I recently saw the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise when it aired on the Sundance Channel. I had first seen it quite a number years ago on television, and I remember being struck by how incredibly weird and eerie it was. Re-watching it now in 2013, I definitely developed a real fondness for it, as well as realizing just how on-the-money writer/director Brian De Palma was in his dark satire of the music industry. In certain respects, the film was ahead of its time.
Phantom of the Paradise is the story of Winslow Leech (William Finley), an ambitious composer who has written a lengthy, epic cantata based on the legend of Faust. He is overheard performing part of it by mega-successful record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and his lackey Philbin (George Memmoli). Swan immediately decides that he wants Winslow’s music for the opening of his high-profile concert hall the Paradise; he doesn’t, however, want Winslow himself. Philbin gets Winslow to give him the only copy of the cantata, promising that Swan is going to look it over and get right back to him. A month passes, and Winslow finally realizes he’s been tricked. He sneaks into Swan’s mansion, where auditions are being held for the opening of the Paradise. Overhearing dozens of would-be songstresses slaughtering his music, one voice captures Winslow’s attention: the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Coming up to her, Winslow begins singing with her, and he realizes that Phoenix is the perfect voice for his cantata. There is also an instant attraction between the two. However, when Winslow attempts to speak with Swan, the producer has his thugs beat up the composer, and arranges for the cops to frame him for drug possession, landing him a life sentence in, appropriately enough, Sing Sing.
Six months later, Winslow breaks out of prison. During an attempt to destroy Swan’s Death Records manufacturing plant, Winslow’s head is caught in a record press. Horribly scarred, Winslow makes his way to the Paradise and, donning a cape & mask, begins to terrorize the concert hall. When he tries to attack Swan, though, the icy producer is unperturbed. Swan convinces a reluctant, wary Winslow to work with him in completing the cantata, promising that Phoenix will sing it. Swan, though, later decides to replace Phoenix with a glam rock singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham) and once the cantata is completed has his men brick up the entrance to Winslow’s room. In a superhuman rage, the composer breaks out. Winslow threatens Beef in the shower, attacking him with a toilet plunger. Beef tries to back out of the show, but Philbin strong-arms him into going on. During the subsequent performance of Faust, Winslow hides in the rafters and hurtles a neon lightning bolt at Beef, spectacularly electrocuting him on stage. Philbin realizes that Winslow is loose and, to prevent any more deaths, brings Phoenix on stage to perform the unedited version of the music. The crowd immediately falls in love with her, and Swan promises to make her a star.
Winslow is horrified that Phoenix is falling under Swan’s spell. He drags her to the rooftop of the Paradise and tries to convince her that Swan will destroy her, but she won’t listen; she’s already enthralled by the lure of the audience worshiping her. Following Swan and Phoenix back to the producer’s mansion, Winslow spies on the two having sex. Utterly distraught, he plunges a knife into his heart. Soon after, Swan comes up and approaches Winslow’s body. Plucking the knife from it, he informs the still-living Winslow that as long as he is under contract to Swan he cannot die. Winslow attempts to murder Swan, and is shocked when the knife won’t penetrate his body. Swan enigmatically comments “I’m under contract too.”
Sometime later, as Phoenix’s Faust tour is winding down, Swan proposes that the two of them get married in a lavish ceremony on live television. While Swan is busy arranging this, Winslow breaks into his mansion. He discovers a film recording from twenty years ago made by Swan himself. The producer was despondent at the thought of growing old and losing his good looks, and was ready to slit his wrists in the bathtub. However, via Swan’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, the Devil offered to keep him eternally young in exchange for his soul. As long as the recording exists, Swan will not age a day. Winslow then discovers that Swan is planning to have Phoenix killed by a sniper during the wedding. In a rage, Winslow sets fire to Swan’s entire file room of contracts. He then arrives at the Paradise in time to deflect the gunman’s aim so that Philbin is shot instead. Fighting through the frenzied crowd, Winslow stabs the now-mortal Swan, killing him. In turn, his own wound re-opens. As Winslow lies dying, his mask falls off. A shocked, saddened Phoenix at lasts recognizes him, and she cradles his lifeless body.
