to sing and will not do what Swan is asking of her. Horrified, a clueless Winslow gasps, “That doesn’t sound like an audition!” It’s not long before his naivety finds him crippled, literally destroyed by his belief that he singlehandedly can stop the ever-turning machinery of the record industry.
But in Phantom of the Paradise, death is just an opportunity to try a new marketing strategy. It is, of course, no coincidence that De Palma enlisted songwriter Paul Williams to play Swan, his compositions for the film also earning him an Oscar nomination. With Williams’ talent and knowledge of the industry lending the film’s songs just the right amount of credibility necessary for pastiche, we see Swan’s house band cycle through multiple incarnations as he strives to find the sound that will unlock access to “The Paradise” (a musical utopia said to be on par with Xanadu). First up, a 1950s nostalgia band named the Juicy Fruits, then the Beach Bums – a surf group who the Phantom, and no doubt De Palma, relishes in blowing up – before finally they are resurrected as the Undeads, a glam-goth act in which every member is styled after the sinister somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It is during this performance that Swan clocks onto his biggest hit yet when a literal death, live onstage, leaves the audience in a frenzy; they love it, instantly chanting for more.
For as much as De Palma’s film points a finger at the entertainment industry (record labels no doubt serving as a substitute for the indie director’s own distrust of studio system), it also turns a mirror toward us, appalled at our willingness to be numbed by spectacle, never pausing to think about what goes on behind the curtain. A standout use of split-screening sees one performance shown from two angles: one the upbeat, cheery stage show intended for the crowd, the other the berating going on backstage. As one camera pans to Swan, watching from his private box, the other descends into destruction. Similarly, Williams’ lyrics too are laced with vicious critiques, the anthem of the sleepwalking Undeads calling out for guidance from a figurehead with a Hollywood Smile.
It’s no surprise then that as the film reaches its climax – a chaotic blend of tribal rhythms and fast cuts in which a televised concert turns into a bloodbath – the only screams are cheers. If one onstage death was good, the fans definitely enjoy three. Pulling the camera back, De Palma reveals that, throughout it all, the crowd continues to dance.