Many, many years ago, a young Wolfman wrote his 50th post on this very website. That post discussed some of my most formative horror movie experiences and one of the more recent experiences was attending the 4th Music Box Massacre. The event takes place in an 800 seat theatre that’s been around since the 1930’s and watching any movie there feels like you’ve traveled through time. The first few movies shown were some older silent and black and white films, with each successive film being newer and newer. The highlights of the evening shows were an 8PM screening of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, followed by a 10PM premiere of Midnight Meat Train, and then a screening of the classic splatterfest Dead Alive. Once 2AM rolled around, I had been in a theater for 14 hours and they were about to show some movie I had never heard of called “Phantom of the Paradise“. Having never heard of this movie before and having never been in a movie theater this long, I had planned on letting myself fall asleep. Even though I did fall asleep for about ten minutes in the third act of the movie, that doesn’t change the fact that watching that movie in that theater at 2 in the morning was one of the most bizarre, surreal, terrifying, and best experiences of seeing any movie in my life. I had no idea how much I would come to love Phantom of the Paradise, and I recently got to see another screening in that very theater late at night and wanted to make sure I shared the weird and wonderful story of a deformed man haunting a nightclub.
If you’ve got all those knobs, who cares what keys you’re bashing your fists on?
The greatest record producer of all time, Swan (Paul Williams), is planning on opening up a brand new nightclub, The Paradise, but doesn’t know what music is worth enough for its debut. Swan overheads a young songwriter, Winslow Leach (William Finley), singing his epic cantata that he calls “Faust”. Swan buys the music from Winslow, but when Winslow realizes that his music is going to be sung by a cheesy pop group, The Juicy Fruits, Winslow tries to get back the music he wrote, but Swan is able to get Winslow thrown in jail and signs Winslow up for a dental experiment that replaces his teeth with metal teeth. When Winslow hears about The Paradise opening, he breaks out of jail and tries to sabotage the production of the album being released by The Juicy Fruits, he inadvertently damages his vocal cords and horribly scarring his face. Winslow is able to make his way to The Paradise and tries to sabotage the opening of the club. In Exchange for letting a singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper) into the production, Swan gets Winslow to sign a contract to keep writing music. Once Winslow completes the music, Swan locks him up and seduces Phoenix. Winslow is able to break out, and when he sees Swan with Phoenix, tries to kill himself. Swan reveals that the blood contract Winslow signed with him means he won’t die until Swan does. Winslow continues to try to sabotage the opening of The Paradise, and in doing so, learns of a contract that Swan had made that has given him his success, and Winslow uses this contract to gain the upper hand. As Swan makes plans to wed Phoenix in a live television event at The Paradise, while also planning her assassination, all while Winslow is planning his final confrontation. Rather than giving the details of the climax, I encourage you all to go find a copy of the film and watch the madness.
OH MY GOD SWAN, THAT HAIRCUT, WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?
THIS. MOVIE. IS. FUCKING. BONKERS. I mean this in the greatest way possible, of course. The biggest strength of the movie would have to be the music, all written by Paul Williams himself, and which travels from surf pop to heavy rock and then back to piano ballads, always fitting the tone of the scene. Some of you kids out there might not recognize the name Paul Williams, but do yourself a favor and check out the amount of songs you had no idea he wrote and that will give you a good idea of the quality and variety of his work in this film. In fact, I included the soundtrack on my post of Top 5 Horror Movie Soundtracks! I wouldn’t give that out to just anybody! If his music wasn’t enough of a selling point, Williams puts in a great performance as well. When it comes to the character of Swan, you hear a lot about him and how powerful he is before ever actually seeing him. Once he is finally revealed in a scene, and you see Paul Williams standing there at 5’2″, it could’ve been a laughable moment, but his charm and charisma as the villainous Swan is stronger than someone who was ten feet tall. It took the talents of Paul Williams to be able to make William Finley seem vulnerable and weak, despite being 6’4′. Finley made a great tortured soul, with his gangling physicality, giant glasses and wild hair, but also made a sleek, intimidating villain ins his Phantom mask and cape. Yet, even with all of his Phantom garb, Swan could really intimidate him into making more music. Having the “hero” be physically larger than the villain’s stature isn’t something new for Phantom of the Paradise to have done, but they do it really well, and had I not just told you Paul Williams was pretty short, you never could tell by how large his persona is. As if having cast two great leads wasn’t enough, you also get to see Jessica Harper’s descent from a singer trying to break onto the scene while maintaining her integrity to becoming nothing more than Swan’s drugged out plaything. Before there was a Suzy Bannion in Suspiria, there was Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise.