As I said, when I first saw Phantom of the Paradise many years ago, I was almost overwhelmed at how bizarre and freaky it was. As I recall, the flashback scene where Swan makes his deal with the Devil via his own reflection was especially unsettling. The film still very much possesses that distinctive atmosphere for me, with its strange characters & unusual visuals. And it was certainly a judicious move by De Palma to have Rod Serling voice the opening narration, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire story.
Re-watching Phantom of the Paradise now, I also see what an incredibly prescient quality there is to it. Yes, back in the early 1970s, the music industry was already very commercialized. But it has become infinitely worse since then, with record labels, radio, and television all churning out & promoting generic crap from pretty-looking but talentless hacks, appealing to the lowest common denominator. At the same time, you have American Idol and its countless imitators, where publicity-hungry people flock on to television making fools of themselves in their efforts to seize their fifteen minutes of fame.
In planning Phoenix’s murder, Swan comments “An assassination live on television coast to coast? That’s entertainment!” I don’t know how that line came across to audiences four decades ago, but nowadays it sounds frighteningly plausible. The audience erupting into hysterical applause at Beef’s on-stage death also seems like it could really happen. There is so much insane, degrading material broadcast on both the 24 hour news cycle and so-called “reality television” in order to generate massive ratings. No actual contract murders that I can think of, but at least a few hundred hellacious catfights and drunken blow-ups have graced TV screens in recent years. Kim Kardashian may not have arranged to have Kris Humphries killed on television, but her 72 day marriage to him apparently netted her several million dollars. And after it was all over, I bet there was a part of Humphries that wishes he had just been shot dead at the altar.
As for the character of Swan, he is just plain creepy, a total immoral bastard. According to a few sources, Swan was based on infamous music svengali Phil Spector. I’m not sure how much of Spector’s dark side, such as his abusive & controlling behavior towards his wife Ronnie, was known to the public at the time that Phantom of the Paradise was made. But in later years Spector definitely took a total dive off the deep end, culminating in him shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and his conviction for her murder several years later. Talk about life imitating art.
In any case, Paul Williams gives a really sinister, memorable performance as Swan. Williams also wrote the music & lyrics for the film. Phantom of the Paradise may have been a dud at the box office, but at least Williams received a well-deserved Oscan nomination for his music.
Another thing that I picked up on is that Phantom of the Paradise has an almost Objectivist aspect to it, albeit one that seems to be a send-up of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Winslow Leach possesses certain parallels with Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead. Both men are passionately concerned with maintaining the purity of their artistic vision, and adamantly refuse to compromise their ideals. Roark dynamites the building he designed after it was altered without his permission. So too does Winslow attempts to use dynamite to demolish Swan’s Death Records plant, and he later successfully blows up the Beach Bums, the bubblegum pop band that Swan initially wanted to perform Faust at the Paradise. He also commits several subsequent murders.
Of course, there is a real difference between the depictions of the two men. Rand very much regarded Roark as a flawless, noble hero. In contrast, even at the start of the movie, Winslow comes across as both overzealous and naïve. By the time he assumes the identity of the Phantom, it is very clear that Winslow is quite insane. In his efforts to destroy Swan, Winslow kills a lot of other people. Yes, Beef was a prima donna egotist, and the Beach Bums were cheesy hacks, but did they all deserve to die? And Winslow’s relationship with Phoenix is also problematic. I do not think he truly loved her. It seems much more a case of obsession, driven by Winslow’s belief that only she could ever properly sing his music.
Yes, Swan seems very much to be one of the “parasites” that Rand so despised. He is a monster who steals Winslow’s work and utterly destroys his life. Yet by embarking upon his mission of vengeance, Winslow himself becomes a sort of monster as well, bringing to mind Nietzsche’s warning concerning those who fight monsters. I think that the Howard Roarks of the world may start out as romantic idealists, but their unyielding convictions might very well lead them to the same fate as those who have exploited them.
Analysis aside, Phantom of the Paradise is a great movie. Brian De Palma directs the hell out of it, with some truly amazing, dynamic shots. As I said before, the music by Paul Williams is fantastic. It’s unfortunate but, in retrospect, not surprising that Phantom of the Paradise initially failed in the theaters. It is a very difficult movie to classify, simultaneously horror, comedy and musical. But it often seems like these sort of offbeat films are the ones that stand the test of time, and nowadays it is considered a cult classic.