Phantom of the Paradise (1974) Poster

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Quintessential cult movie
francheval13 February 2006
Mix "the Phantom of the Opera" with "Faust" and "the Picture of Dorian Gray", sprinkle it all with 1970's electric glam-rock, Gothic horror and uttermost baroque scenery and costumes. And there you get "Phantom of the Paradise", a picture that has everything to be the perfect cult movie, and would deserve much more attention than its more famous counterpart "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", released one year later.

Whereas "Rocky Horror" remains a farce all the way through, "Phantom of the Paradise" is a real tragedy in the original meaning : the story of a genial but naive musician who gets his work swindled by an evil baby-faced producer who has sold his soul to the Devil. Besides, "Phantom" is more a film about music or a film with songs in it than a proper musical, and it's better so because the story is really interesting. Like "Rocky Horror", " Phantom" is full of parody and incredible gimmicks, but the plot and the soundtrack are far superior, and on the whole, "Phantom" has a lot more class.

Many people who have seen the movie when it was released were teenagers, and it's one of those movies I know many people to have seen ten times or more. Looked at from a mature point of view, it is true that "Phantom" appears somewhat kitsch and not so profound, and it is obvious that the director must have had great fun shooting such a delirious show. But let's say then that as "typical midnight movie", "Phantom of the Paradise" remains a gripping and creative kitsch masterpiece, and still keeps up with its cult movie status thirty years after. That's what classics are all about.

Countless scenes and details would deserve comments, but let's say that two of them are really hard to forget: when the hero gets his face destroyed in a record-press after his escape from Sing-Sing in a toy box, and when he murders the campy music-hall star who usurped his music in the middle of the stage, by shooting a neonlight across his chest as the climax of a hysterical rock concert.

Interesting to know that the same three singers successively impersonate a parody of a sixties group with banana hairdos and falsetto voices, a nutty band in pants and wigs, and finally appear with ominous black and white make-up in a hard-rock performance that reminds of "Kiss". I guess you wouldn't tell if you didn't know.

The casting is very good although none of the actors seemed to have achieved real stardom. You don't get to see so much of William Finley because he wears a mask throughout much of the film, but Paul Williams, who has had a rather mediocre singing career, was perfect for the role as machiavelic producer Swan. The angelic blond face and the malign nature of the character make a very powerful contrast.

However, I found the most impressive performance was given by Jessica Harper. Her big dark eyes and deep voice make her stand out both as an accomplished actress and singer. Her talent has been unfortunately never used any better than in this movie, which was her first star role, and that's "the hell of it".

As for director Brian de Palma, I have not seen many of his films outside of this one, so I'm not too sure, but it looks like "Phantom" really has a place apart in his career. For instance, "Carrie", which got more attention, appeared very disappointing to me in comparison, much more like a B-grade horror flick. Mr de Palma certainly seems to have a fascination for blood, and "Phantom" has of course its fair share of it. Contracts are even signed with blood instead of ink...
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A long lost, but not forgotten Midnight Movie Classic
redbeard_nv16 November 2001
Still playing on double-bills with The Rocky Horror Picture Show in England, Brian DePalma's foray into the psychodelic world of the musical excesses that was the 70's becomes more than just another rock musical. With a fusion of Faust, Dorian Grey, Phantom of the Opera, the Twilight Zone (courtesy of an opening narration by Rod Serling)and Psycho, using multiple camera angles cleaved into split screens, we follow the tragic trials and tribulations of one Winslow Leech (William Findley, the scary side splitting surgeon of DePalma's "Sisters"), composer, whose music is stolen by mook henchman Philbin (George Memmoli, Joey Clams of Scorsese's "Mean Streets")on the orders of his boss, rock impresario Swan (song writer Paul Williams, in a role that must have had him giddy) to be used in the opening of his new rock palace, The Paradise.

