The Rock Opera is a subgenre of movies that really IS the 1970s. There have been a few after, but with things like Jesus Christ Superstar, The Who’s Tommy, and of course The Rocky Horror Picture Show, mixing acid rock and stage/screen theatrics simply couldn’t exist properly after even the mid-’70s. Brian De Palma had just come off of his breakout film Sisters and decided to write and direct a sort of pastiche of both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera but up the camp, up the horror, and add pop songs written by one of the best songwriters who ever lived. The result is one of De Palma’s most enduring movies, and one that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year in style. While not technically a “rock opera” because there’s far more talking than singing, I’d count it as such because of its tone and feel.
I’d never seen Phantom of the Paradise save a few clips until reviewing Scream Factory’s mammoth double-disc Blu-ray special edition. Traditionally, I’m not a big fan of De Palma or his insistence on blatantly ripping off Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, and other undisputed masters, but I’d always been curious about Phantom because it seemed so different from any of the other hyper-sexual horror he’d done. And one ridiculously unnecessary and obvious Hitchcock ape aside, I found the movie to be a lot of fun, full of weird imagery, baroque performances, and melodic and catchy tunes written by Paul Williams. Darn you, De Palma, making me like one of your movies.
The film follows the travails of the titular Paradise, the greatest rock club ever built, owned and operated by the veritable producing god Swan (Williams), who is perpetually-youthful yet undeniably heartless. He needs a new sound to give to his group, the ’50s inspired Juicy Fruits, but just can’t seem to find it. One day, he and his lackey Philbin (George Memmoli) overhear a talented yet geeky man named Winslow (William Finley) playing piano and singing a song that Swan thinks would be perfect. After tricking Winslow into giving him the music to his complete rock album version of Faust, Swan holds tryouts for the show, and refuses to even see Winslow to pay him royalties or anything. He pays off some cops to frame Winslow for drug possession and the poor man is sent to prison.
While there, he’s put through a number of horrible torture, including getting his teeth pulled out and replaced with stainless steel, his hair cut off, and, after escaping jail to try to stop Swan, half of his face burned and pressed in a record machine. He’s a monster who can no longer sing, so he dons a costume and begins to haunt the Paradise, making Swan’s life miserable. That is, of course, until a girl named Phoenix (Jessica Harper), whom Winslow had met briefly and thought sang beautifully, comes in to audition. She’s the only one Winslow will trust to sing his music and he cuts a deal with Swan to finish the opera if Phoenix is allowed to be the lead. It doesn’t QUITE work that way and Swan instead hires an uber-camp goth metal singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham). This doesn’t make the Phantom happy, and people begin to fall victim to the mad songwriter’s machinations, all while Swan attempts to lure the man in with a devilish deal of his own.
On the one hand, Phantom of the Paradise is just plain silly. It doesn’t take itself or its characters very seriously and has some really strange broad comedy. On the other hand, it’s incredibly dark and tragic with the songs mainly being about losing yourself to the devil of show business and your own desire for stardom. While it certainly is pastichey, it has its own energy and style that set it apart from the other rock operas of the time. And it certainly has one of the most indelible images in horror, that of the distinct costume worn by the Phantom himself, and the scary bird-like mask uses to hide his mangled face.
The performances are truly what make it stand out. William Finley is a complete livewire as the Phantom and is somehow able to be terrifying and sympathetic in equal measure. He somehow manages to act entirely with one eye. Paul Williams is quite sinister in his own right as both a version of Faust and Mephistopheles. His vocal pattern here sets up his way of playing the Penguin 20 years later in Batman: The Animated Series. Jessica Harper, whom you probably know from Suspiria, has a relaxed and husky voice that makes her songs really pop and she seems at once innocent and worldly as she sleeps ever-nearer the same fate as the other two.
The 40th Anniversary Blu-ray from Scream Factory contains more extras than you can shake a really big stick at. On top of the gorgeous transfer, there is a new commentary by Harper, Graham, and the three members of the Juicy Fruits (Archie Hahn, Peter Elbling, and Jeffrey Comanor), interviews with Brian De Palma, Paul Williams, and make-up effects artist Tom Burman, a feature-length making-of documentary, an hour-long conversation between Williams and Guillermo del Toro, alternate takes and scenes, trailers, outtakes and more. It’s a LOT of material and will give you everything you could possibly want to know about this weird and glorious bit of ’70s cinema.
Overall, I’d say definitely check out this movie if you never have, and if you’re already a fan, the Blu-ray will make you see it in a way you haven’t before. Pick it up!