Selling your soul for rock and roll, otherwise known as Brian De Palma‘s Phantom of the Paradise. A mixture of Phantom of the Opera, Dorian Gray, and Faust, the film follows Winslow Leach (William Finley) as he fights for control over his cantata about Faust. Having played it for legendary music producer Swan (Paul Williams), Winslow impresses him but not with his performance. It is the music itself that intrigues Swan, leading to him stealing it and bastardizing it with some cheesy 1950s nostalgia band playing Winslow’s music. Coupled with a hideous disfigurement he suffers, Winslow takes the only recourse he can think of: hiding out in Swan’s new rock palace, the Paradise, where Faust will be first performed. Subtly unnerving but coated in De Palma’s camp and excess trademarks, Phantom of the Paradise is lighter horror viewing but nonetheless a perfect choice for the season.
As with any De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise wears its influences on its sleeve when it comes to the plotting, but his bursts of originality are what so often gives the film its flair. Frequent point-of-view shots, such as one through Winslow as he finds his mask to obscure his charred face, and his trademark split-screens – expertly used in the build-up to an attack by Winslow, with one screen focused on the rehearsal and another Swan as suspense rises – highlight his directorial touches to perfection. Even shots of a car Winslow is in driving down the street that uses frequent screen wipes with quick cuts around to the point of disorientation do well to instill a key element of Phantom of the Paradise: a nightmarish feeling. Through this cutting and the film’s various editing techniques or camera angles, the film cuts through some of the minutiae of a moment with great purpose. Winslow walking up the stairs in a point-of-view shot finds him suddenly up a floor, at an entirely different location, or suddenly seen from an alternate (perhaps a security recording) angle. It is akin to drifting through one’s own mind at night, striking an odd tone for the film from the beginning but one befitting such a horrifying story of Faustian bargains and music moguls being forever young. Phantom of the Paradise is a fractured and often hypnotic work that may seem rough around the edges, but brims with De Palma’s usual flair and great intention that makes every jagged edge into yet another tool to set the mood.
It may capture an otherworldly terror, but the film is as much about the devil and selling one’s soul as it is about the horrors of the music industry. Swan need not be some devilish emissary for the wicked and vile because his company exudes that quality enough on its own. Tryouts for women backup singers amount to nothing more than rape attempts and recruiting for Swan’s newest harem. Winslow or eventual singer Beef (Gerrit Graham) being plied with drugs in order to write music or perform. Phoenix (Jessica Harper), the only singer Winslow ever liked to sing his lyrics, is used in a cynical plot to grab headlines for the new Paradise with her life disposable as long as it somehow helps Swan’s bottom line. Even the premise with Winslow’s music being stolen from him, produced without his consent, and then facing lie after lie from Swan once involved in the process, feels like something that De Palma himself had already faced in the creative world. Through these elements, Phantom of the Paradise adds a very realistic terror. Predatory businessmen and men lurk around every corner, trying to take advantage of those who want nothing more than to make it in this business. Tempting them with fame and fortune, they lure them in, use them, and then dump once they stop being profitable. It is dehumanizing and perverse, perfect for such Faustian bargains as Phantom of the Paradise shows, but one that is damnable even before that idea is introduced.
Phantom of the Paradise’s appeal extends beyond its horror and directorial strengths. The make-up and effects regarding Winslow’s incident or Swan’s issues are gross and realistic while even the over-the-top fireball surrounding the stage (that may be a little goofy in context) is well-represented and nonetheless oddly comedic, a perfect fit to the overall mood. The music is haunting and well-written, while the performance of Jessica Harper on stage and in vocals exudes the soulful and dark nature of Winslow’s work. The music, overall, from Paul Williams fits the off-beat and oddly unnerving nature of Phantom of the Paradise perfectly – he wrote not just the score, but also the words and music for Winslow’s opera – with deference to the Faustian influence in tone and verbiage as well as evoking many of Winslow’s own characteristics in the haunting composition he puts forth. The production design, too, excels in capturing the tone and feeling of the film. Swan’s home with its red bed, mirror-lined bathtub, and the weird skylight on the roof that looks right over his bed captures a weird aura, a looked-at-ness that Swan revels in as he seems to gloat in his wickedness. Hiding in the shadows as he watches performers give him an omnipresent feeling, perhaps always looking but in silent judgment or vocally standing out to give instruction from hiding place. It builds the mystery of him, a great mise en scene touch and one evoked in the set that enables him to be perched up high above the action, always looking down on those performing.
It is not precisely a chilling or horrifying experience overall, but Brian De Palma’s musical horror comedy Phantom of the Paradise is a perfect fit for the season. In trademark De Palma fashion, it has a litany of influences – whether it is recreating Psycho’s shower scene or pulling from numerous literary storylines – as well as many of his usual visual tricks such as split-screen and point-of-view that ramp up the tension. Great music, effects, and a story quite worth of terror as characters sell their soul for just a taste of fame and success, Phantom of the Paradise shows anything but paradise. Rather, it is hell on Earth, either through eternal damnation or being sucked up by the gluttonous and perverse music industry.