Attempting to get his music back, Winslow befriends a young, up and coming singer called Phoenix (Jessica Harper, who many have accused of being woefully miscast. Watch for her in "My Favorite Year"). Beaten by Philbin, set up on drug charges by Swan, subjected to stainless steel dentures because of Swan's own campaign to wipe out dental decay in the penal system, Leech escapes prison upon hearing his music on the radio, breaks into the record factory, and when caught, accidentally has his faced mauled by a hot record press, and sent moaning in pain into the East River.

Swan continues his preps for the opening, using his former 50's doo-wop group, the Juicy Fruits, now a surfer band called The Beach Bums (Later, they become a Kiss-like bunch called The Undead. The band is made up of the same three actors, Archie Hahn, Jeffery Commanor and Harold Oblong. Watch for Hahn in many more films, including "Innerspace" as the deadly deliveryman), to perform Winslow's music. A shadowy figure, donning a leather bodysuit, lame lined cape and a hawk-like mask invades the Paradise and starts reeking havoc.

From here, all the cliches play out from Phantom of the Opera, but in one absolutely looney twist is the addition of a fay glitter rock star called Beef (Gerrit Graham, singing voice by Ray Kennedy), who delivers a Hitchcock homage that will never let you look at Janet Leigh in the Bates Motel shower the same way ever again. Toss in a bit of Dorian Grey, with a videotape instead of a portrait taking on the years(and we wonder about Dick Clark's never aging profile!), a strange transformation of several musical themes, all familiar but somehow morphed into different personnas, and you have a cult classic on your hands.

This movie fits into so many different viewer interest groups. First, the DePalma fans, watching his early work before classics like "Sisters", "Carrie" and "Dressed To Kill"; for musicians/soundtrack fanatics, the mutation of a handful of themes into different works, as well as an incidental soundtrack filled with string quartets, classic piano and organ; for movie trivia fans, the appearance of the star of one of DePalma's all time suspense/horror classics as a production associate, not as an actress (I'm not telling you. watch the credits!).

For the rest of us, a great popcorn night movie that will leave you laughing, tapping your feet and wondering "Where was I when this movie came out and how did I miss it the first time?"
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Different but brilliant reinterpretation of a classic!
jluis198411 May 2006
"Phantom of the Paradise" is Brian De Palma's outrageous blend of horror, comedy and rock opera very loosely based on Gaston Leroux's immortal novel "Phantom of the Opera". I know it is hard to think of a musical horror movie without thinking about "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", but De Palma strikes first with this more horror-oriented (although still hysterically funny) satire on the music industry of the 70s.

Swan (Paul Williams) is a powerful and legendary music producer who is making preparations for his greatest triumph in music business: The Paradise, a monster auditorium that will serve him as palace. To inaugurate his palace, he is looking for the perfect sound and he fins it in the music of Winslow Leach (William Finley), a young composer who dreams with presenting his "Faust" cantata to the world. Swan steals Leach's work and in an accident, deforms his face turning Leach into The Phantom. Now, as the masked monster, the Phantom will try to stop Swan's plans by sabotaging the Paradise.

The movie is a visually and musically impressive rock opera with a healthy dose of horror and tongue-in-cheek humor. Brian De Palma cleverly conjures the basic outline of Leroux's novel and add elements of his other influences making the movie a subtle yet moving tribute to the books/movies/music he loves. The modernization and the change from opera to rock work surprisingly good and despite of being a bit outdated by now, the music (by Paul Williams) still makes one of the best soundtracks in a horror film.

De Palma continues improving his technique in this film and like in the previous "Sisters", his style shows maturity and a definitive trademark. Often labeled as a Hitchcock-imitator, I believe that De Palma simply likes to pay constant tribute to his influences, and this film serves a proof of that. Elements of Welles, Hitchcock, Murneau, Whale and Wienne are all over the picture, yet "Phantom of the Paradise" is like none of the works of those directors.

