Friday, February 3, 2012
Day 65: The Phantom of the Paradise
"The karma in here is so thick, you need an aqualung to breathe."
I've lifted my self-imposed embargo and it's fitting that the first director I'm revisiting is Brian DePalma. He's had a long and varied career, and no film better embodies how versatile he is better than 1974's The Phantom of the Paradise, a campy, over-the-top, pop odyssey that is a modern retelling of Goethe's Faust with equal parts Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera and Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray.
Within five minutes, you'll be able to tell whether or not you're going to like it, and if you're put off by the first musical number, it's not going to get better for you anytime soon. This is a film like no other you'll ever see and it is a fantastic wonder to behold. Fans of Rocky Horror, The Apple and Xanadu will devour this film with manic glee. The film features two icons of the seventies, Paul Williams, who also wrote the songs, and Jessica Harper, a beautiful and talented actress who starred in some of the biggest cult hits of all time like Suspiria, Pennies from Heaven and Shock Treatment.
Williams plays the enigmatic Swan, the biggest record producer in the world, who is looking for a brilliant new musical composition with which he can reopen the defunct theatre The Paradise. A young singer-songwriter by the name of Winslow Leach (DePalma regular William Finley) performs part of his cantata based on Faust for Swan, who feigns interest in the work, but turns around and steals it from Leach. When he finds out, Winslow attempts to get his work back from Swan, but instead is declared insane and imprisoned. Escaping from prison, Leach returns to Swan's record company to stop him from making the record, but is horribly disfigured by Swan's record press, and is presumed dead.
He returns to The Paradise, stealing a costume & mask and haunting the theatre. In the best scene in the entire film, DePalma utilizes one of his favorite techniques, the split screen, to show a rehearsal in progress as well as tracking a car that's being pushed on stage which Leach has put a bomb in. It's a great scene in its own right, but the fact that it's also an homage to the opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil makes it even better. Leach makes a deal with Swan to oversee the production of his show, signed in blood, and Leach convinces Swan to hire a woman named Phoenix (Harper) to play the lead. Leach has become obsessed with Phoenix since meeting her at an audition at the beginning of the film, and wants to use her as his voice to bring his cantata to the world.
Swan goes behind Leach's back and recasts the lead role with his new protege, Beef (Gerrit Graham) a flamboyant, screeching singer. When Leach finds out, he threatens Beef (hilariously in the shower with a plunger), and when Beef is forced to perform anyway, Leach electrocutes him onstage during the show. Not knowing what else to do to keep the show going, Phoenix picks up the microphone and finishes the show to incredible adulation. Phoenix becomes an overnight sensation and begins a tawdry affair with Swan, breaking Leach's heart. When Leach tries to kill himself, he finds out that the deal he signed with Swan may have been more than it seemed, and he cannot die, forcing him into a life of servitude for Swan. Leach sets out to find out how to break the contract and rid himself of this curse once and for all.
It's a crazy movie to say the least, made even more so by the fact that DePalma, a noted Hitchcock enthusiast directed it. DePalma can't help himself though, and of course makes the aforementioned shower scene into a Psycho homage. It shouldn't work, none of it should, and it balances precariously on the edge of failure for a great deal of its running time, but the fact that it is so well-made and the music is so good, you're willing to overlook its flirtation with being a total disaster and just admire what they were able to do.
I've always loved Paul Williams, and it's not a love I get to espouse about much as his work was so varied, he rarely comes up. This is the man that wrote the songs for the greatest bad movie ever made, Ishtar, and he wrote songs for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night and The Muppets. This is the man that wrote "Rainbow Connection" for God's sake, my love for him requires no qualification. The fact that he is largely unknown is a travesty, so let's make it our goal in the coming year to profess our love for Paul Williams more often.
It's no surprise that Jessica Harper sounds eerily like Karen Carpenter, considering Williams wrote the music, and she has a deep alto voice that resonates with a sultry sexiness that works so well for the role and the film. She's another actress who rarely gets her due, and her work here is reliably solid. Gerrit Graham is also outrageously ridiculous as Beef. The fact that Peter Boyle almost ended up in this role confuses and delights me at the possibilities that could have been, but Graham is excellent, another character actor you'd readily recognize if you saw him.
William Finley is great as Leach. He's always been very good when working with DePalma, but he really gets a chance to shine here. His scenes in the early going are deliriously over-the-top, like his sentencing, when he pleads his innocence to the camera. Which brings me to the way DePalma uses the camera like a character all its own. Early on, characters talk directly to the camera when addressing Swan, he uses it as Leach's POV when he stalks The Paradise, Phoenix sings parts of her audition directly into the camera. Sometimes it feels like a character, sometimes it feels like it's you personally they're talking to. It's odd and inconsistent, but it always works for some reason.
Unfortunately, the dvd of this film is virtually impossible to find. I remember seeing this film as a teenager on the old Encore channel (does it even exist anymore) which was my introduction to a lot of films that time has forgotten like Brewster McCloud, The World According to Garp & Under the Rainbow. Criterion owns the rights to at least two of DePalma's films, and I wish they would get their hands on this and give it the deluxe restoration it deserves. This is truly a film like no other, and the fact that it preceded so many of the other films I mentioned in the first paragraph make it sort of their progenitor. This is not a film for everyone, but the people that will like it, will adore it, and will cherish it the way it deserves to be cherished. Brian DePalma is an undeniable master of the cinema, and the fact that this film is so far afield just proves that point in an even stronger way.