All right, all you Phantom-of-the-Opera-fans, it is time to knock your socks off. You want an original take on the phantom? I bet you didn’t even know you had one.
It draws heavily from both the original Phantom of the Opera novel as well as the infamous legend of Faust. In this story, Winslow Leech, played by the late William Finney, is an up and coming composer who is solicited by the great and powerful record producer, Swan, to produce his album. But this is only a ruse for Swan to steal Leech’s music, which he plans on using to open his new Casa de Rock and Roll that rivals such industry locals as Disneyland, which he calls The Paradise.
Upon discovering Swan’s plan, Winslow struggles in vain to get back on the same page with the satanic producer. But each attempt lands Winslow in even more trouble, such as being kicked out of Swan’s office, sent to jail, having his teeth removed, having his vocal cords removed and having his face melted down to silly putty in a record press machine.
Humiliated and presumed dead, he stalks the paradise, sabotaging Swan’s attempts to put on his opening act. Unfortunately ever the devil, Swan’s not done with Winslow yet, as he plans to bleed the new phantom’s creativity and steal the woman of his dreams all in one sinister swoop.
Funny thing this movie, it is filled with tiny inconsistencies and technical errors but it remains to be one of the most entertaining indie films of the early 1970s. Normally, I like picking the bones of these cult movies clean like a vulture in the Arizona desert. But this movie is way too much fun. Partly because of Paul Williams of course! What? That guy from the Muppets who sings about an old fashioned love song with two clones of himself singing alongside him? Yup, that guy. Apparently this guy plays bad guys very well, as this is not his only time performing as a villainous character. You can also see (or rather hear) him as the murdering, bank robing, son of a bitch Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot in the Batman animated series.
Mr. De Palma made a wise choice in hiring Paul Williams to write the music for this movie. It’s fun, dark, creepy and hauntingly beautiful. Strange, coming from the man who wrote Rainbow Connection. This brings up a very good point. Does anyone remember any original not-used-for-television-or-film songs written by this guy? More importantly, why does no one remember this guy? He’s had it all, and even been the subject of a mildly darkly themed documentary titled, “Paul Williams Still Alive”. Not only can he write memorable, catchy music but also he plays such convincing bad guys. Look at him, walking into his office with a million women climbing all over each other just to have a piece of this piggy bloke, Swan. You know these women are doing this just to get a taste of the lime light their foster parents went so far out of their way to convince them they weren’t good enough for. What a schmuck.
My favorite scene in this movie is when Swan hooks up Winslow to an electric voice box jerry-rigged to a mixing station. Winslow plays the piano and sings his bittersweet song (lovingly entitled “Faust”) as Swan, at the mixing board, works to re-create Winslow’s true voice. The progression of “tuning in” to artificially restore what Winslow no longer has, juxtaposed to the horrible figure he now is, is eerily beautiful. This scene also brings up a lot of nostalgic Frankensteiney imagery such as a mad genius slaving over his machines to put together his horrible monster. Classic.
Just like in the original novel, the Phantom of this film is not a ghost but actually a talented and misunderstood artist who uses mystique and theatricality to impose fear and intimidation on his enemies. But unlike in the original novel, Winslow has an on screen change from your run-of-the-mill musician to the haunting creature, The Phantom. At first, Winslow is a pretty approachable guy, albeit with a bit of a temper when threatened. He flirts, he smiles and he writes beautiful music that touches fellow performers and tycoons alike. When he first realizes his music has been stolen, he attempts to make peace with his antagonist to come to a fair arrangement for both parties. But the more Swan pushes him, the more his anger takes over. He even tries to break into Swan’s boudoir dressed as a woman in hopes of getting Swans attention, only to be beaten up and framed for possessing illegal drugs, fetching himself a life sentence for Sing Sing, were horrible medical experiments are implemented on him for God knows how long. The dark side of Winslow’s nature seems to dominate his actions for the rest of the movie after that. He breaks out of prison, dons a mask and black leather outfit and attacks the various performers who attempt to bastardize his own music at The Paradise. He is quick to react aggressively when things don’t go the way he wants. Yet Winslow’s passion is easily manipulated by the evil Swan into making more music in exchange for fame, a new voice and various narcotics to keep him cranking out them hits!
This movie is also my second favorite film starring Jessica Harper. Try and guess which one is the first (If you can’t figure it out, I’d find that a little Suspiricious). She has a girl-next-door plainness about her that fits well in this movie. She is young and mouse-like with a good singing voice and a lot of stage presence. But outside of her stage presence, she is your average everyday girl, looks and all. This makes the Winslow character even more down to earth, as he finds this young woman to be perfect despite her shortcomings. His standards are just not as corrupt as everyone else. This is the one thing he is able to hold onto throughout the film in order to keep his humanity.
Lastly, let’s not forget one of the best characters in this movie; the effeminate, metal prima donna Beef played by Bud the Chud himself, Gerrit Graham. When on stage or in front of a camera, Beef is a nasty grimacing badass with an attitude to match. But meet him in his changing room and you’ll find a very different kind of man. He’s girly, catty and a tad on the bitchy side for a metal head. His butchering of Winslow’s music is hilarious, especially coupled with Winslow’s reaction to every note he listens to Beef belt out. Winslow is flat out against Beef performing his music, as he only wants the angelic “Phoenix” (Harper) to sing his songs. Swan bricks Winslow into his room to keep him from interrupting Beef’s opening performance of Winslow’s music. But just like a Honey badger, Winslow breaks the wall down and attacks the live performance once more.
This movie was panned at its initial release, mostly due to a mishandled marketing campaign and a great deal of confusion from the audience about what type of movie this was But since the late 70’s, it has built a rather impressive fan base. In 2005 and 2006 in Winnipeg, The Convention Phantompalooza was held to honor the film, consisting of a reunion of most of the surviving cast followed by a concert from Paul Williams. When William Finley died in April 2012, indiewire wrote a wonderful piece on his career as an actor, most notably his involvement in Phantom of the Paradise (link to article right here). It seems that even though this film was forgotten almost as soon as it was made, time has treated it with great reverence. It continues to rope in newer, fresher audiences who hunger for the lost gems of indie Hollywood. Do something nice for yourself and take a moment to check this one out with your friends. I promise you will get a lot out of it.