Welcome to Paradise: A Homage to Horror Classics A Film Review of Phantom of the Paradise by Christopher Wostenberg
To date, I have been choosing highly regarded films that you might see on any “Best of … “ list of movies, but it is important to include more personal favorites. Therefore, my pick this go around is for a cult movie from 1974 called Phantom of the Paradise. I remember my dad renting this movie when I was young; but, all I really remember was the look of the Phantom in the movie. Later, when I was in college, I re-watched the film and fell in love with the ‘70s music and cheesy cult feel, so much so I bought it on DVD. Since then, I have shown it to multiple friends, I have written a report on it for a course entitled “Music in Film”, and I even included a song from the movie on my wedding album. To me the movie is great for being a weird mix-up of rock musical and gothic horror comedy.
The film opens with narration by Rod Serling (uncredited) describing the raise of music producer Swan. Next, 1950s-style nostalgia band The Juicy Fruits, who are produced by Swan, are seen performing. During the intermission for the show, Winslow Leach practices his rock cantata based on the story of Faust. Swan overhears Leach and decides to buy the music for the opening his rock theater called the Paradise. Unfortunately, Leach is backstabbed by Swan and never gets paid. Leach seeks revenge by destroying Swan’s record company, but slips into a record press and is presumed dead. Stealing props from the Paradise, Leach becomes the Phantom and starts to terrorize the theater. Swan and the Phantom eventually meet and develop a truce where the Phantom will write the music for the opening of the Paradise to be sung by Phoenix, an idealistic newcomer to the music industry that the Phantom admires. But Leach is backstabbed again as Swan plans to make Phoenix a backup singer while glam rock prima donna Beef will headline the Paradise opening with Leach’s music. The Phantom starts his reign of terror again and in the process learns of Swan’s past, which he uses to destroy Swan once and for all.
While I love the music for the film (which is written by Paul Williams, who also portrays Swan in the film), this review will focus on the homage to classic horror literature and films displayed throughout the story. As a note, dictionary.com defines homage as a “special honor or respect shown publicly.”
The film starts with a great narration by Rod Serling hinting at the gothic horror that will proceed through the rest of the film. At the time of the film’s release, Serling’s voice would have been recognized and associated with gothic horror from his recently canceled show Night Gallery and his earlier show, The Twilight Zone. Throughout the rest of the movie, nods to great horror movies are made through replication of famous film scenes. Most notable is Psycho’s shower scene. In Phantom of the Paradise, the scene has Beef rehearsing and getting ready for his big debut, when the Phantom rips open the curtain with a knife and plungers Beef’s mouth shut. Even while playing homage to one of the greatest horror scenes in movies, the film twists it just enough to make the scene comedic. These little treats are spread throughout the movie, including a scene from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and the classic silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The story itself is an amalgamation of classic horror novels. It is clear from the title alone that the film is a modern take on The Phantom of the Opera with Phoenix in the role of Christine Daaé. But Brian De Palma, the writer and director, packs the story full of other classics. Winslow, early in the film, retells the story of Faust as it is his basis for the rock cantata mentioned throughout the film. Little does Winslow know that he will become Faust himself through his dealings with Swan. Additionally, the story adds in allusions to Beauty and the Beast, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and Frankenstein. The mashup of stories and classic movie scenes makes the movie worth watching over and over again to see if you can catch something new and unexpected. Therefore, I am ending this review a little short so as not to spoil too much of the movie for you readers.
Favorite Scene: With all my talk of Phantom of the Paradise being an homage to the classics, my chosen scene focuses more on the music aspect of the film. I love the scene where Swan auditions musicians for the rock cantata that will open the Paradise. The scene starts with the Phantom writing the music and the audience hearing the song in the background. The scene continues with overlays of the sheet music, and an image of Phoenix (the Phantom’s muse for the music) as time passes, noted through a clock turning and a candle burning. Then, it cuts to Philbin and Swan discussing that Phoenix is too perfect for the music. This leads to probably the best line in the movie spoken by Swan, “But you know how I abhor perfection in anyone but myself.” This is followed by various musicians auditioning the same piece of music for Swan as he sits in the middle of a giant gold record shaped desk. Each audition is a different style of music popular during the seventies like folk rock, gospel, country and glam rock.
Through the scene, the importance of the music shifts from the writer to the producer ending with the singer. While the producer does not do much with the music, he is central to its creation as represented by the fact that Swan is placed in the center during the auditions and the music passes from one person to another
While not everyone will love it, Phantom of the Paradise is worth giving a spin, especially for both lovers of classic horror and cinephiles, for all the references. And, maybe in the future you, my faithful readers, and I can sit down and compare notes on the hidden references made throughout the film.
The horror continues with my next review, which will be the creature feature The Birds. Being October, I leave you with this quote from George A. Romero’s zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”