Coming two years before his breakout commercial horror hit Carrie, Phantom of the Paradise (1974) finds revered seventies “movie brat” Brian De Palma in a lively and altogether more playful mode – and all the better for it. For anyone yet to see this uproariously kitsch comedy-musical, Arrow Video’s stunning transfer is a great way in, and the film really is as entertaining as those rabid fans would have you believe. The late, fabulously bug-eyed character actor William Finley is wannabe composer and singer Winslow Leach, slavishly working away at his musical opus about the story of Faust.
Hoping to grab a meeting with infamous music impresario Swan (Paul Williams, who also provides the fantastic rock-vaudevillian soundtrack) Leach is offered a contract, which the diminutive Svengali gleefully discards once he’s received the composer’s work. He then has his cronies plant drugs on Leach, who he is swiftly thrown in the slammer for life. Escaping from prison months later, the now deranged (and mutilated) Leach haunts Swan’s popular music venue as the titular figure. But rather than just exist in the shadows, the Phantom is again convinced by Swan to carry on writing his masterpiece, with a promise that his finished work will be sung by aspiring songbird and love interest, Phoenix (Jessica Harper).
The film’s satirical swipes may be unsubtle at times, but they work perfectly within the larger- than-life, rock opera milieu. Given that Phantom of the Paradise celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, some of those digs at manufactured music feel weirdly prescient (one scene sees Swan manipulating the jagged vocals of the Phantom through hundreds of filters until an unnaturally flawless sound is achieved). De Palma also has fun deconstructing the real face behind the kind of teen idol boy groups to dominate the fifties and sixties pop charts. One of the best examples of his oft- used split screen technique perfectly captures this, revealing the backstage melancholy whilst a smiling Beach Boys-esque band does their sound check.
It would be remiss not to mention the film’s superb art direction, with the surreal and delightfully baroque production design offers a heightened stage musical within the confines of a cinematic setting. There’s no doubt that, had Phantom of the Paradise been a smash upon initial release, a theatrical spin-off would have been a certainty, and we’d probably be witnesses various revivals to this day. Disregarding some awkwardly cobbled-together expositional scenes towards the end, this is an impressive and hugely ambitious piece of music cinema (the film’s messy, Grand Guignol dénouement is all kinds of crazy) which rightfully deserves a place amongst the more recognised genre standouts of that era and beyond.