Re:View – ‘Phantom Of The Paradise’
Brian De Palma’s ‘Phantom Of The Paradise’ appeared in 1974 and melded ‘Faust’ with ‘Phantom Of The Opera’, ‘Dorian Gray’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, with wonderfully deranged performances from Gerrit Graham and William Finney, the latter playing a songwriter whose magnum opus is stolen by rock impresario Swan (Paul Williams), for Death Records (logo – a dead bird). He plans to use the work to open the Paradise with glam-rocker Graham and his band The Juicy Fruits, having scarred and banged up our hero on false drugs charges in Sing-Sing.
But all is not lost, for here’s the radiant velvet-voiced Jessica Harper as the Phantom’s muse – can she save the music and our poor put-upon Phantom, now bricked up inside Swan’s mansion and slowly going mad? This was made in the cynical seventies, so don’t put any money on it. De Palma chucks everything at the screen; cartoonish performances, Hitchcock parodies, split visuals, background jokes, and as much as I adored the film at the time, I have to say it now looks rather shoddy and grungy, or maybe we’ve all become slicker and blander in the interim. Plus, we’ve had Simon Cowell, so we know how bad the music biz can get, and it’s way worse than anything De Palma imagined.
The newly remastered DVD set restores rich colours but also shows up the film’s shortcomings. The music parodies are nicely done, especially a fake Beach Boys track (‘Carburettors, man, that’s what life is all about’), but De Palma totally loses control of his beast toward the end, and the last few minutes are a mess – but as a time capsule of an era I prefer to forget, it’s still worth seeing.
I have a personal history of this film, recounted in ‘Film Freak’, An old-school client had picked up the film and, this being a satire aimed at the young, was completely mystified by it. I always loved the look on these executives’ faces when they were faced with a film that didn’t star David Niven. They were hopelessly lost. But we loved the movie’s outrageous styling, and virtually every dialogue line from it became a catchphrase around the office, always a benchmark of popularity.
Such was our client’s faith in ‘Phantom Of The Paradise’, he opened it at a tiny fleapit in Chelsea on a rainswept Sunday night. I arrive to find the exquisite Jessica Harper from ‘Suspiria’ standing in the foyer alone and confused. She had been flown in for a publicity tour and had gamely turned up in full premiere regalia, thinking What the hell am I doing in this dump?
A junior executive dressed in a ratty cardigan and jeans came over and stuck a melting Wall’s choc-ice in her hand. Horrified, I apologised to her for dreadful state of the entire English film industry, and bought her a glass of champagne.