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Sean William Scott

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Friday, October 28, 2005

Countdown to Midnight: The Phantom of the Paradise 

Who wants nostalgia anymore?

For me, Phantom of the Paradise represents the pinnacle of the midnight movie school of film-making. It combines the trappings of a horror film with the sly comedy of a satire, all rolled together into a rock musical. It also gives you the combination of Paul Williams, playing against type as a Faustian record industry executive, as well as writing the songs, and Brian dePalma as screen-writer and director in full-on "I want to be Alfred Hitchcock" mode. He pulls out all the little cinematic "tricks" he can think of: split screens, mirror shots, point of view shots, high angle shots, over the shoulder shots, superimposed images, long tracking shots. It all...sort of an homage to dePalma's favorite director, but what really pulls it together is the songs and slightly mocking performances of the cast.

The plot is almost an afterthought in a film like this. It opens with some faux-fifties greasers circa the mid-seventies singing in a club somewhere. All we see of Paul Williams as Swan, head of Death Records, a record producer so successful he attempted to deposit his gold discs in Fort Knox, is a pair of white-gloved hands emerging from the shadows. Then William Finley, as Winslow Leach, a brilliant composer with an anger problem, comes on as the inter'acte. His music is perfect for Swan to open his new rock palace, the Paradise, with. But Winslow...not so much. So Swan's major domo, Philben, arranges to get Winslow's only copy of his "rock cantata" telling the story of Faust. "What labels he on?" is Philben's response. After a month with no word from Swan, Winslow breaks into Swan's offices, and then his home, determined to speak with Swan. At the "Swanage" he meets the sublime Jessica Harper as Phoenix, the only singer at the audition for the "back-up singers" with any actual talent. He's immediately smitten with her, but shows all his usual wit when he fails to realize that, talented as she may be, she's clearly hoping to use him to get a leg-up on the competition. A comedy of errors follows in which Winslow dresses like a woman, gets beaten, framed for being a drug dealer, sentenced to life in prison and has all his teeth surgically removed and replaced with metal dentures as part of a "dental hygiene" project sponsored by the Swan Foundation. We also get our first full glimpse of Swan, as Paul Williams emerges from a cloud of red smoke, in a mirror shot, clad in silk Chinese pajamas.

Winslow escapes from prison (Sing Sing, appropriately enough), when he hears that Swan's pet band, The Juicy Fruits (the same faux-greasers who opened the film), will be recording a live version of "Faust" at the opening of the Paradise. Winslow's tender song about Faust's love for the woman he sacrificed his soul for has now been transformed into a song about drag racing and the delights of expensive upholstery. He smashes Swan's office and sabotages the Death Records press, getting himself shot and horrendously mangled in the record press, before apparently drowning in the river. Shortly after Winslow's "death" a frightful apparition begins haunting the Paradise, clad in a black leather costume with a strange bird-mask to cover its face. After the Phantom's unsuccessful bomb attempt on the lives of the Juicy Fruits (shown in a brilliant one-shot split screen sequence), he makes an attempt on Swan, who figures out that the Phantom is really Winslow, who somehow cheated death. He makes a deal with Winslow: stop terrorizing the Paradise and Winslow's version of Faust will be produced. The deal is sealed when Phoenix shows up at the audition and Winslow selects her to star in the production. "She could be my voice now" he tells Swan, in a manner that doesn't at all suggest a creepy fixation on a girl he barely knows. Swan persuades him to sign a sinister contract in blood and Winslow begins writing.

Winslow throws himself into re-writing Faust, thus leaving Swan to relegate Phoenix to nothing but a back-up singer. "You know how I despise perfection in anyone but myself," he tells a confused singer. He auditions new leads and eventually selects Beef, played brilliantly by Gerrit Graham as a mincing caricature of every glam-rock star of the seventies. Beef changes Faust around a bit to play it to his strengths, quite sensibly too as it was clearly "scored for a chick." After getting the last of the music from Winslow, Swan has him bricked up inside the recording studio hidden inside the Paradise. Winslow escapes, and after a Grand Guignol production of Beef's Faust (done in a German expressionist style that inspired at least one Halloween costume from me, as well of dozens of wannabe punk bands), electrocutes Beef in front of a packed theater. In a panic, Phoenix is thrust out into the crowd, in an effort to calm them and to appease "the Phantom" before he kills anyone else. Swan then casts his eye on Phoenix, towards sinister purpose. He tells her, and the world, he plans to turn her into a star and marry her, but secretly he plans to have her assassinated during a live, world-wide broadcast, in an effort to duplicate the "smash success" of Beef's on-stage death. Winslow, heart-broken, follows Phoenix and Swan back to Swan's estate, where he attempts to kill himself, only to discover that the contract with Swan has made it impossible for him to die. He attempts to kill Swan as well, only to discover that Swan is under contract as well. Back at the Paradise, Winslow breaks into Swan's secret room, where he uncovers hundreds of video-tapes, including the filming of every contract Swan has signed someone to. He discovers Swan's contract, in which Swan was persuaded against killing himself by his reflection and exchanged his soul for eternal youth. But, when the contract goes, Swan goes. Winslow also, finally, learns of the assassination plot against Phoenix, so he sets the video-room on fire and races to save Phoenix. He arrives in time to stop her being killed, but not in time to prevent anarchy from breaking out on stage. Swan's true face is revealed to the world and his and Winslow's contracts expire. Swan is carried off by the throng, bleeding to death, and Winslow dies in Phoenix's arms.

So, what's the appeal of the film? Why do I think that this film, above all others, is the best midnight movie. It blends the genres so well. You've got comedy and horror together. You've got good songs that fit sensibly into the film. You've got grand stagings and peculiar costumes. And you've got that story. Equal parts Faust and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, dePalma packs as much symbolism, metaphor and import into it as he can. And he apes Hitchcock spectacularly as well. With slightly more restraint, you could almost have supposed that Hitchcock himself got it into his head to make a rock-horror-comedy.
You've got Paul Williams, who is always appealing, playing an against type villain, in addition to some of his best songs. You've got Gerrit Graham's sublime performance. You've got Jessica Harper. I mean really, that alone should be enough. Jessica Harper!
And you've got absolutely nothing in the way of "audience participation," or attempts to encourage it, or opportunities to do it. It's one of those very, very rare films of the type that you can actually sit back and just enjoy on its own merits.

The Juicy Fruits

The Juicy Fruits, redux

The Juicy Fruits, final

And though your music lingers on, well all of us are glad you're gone...


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