Jessica Harper just wants to sing and do ballet and now she has to deal with a Phantom and witches?! TOUGH LIFE, JESSICA.
I try not to use the phrase “ahead of its time” that frequently, but in the case of Phantom of the Paradise, there’s some interesting examples of it, even if just a coincidence. One of the live performances that takes place at The Paradise features band members wearing black and white face paint, playing heavy rock, and wearing all black outfits. With the movie being released in 1974, this means it was right around the time that the rock band KISS was gaining popularity. I couldn’t find the information on when the film was actually shot, but with the first KISS show with the band members wearing makeup being in 1973, it’s just kind of an interesting coincidence. This performance is led by Beef (Gerrit Graham), who’s known for his sexual presence being so flamboyant that it’s comedic. He doesn’t appear to be either straight or gay, but just such an overpowering sexual force that you think he’d be willing to go either way with his perm and revealing outfits. If this sounds familiar, then keep in mind that the stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show had only just happened in 1973, and the film wasn’t made until 1975. Sure, probably just another coincidence, but still worth pointing out. Maybe it’s just because seeing Jessica Harper automatically makes me think of 1977’s Suspiria, the color palettes of the two films are very similar, as well as the sets in all of their distorted German expressionism glory. If the colors aren’t enough, there’s even a sequence where the Phantom is stabbed directly in the heart, much like what happens to a character in Suspiria, followed by a steady stream of bright reddish-orange blood. Again, the style of the blood was similar to plenty of other Italian films, but it’s worth pointing out. When the Phantom’s vocal cords being destroyed, Swan builds him a vocal synthesizer that hangs from his chest. When this synthesizer is on, it has a bunch of red and blue lights on it. This means that the Phantom wears a big helmet, an all black outfit with a black cape, and a big black box with red and blue lights on his chest. Yes, that does sound like Darth Vader, who made his debut in 1977, but again, I’d chalk that up to a coincidence. For a film that wasn’t all that commercially successful and remains unseen by a lot of people, it’s pretty weird how many connections it has to popular movies and music.
This is a very good Rock N’ Roll move and face.
If you want to discredit all of those examples of how this movie was ahead of its time, I could understand, but something that was eerily premonitory was the obsession and subsequent frenzy that surrounds being a celebrity. Having not been alive in 1974, I can’t really speak to the mass hysteria surrounding the idea of celebrity, but between a group like The Beatles or before them Elvis, I’m familiar with people being completely caught up in the madness. In Phantom of the Paradise, Swan has a reputation of creating an incredible amount of hits and his name being synonymous with success. Whether it be Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, Rihanna, or Li’l Wayne, we also live in a generation where a select amount of artists are responsible for the majority of popular and successful music. In the film, the crowds eat up every new thing being produced by Swan immediately, the same way a new song or movie being released will quickly achieve high financial success and only fizzles out when a new movie or artist releases something for people to buy. When a character is killed by the Phantom, even as their body is being led out of the Paradise, the crowds are screaming and cheering for him, very reminiscent of the way fans will line the streets of a celebrity’s funeral to support their work. Swan records everything happening in his house and in the Paradise and even plans to televise an actual murder. In the frenzied climax of the film, one character is killed in front of a live audience, and the audience even participates in that murder, seemingly getting so caught up in the spectacle of death that they are looking to obtain some of the celebrity just by getting involved. The constant recordings and the lengths that people will go to obtain a minute amount of celebrity, even if it means doing repulsive things, is what currently makes up most of what you’ll see on your TV. I’d say those concepts of the power of celebrity are even stronger today than they were in 1974, considering how many more media sources there are to manipulate to become famous. Whether it be YouTube videos of someone doing deplorable things to get attention, or filming groups of “real” people living together in hopes of obtaining some reward and gaining notoriety, to the amount of movies or musical artists that rely on a gimmick more than talent to get famous, our current stance on fame and celebrity is incredibly similar to what’s depicted in Phantom of the Paradise, and it’s absolutely terrifying. If you take the film at face value, then it’s this incredibly fun and surreal retelling of classic stories like The Phantom of the Opera and The Picture of Dorian Grey with fantastic music and a wild 1970’s feel. If you look a little bit deeper, you’ll realize what makes Phantom of the Paradise all the more terrifying when it comes to monopolizing music and movie charts and how this obsession with an individual’s depravity of morals could ultimately lead to in our society.
Wolfman Moon Scale