"The Phantom of the Paradise" and the Divine Comedy of Brian de Palma

Bill Finley and Paul Williams in The Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

Despite having been a devotee of Brian de Palma from an early age I had never been much interested in seeing The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), his attempt to fuse horror, comedy, and the (rock) musical.  I’m glad I finally decided (as of last week) to track it down, though, because it’s delightfully fun, a campy, psychedelic, psychotronic soufflé of a movie.  It belongs to the “early, funny” period of de Palma’s career, before the silky-smooth Hitchcockian thrillers of the late ’70s and early ’80s.  A reckless mash-up of Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, it has the zaniness of a Tex Avery cartoon—but it also functions successfully as a rock opera, with catchy song score by Paul Williams (who also appears onscreen as the Dorian Gray/Mephistopheles figure, a devious record producer and disco impresario).  It’s to him that our hero, the fatally naïve songwriter Winslow Leach (Bill Finley), sells his music as well as his soul. 

The Phantom of the Paradise is almost a non-stop barrage of parody.  De Palma pokes fun at soft rock and surf rock; he throws in shameless travesities of the ticking car-bomb sequence from Touch of Evil and the shower scene from Psycho; and he even stages a set piece (a concert sabotaged by Leach, lurking in the wings of the stage) that anticipates the pivotal scene of his next film, Carrie.  (Considering all of the shit de Palma has taken for “ripping off” other filmmakers, it should be noted that he rips off himself just as frequently.  Just look at how his use of the “it was just a dream” gag from Carrie continues to develop--to increasingly baroque effect--in Dressed to Kill, Femme Fatale, and Passion.)  Anyway, within de Palma’s filmography Phantom can safely be claimed as one of the good ones.  It also features Garrit Graham in a fabulous bit part as a queeny glam rock diva named Beef.  Recommended.

Garrit Graham throwing shade in The Phantom of the Paradise.

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