Some films defy description and ten minutes in the company of Phantom of the Paradise may have you questioning your own sanity. He sold his soul for rock-n-roll, that's what the tagline reads, but I'm guessing the devil would've given it straight back had he been forced to endure this misfiring cult classic in its entirety. I'm not sure where the phrase 'cult classic' was first used, these days it seems to be associated with any film, good or bad, that failed to find an audience. Sometimes they are certified classics, but that's rarely the case, most of the time the film was forgotten for a very good reason.
Having said that, even great films are left on the shelf for far too long, and one man's Hitchcock is another man's Ed Wood. However, despite a sprinkling of jaunty showstoppers and a welcome dose of gothic splendour, Brian De Palma's glam rock oddity is, and always will be, too disjointed for mainstream audiences. Which is probably where you come in. I'm a big fan of cinematic oddities, but even for me, Phantom of the Paradise is a really tough sell. It was a big hit in Canada though. Winnipeg mainly. The soundtrack even went gold, selling more than 20,000 albums in Winnipeg alone.
After hearing Winslow Leach (William Finley) perform a song from his Faust rock opera, Swan (Paul Williams, who also wrote the music) decides that Winslow's opera is the perfect debut attraction for his new rock palace, the Paradise. Swan steals the music and has Winslow imprisoned, but not before he meets aspiring songbird Phoenix (the divine Jessica Harper), who is auditioning for a part in the opera. Jumping prison, Winslow breaks into Swan's Death Records factory to ruin the recordings, but tragedy strikes when a record press horribly disfigures him.
Winslow then sneaks into the Paradise to sabotage Swan's show, disguising himself as the Phantom. I say Phantom, in truth, it could be argued that Swan's birdlike helmet was the main inspiration for Flash Gordon's entire wardrobe department. For somebody who likes to hide in the shadows, he sure dresses like he wants your undivided attention. And what's with all the references to birds anyway? Swan cuts a deal with the Phantom to finish his cantata, before going back on his promise of allowing Phoenix to play a pivotal part in proceedings. Instead, he hires glam rocker Beef (Gerritt Graham), and the scene is set for a finale of biblical - not to mention barmy - proportions.
Phantom of the Paradise is a confused mess for the most part, and it's not hard to see why it failed to find an audience back in 1974. Having said that, it's easy to see why it has amassed such a loyal following since. The musical numbers are certainly catchy, some of them are etched in my memory even now, but it's also true that they outstay their welcome from time to time, struggling to bind the flimsiest of plots whilst simultaneously disguising an obvious lack of drive.
Performances are hampered by, as you might expect, hammy delivery and annoying character traits. Paul Williams is the right kind of smarmy but lacks the screen presence required of a character like Swan. Finley fails to reign it in at every turn, but at least he's at one with the rest of the production, leaving a lively Gerritt Graham to pick up the pieces and steal every scene he appears in.
Brian De Palma has made some great films in his time, in fact, it's hard to believe that this is the same guy who was yet to make some of my own personal favourites, including Carrie, Carlito's way, Scarface and The Untouchables. He also made Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes. De Palma's films always look the part though. Mission Impossible was no less muddled than this but it sure looked divine, and Phantom of the Paradise shows real signs of promise in the final act. The split screen effect used so effectively in Carrie was a major distraction though, if only because it reminded me of all the De Palma films I could've been watching instead. I even toyed with The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Things do improve as fragments of narrative threaten to engage. As tragedy, romance and darkness erupt, and De Palma cuts loose on the fairytale visuals. Diehard fans will tell you that Phantom of the Paradise is criminally misunderstood, that it embodies the perfect blend of rocky horror and devilish satire of the 70's music industry. Sadly, much like audiences outside of Canada, it's openly apparent that I wasn't in on the joke. Phantom of the Paradise is neither scary nor comical, and even at 93 minutes it feels like a chore. The Blu-ray edition, however, is worthy of praise. Special features - courtesy of Arrow Films - include a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film with Brian De Palma, and an all new 72-minute interview with Paul Williams, conducted by Guillermo del Toro.
Phantom of the Paradise failed to rock my world then, but I sure won't forget it in a hurry, whether I want to or not.