I have no one to blame but myself for this movie taking this long to make it on to this site.
Seriously, this is in my top ten films of all time and I could never find a good time to share it. Without further ado, if you know this movie, let’s discuss it. And if you’ve never seen it, get ready to have your mind blown.
After Sister and before Carrie, Brian DePalma wrote and directed this musical take on The Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust and The Portrait of Dorian Gray. That’s a simplification of this astounding movie, which wows me every single time I watch it.
Singer-songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley with Paul Williams singing) plays his music for the sinister record producer Swan (also Williams). It’s the perfect music to open The Paraside, Swan’s new concert hall. Instead of paying Leach for his music, Swan steals it with the help of his strong arm henchman Arnold Philbin.
Months later and Winslow sneaks into Swan’s Death Records (it was originally filmed as Swan Song, but Led Zeppelin sued and every single mention had to be changed at great expense, but a few sneak through) and watches women rehearse his music for their audition. He falls for one of them, Phoenix (Jessica Harper, Suspiria) who he thinks has the perfect voice.
Leach tries to sneak in one more time, dressed in drag, but he’s beaten and framed for drug dealing, then jailed and his teeth replaced with metal fangs. Six months later and The Juicy Fruits have taken one of his songs to number one. He flips out and tries to destroy the records as they’re being made. The recording press accidentally catches him and his face is crushed and burned, along with his vocal cords being destroyed. He falls into the river and is presumed dead.
Now, Winslow is gone and all the remains in the Phantom, clad all in black and wearing a silver owl mask. He haunts and attacks Swan and any musicians who sing his music, but the evil music producer cons him into composing the ultimate album for him, even giving him a special recording studio and electronic voice box that allows him to sing again. Working on his new project, Faust, the Phantom throws himself into his work. But the music was never intended for his beloved Phoenix. No, Beef (Gerrit Graham) will be singing his music and the contract has been written in blood.
Throughout the film, the backing band switches identities, from the 1950’s doo-wop of The Juicy Fruits to the surf rock Beach Bums to the shock rock band The Undeads. As Beef sings “Life At Last,” The Phantom dispatches him with a neon lightning bolt. He tries to tell Phoenix who he is and begs her to leave.
That night, he watches through a skylight as Swan and Phoenix embrace. The moment destroys him so he stabs himself in the heart, but he can’t die until Swan does, thanks to their contract. And he can’t kill his enemy with a knife, because he’s under contract too to someone much more sinister.
Following the first performance of Faust, Swan and Phoenix will be married. The Phantom then finds the videotaped contract between Swan and the Devil, as well as the contracts that he made with the producer and a new one with Phoenix. Even worse, he learns that his love will be killed during the wedding ceremony.
Right before that happens, The Phantom swings out and saves Phoenix, then reveals that Swan is a monster. Like literally a monster. As they battle to the death, both of their wounds take their lives while Phoenix finally embraces The Phantom and recognizes him.
I love that Rod Serling is the intro voice here. To tell you the truth, I adore every moment of this movie, which is DePalma going completely wild with split screens and camera tricks to tell this bonkers tale. There’s an amazing lift of a scene from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil as The Phantom places a bomb in the trunk of The Juicy Fruits’ car.
Two of the stars of Carrie assisted on this film and you’ll never see them. First, Betty Buckley who plays Miss Collins in that film, provided all of the singing and character ADR work for the audition and orgy scene. And Sissy Spacek assisted her boyfriend Jack Fisk, who was the film’s production designer, as a set dresser.
As with almost every other musical I’ve covered this week, this movie flopped badly. Everywhere, that is, except Winnipeg, where it played for over a year and sold 20,000 copies of its soundtrack. It even came back to play theaters in the 1990’s and 2000’s there. The city even held an annual Phantompalooza convention.
It also was a big hit with two French teenagers, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo. You might know them better as Daft Punk. Thomas claimed that the movie is, “our favorite film, the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically.” It’s no coincidence that they’ve worked with Paul Williams or that the metallic helmet and jumpsuit of The Phantom inspired their onstage personas.
I recommend that you get the Shout Factory blu ray of this movie. It should be in every movie lovers collection.
Plus, Paul Williams did “The Hell of It” on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, a fact that still blows my mind when you listen to the lyrics.
UPDATE: This is on Shudder!
My god. My love for this movie. MY LOVE FOR THIS MOVIE!
Paul Williams is the shite. Period. I love his songwriting. I love his singing. The songs in this film are brillant. Even with A Star is Born with KK’s faux country-bad boy character’s music. I got into Paul Williams’s music because of this film. Never did get around to getting the documentary on Paul. (Was it ever completed?)
And Gerritt Graham? This and Used Cars . . . he just friggin’ kills it.
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