Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)

Using something called "hindsight," you can clearly see why the people of Winnipeg, Manitoba were the only ones to embrace this macabre spectacle during its initial theatrical release. Why everyone else failed to see beyond his birdlike mask and bloodcurdling shriek will have to remain a mystery. The residents of Peg City, utilizing their trademark gumption, were obviously able to gaze beneath the surface and extract the juicy essence of the Phantom of the Paradise (a.k.a. El Fantasma del Paraíso), a fantastical tale about a disgruntled–and mildly disfigured–songwriter who sells his soul for rock 'n' roll glory. Employing the catchy tunes of Paul Williams (who also plays Swan, a mysterious music mogul) and the stylish direction of Brain De Palma, this tawdry, Faustian romp manages to out camp The Rocky Horror Picture Show on several occasions with its gaudy art direction (the offices of Death Records were tres chic), strange costumes design (I absolutely adored Beef's antler belt), and glam heavy soundtrack.

My favourite song on it being "Somebody Super Like You" by The Undeads (lead by Peter Elbling). The overall morbidity of their performance at the Paradise had real a theatrical, almost gothic timbre about it. For instance, the skeletal makeup and their predilection for mock vivisection reminded me of the late-80s work by the esteemed Skinny Puppy.

The film's skewering of the trappings that come with fame and fortune–you know, group sex and public electrocution–was very now (the parallels to today's celebrity obsessed culture were downright freaky) and the depiction of the music industries more corrupt tendencies, while exaggerated in places, were mostly spot-on.

The lanky William Finely (Sisters) is terrific as Winslow Leach, the nerdy songwriter turned caped misanthrope. This is especially prevalent when he's in full-on Phantom mode, as his screaming technique and the gargled manner in which he spoke were weirdly alluring in their ghastliness. However, the bulk of his awesomeness is furnished by way of his amazing costume and goth-friendly makeup.

Featuring a leather jumpsuit (complete with a smattering of buckles), a long billowy cape, a metallic set of choppers, and a one-eyed silver helmet, this menacing outfit made Darth Vadar (the lead antagonist from Return of the Jedi) look like a shriveled piece of liquorice melting in the sun. In fact, every time Winslow appeared on-screen as The Phantom, I would get aroused, and not in a crass or obvious way, it was more of a fashion-based engorging than your standard hardening. Kinda like when you read about shoe fetishists swooning over a pair of swanky pumps.

Pure to the point of madness, Jessica Harper (Shock Treatment) is adorable as Phoenix, an aspiring singer who captures the heart of the bruised songwriter. Her highlight comes when she sings "Old Souls," and the way she captivated the audience through her sheer talent and angelic aura was a thing of bewitching beauty (she has a gorgeous profile and delicate features).

Jessica's awkward/come hither dancing during "Special To Me" also perked my interest.

A wonderfully flamboyant Gerrit Graham steals scenes with a crotch moistening ease as Beef, an extremely effeminate rock singer who somehow gets the lead in Winslow's epic cantata. His affective body language and over-the-top line delivery were glorious. It's too bad he's not in the film that much. I mean, everything from his hilarious first appearance on the airport runway to his electrifying showstopper, Gerrit wears platform shoes like nobody's business, and takes a shower while high on speed better than anyone has in the history of trippy bathing scenes that involve toilet plungers.

Oh, and just to clarify, the City of Winnipeg was literally the only place in North America to support Phantom of the Paradise when it came out in 1974 (the film played there until 1976 and the soundtrack sold 20,000 copies), and the question, "Why Winnipeg?" is still asked to this very day.

video uploaded by mousepod


  1. Wow. Never heard of it, but it sounds like good cheese to me :-)

  2. Wow, I've never heard of it either.

    I knew DePalma did some weirdness, but this looks like it's on a whole different level.

    Anyhow, I'm usually at least somewhat interested in DePalma's films anyway (I think I'm one of the few people who really liked Black Daliah) so I'll need to check this out. This and The Fury. I've seen most of his other films.

  3. Darius -- Some of the best cheese was made in 1970s.

    Cliff -- A lot of the weird credit has got to go to Paul Williams, but yeah, De Palma really cranks up the strange in this flick.

    A must-see for fans of Rocky Horror and glam rock.

  4. Saw this a number of times back in the day. A friend of mine is completely obsessed with this film to a titillating degree...when he's not dressing up as a werewolf. Go figure. Here's a clip of what you turn into if you watch Phantom Of The Paradise one too many times:

  5. This is all I know about Winnipeg-

    1) "Drunk Chick from Winnipeg":

    2) Fuckmorgue (from Winnipeg):

    I first saw this in high school. An acquaintance was obsessed with it. I liked Jessica Harper and the Phantom. The '70s music wasn't my cup of evil. And I never really bought Swan as being super hot.

  6. I was a kid when I first saw it 74 and loved it, had a huge crush on "Winslow Leach". Had my parents buy me the album, a poster, and the official movie magazine. Then in high school a revival house brought it back for a week and went everyday. Later in life got a tattoo of Phantom. I'm in my 50's & still love this movie