A horror musical is a tough sell to any audience, let alone one that also infuses comedy, camp, and Grand Guignol style. So, it’s no surprise that Phantom of the Paradise flopped upon initial U.S. theatrical release 45 years ago, on November 1, 1974. As is often the case, Brian De Palma’s over-the-top, colorful rock musical developed a hardy fanbase over the decades since release. Now widely embraced as a cherished cult film, Phantom of the Paradise is a genre-defying outlier finally getting the attention it deserves.
The plot is a melting pot of Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Written by De Palma, it follows composer/songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley) duped into writing a Faust inspired cantata for famed record producer Swan (Paul Williams), intended for the opening of concert hall “The Paradise.” Swan is an evil tycoon who once sold his soul for fame, though, and schemes to steal Leach’s music for himself. While trying to stop Swan, Leach is framed and convicted for drug dealing, and subsequently disfigured in a freak accident. Even still, he signs a contract with Swan to complete his cantata in order to help the woman he loves, an aspiring singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper).
There’s romance, artistic endeavors and ambition exploited by greed, a Faustian deal with the devil, and a whole lot of earworm tunes written by Paul Williams. Then there’s Beef, a glam rock diva played by Gerrit Graham. Beef is an absolute scene-stealer. In a film already chock full of weird, Graham dials it up to eleven with a captivating and bizarre performance. That’s a compliment.
But Beef is only a minor supporting character, and it’s on the shoulders of Finley, Harper, and Williams to carry the film. Williams is the right blend of evil, sleaze, and charm. Harper is always lovely. Finley, a longtime friend and collaborator of De Palma’s, really cuts loose as the eccentric and obsessed musician. His arc and committed performance is perfectly suited for the theatricality of this film.
The production design by Jack Fisk (Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood) is a major contributor to the film’s Grand Guignol aesthetic, and the cinematography by Larry Pizer is also great. In other words, Phantom of the Paradise checks off all the boxes of a great musical; great music, gorgeous film, committed performers, and visually interesting set pieces. Even an uncredited opening monologue by Rod Serling.
Yet the odd blend of gothic romance, rock opera, and often slapstick humor with its literary influences melded together on its sleeves resulted in a labor of love project by De Palma that no one went to see in theaters. Outside of Paris and Winnipeg, where it was wildly popular from the outset. De Palma went on to develop a reputation for psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime dramas with films like Scarface, Blow Out, The Untouchables, and Carrie. He occasionally dabbled in camp with films like Raising Cain, but never in full blown excess like it was here.
Phantom of the Paradise is a complicated mesh of story ideas, influences, visuals, and genres. It’s strange and tragic, yet oddly funny, and a visual feast above all. Without it, Dario Argento’s Suspiria could have been drastically different- he cast Harper based on her performance as Phoenix. Daft Punk’s iconic helmets? They borrowed that from Winslow Leach. De Palma’s quirky musical slowly permeated pop culture long before it assumed its place as a cult favorite. It inspired filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, who’s now collaborating with Paul Williams on a musical adaptation of Pan’s Labyrinth.
Timing is vital in the release of films, and Phantom of the Paradise was too far ahead of its own 45 years ago.