Review: Phantom of the Paradise / Cert: 15 / Director: Brian De Palma / Screenplay: Brian De Palma / Starring: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham / Release Date: February 24th
A welcome return for this horror comedy rock musical, not half as well-known as the roughly contemporaneous Rocky Horror Picture Show but every bit as good.
Good-natured Winslow Leach (Finley), a talented but struggling singer-songwriter and composer, is conned into handing over the sheet music for his epic interpretation of Faust by all-powerful record company magnate Swan (Williams), who plans to use it for the grand opening of his new venue, the Paradise. When Leach seeks out Swan for recompense, the evil one has him beaten up, framed for dope-pushing and sent to Sing Sing for his trouble. Hearing on the radio that Swan-managed pop idols The Juicy Fruits are to release one of his songs as a single, he breaks out and heads straight to the record factory to destroy the pressings, but, interrupted by a guard, he gets caught in the vinyl press and is violently crushed.
Now hideously disfigured, Leach finds his way to the Paradise and begins a reign of terror as Swan and his flavour-of-the-month acts prepare their opening extravaganza with his music. However, this is put on hold when he comes face to face once again with Swan, who offers him the chance to have the music recorded the way he wants it and performed by Phoenix (Harper, of Suspiria fame), a talented young singer whom Leach worships. But of course he should know better than to trust the sinister Swan, never mind sign a contract with him in his own blood...
So, a comic Phantom of the Opera for the groovy '70s then, with a bit of Faust thrown in for good measure, but this doesn't quite cover it. De Palma creates a damning satire of the popular music industry that is just as relevant today – where it seems more insidiously putrid and pointless than ever thanks to Simon Cowell's 'Next!' culture. Swan and his Death Records label (originally 'Swan Song' in the script, until De Palma discovered that was the name of Led Zep's label) flit from pushing one manufactured band to another at the drop of a hat, with The Juicy Fruits and their immediate successors, The Beach Bums and The Undead all tellingly played by the same actors. It's not just the industry that comes under fire though; the jaded audiences are depicted as equally callous, ecstatically excited by each new untimely on-stage death that Phantom brings about.
As a piece of filmmaking, it's a true phantasmagoria, with the enthusiastic young De Palma employing every trick in his cinematic grab-bag; spilt screens, montages, coloured filters, tracking shots, distorted lenses, you name it, many of which would be employed to devastating effect again in his breakthough feature, Carrie. The music on the whole is great too, the score being also written by Williams, himself a massively successful songwriter who's heard his work performed by everyone from Elvis to Karen Carpenter. His songwriting work on this was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but it's his portrayal of the satanic Swan that really sticks in the memory. No one will forget The Undeads' metal-tastic performance of 'Somebody Human Like You' in a hurry either.
Pure insane, delirious, beautiful, '70s brilliance.
Extras: Isolated Music & Effects Soundtrack / 50 minute Making Of Documentary / 50 minute Paul Williams interview by Guillermo Del Toro / Outtakes / Alternate takes / Trailers / Collector's Booklet