By John H. Foote
Director Brian De Palma earned his true breakthrough with this film, a rock and roll version of the famous Phantom of the Opera, filmed three times before this wild version, before the long running Broadway play and subsequent film. Cleverly merging the work with Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, De Palma gave the film enough horror and music to be a merging of two genres, but also gave the film enough camp to place it alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), only, I believe better.
Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a great gawky fellow, unattractive to women, a brilliant composer who has written an opera based on Faust, which he wants to get to Swan (Paul Williams) a great record producer who turns everything he touches to solid gold. About to open a new rock palace called the Paradise, Swan hears Winslow playing a song from the opera and Swan knows at once he wants it. The problem is he wants it without Leach and manages to get rid of him on trumped up charges by the bought and paid for police. Sent to jail, Leach escapes and breaks into the Paradise, hoping to ruin the recordings of his opera but instead mashes his face into a record presser, disfiguring himself. He reveals himself to Swan, letting the producer know he plans to sabotage the opening of the Paradise with violence. Swan cuts him a deal to allow him to finish the opera, but once he gets his hands on the final draft he has Leach bricked into the studio.
The lead for the opera is the gifted Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who had befriended Leach before Swan showered her with attention. She is indeed the lead, Leach sees her as his muse, but she has been defiled by Swan which angers him. Quite by accident he discovers Swan’s secret. Years before (who knows how many) Swan cut a deal with the Devil for success. great wealth and immortality and with proof of that, Leach sets out to destroy him.
Dressed in black leather, a cape around him, with a strange bird like bikers helmet, a grill for teeth, Leach is truly the Phantom of the Paradise, sending gear plummeting to the stage, making threats that Swan knows he will make good upon, he becomes a true danger. With Beef (Gerrit Graham) a gay, frizzy haired wonder with a huge voice cast as the lead in the opera and Phoenix relegated to a backup singer after Swan has his way with her, the Paradise is ready to open. But Leach has terrorized and terrified Beef with a warning that he is forced to ignore. Though frightened, Beef is bullied into going onstage, where Leach sends an electrified neon lightning bolt down to kill him. All hell is about to break loose when Phoenix picks up the microphone and starts to sing, easing the audience, and moving Leach and Swan. But with his immortality at stake, Swan tries to kill Phoenix and Leach brings an end to Swan and himself.
The songs within are outstanding and earned the film its only Oscar nomination for song score, a category now extinct. Among the best of them are the opening number sung by The Juicy Fruits, “Goodbye Eddie Goodbye”, the beautiful “Old Souls” which Phoenix sings with such heart and great soul, “Upholstery”, a Beach Boys homage, again sung by the Juicy Fruits and finally “The Hell of It” sung by Paul Williams.
The look of the Phantom is quite arresting, the silver helmet gleaming, the black leathers perfect, he looks like a cooler version of the original Phantoms.
The performances in the film range from very good, to average. Jessica Harper is superb as Phoenix, a wide-eyed young singer who seems too naive to do justice to the opera until she has a mike in her hands, and we watch her take control of the stage with her voice and become a rock star. Paul Williams has a lot of fun with Swan, the immortal composer, sometimes over the top but it works as he is deliciously evil and knows it. Where I struggle is with William Finley as Leach is clearly out of his element. A good friend of De Palma, they met in film school, and though Finley made a handful of films, his career never took off due to his obvious limitations as an actor. In fact, this was the high point for him, and while good, sometimes very good, he is never great. Imagine a young Christopher Walken or Tim Curry as Winslow and the Phantom; that might have been really cool and infinitely watchable. Best of all might be Gerrit Graham as the prancing Beef, who commands the stage with a huge rock star voice that is directly opposite to what he is and what he sounds like. On stage he is a rock God, in life a sissified lisping coward,
My brothers and I first saw the film at the old rep house The Marks cinema in the late seventies and each loved the picture. We bought the soundtrack the next day and went back through the week to see the film again. Though De Palma never achieved the heights of his friends, Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg for his films, his best ones were admired by critics and enjoyed some box office success.
This one was a perfect blend of camp, horror and great rock and roll. Only The Rocky Horror Picture Show can lay claim to that.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.