Paul Williams not only composed the soundtrack, he also stars as Swan, the dark and evil genius that leads Death Records and ultimately uses Leach's music for his own purposes. His performance is superb and while not physically imposing he is truly one of the best villains I've ever seen. Finley's take on the Phantom is, like most of the modern interpretations of the character, a romantic tragic figure; but Finley recovers some of the original horror characteristics of the novel creating an attractive but still menacing monster.

Jessica Harper, who would achieve fame in Dario Argento's "Suspiria", gives a good performance as Phoenix, the young singer that captures both Swan and Leach's attention. Like she would do in "Suspiria", she adds depth to the role of the naive singer who wants nothing but to triumph. Something remarkable is the fact that she sang all her songs and did it with credibility and talent. Last but not least, Gerrit Graham portrays a Bowie-inspired Glam rock diva in the unforgettable role of rock superstar Beef.

Sadly, not everything is perfect in Paradise, and neither is in this movie. The odd mixture of musical and horror works very good but at times the movie gets a bit too serious to pass as a musical or too silly to pass as a horror film. It's not a surprise that "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" gained more recognition as it keeps both genres perfectly in equilibrium in all its flamboyant runtime. Still, this is a minor flaw that keeps the movie away from perfection.

Maybe I had low expectations or maybe I was just in the right mood, but "Phantom of the Paradise" was a pleasant surprise that I would not hesitate to recommend to fans of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or fans of black comedy in general. 8/10
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A feast for the eyes.
Hey_Sweden13 September 2014
This viewer feels obliged to point out that his hometown - Winnipeg, Canada - is one of the two cities in the world to truly embrace Brian De Palmas' operatic spoof of the glam rock era. (The other being Paris, France.) Therefore, it's mystifying that it should have taken me so long to finally watch it, but now I'm glad that I have.

It's a thoroughly flamboyant, marvelously designed and decorated rock musical that combines the themes of Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. William Finley stars as Winslow Leach, a naive, trusting singer-composer who is taken advantage of by conniving producer Swan (who's played by real-life singer-composer-actor Paul Williams). Several circumstances later, the disfigured Leach seeks revenge against Swan while falling madly in love with aspiring pop star Phoenix (the radiant Jessica Harper).

The late, great character star Finley and the engaging Williams were never better than in this funny and fast paced exercise in style. It gets off to a great start with opening narration by none other than Rod Serling. Well shot, by Larry Pizer, and designed, by Jack Fisk, it features some thoroughly catchy ditties by Williams. The parodies of such performers as Sha-Na-Na and the Beach Boys are spot on. De Palma is also most effective at capturing the insanity of the emerging shock-rock trend, especially with the effeminate rocker Beef, one of the all- time best roles for top character actor Gerrit Graham.

Harper is beautiful and extremely appealing and it's a shame that neither she nor Graham nor anyone else here ever became big stars. Williams is great fun, and Finley fully embraces the tragic arc of his character. Heavy set George Memmoli is also solid as Swans' gopher Philbin.

This film manages to maintain that feeling of fun throughout while also being rather sad at the same time.

Trivia note: Fisks' wife, actress Sissy Spacek, who went on to play the title role in De Palmas' next film, the feature adaptation of Stephen Kings' "Carrie", was the set dresser here. And look for such familiar 70s actresses as Jennifer Ashley, Janit Baldwin, Janus Blythe, Robin Mattson, Patrice Rohmer, and Cheryl Smith among the groupies.

Eight out of 10.
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Beauty and the Cheese
CaptainChunk10 October 2004
This movie is beautiful. Its a consummate midnight movie. Okay, so Paul Williams, Bill Finley, and Jessica Harper may not be the best actors in the world. And sure, the effects, set, camera moves, and acting is SO VERY seventies, but that doesn't take away from the most beautiful score of any made for film musical, heart tugging writing, and a great villain. Also, the humor of this film is great. De Palma was obviously having fun. I mean, this movie can be viewed as a bad piece of overblown trash, or a studio trying to capitalize on a midnight movie craze, but wheres the fun in that? The direction is solid, the music is relevant, and the movie tells a story. Its fun, entertaining, and emotional. What more do you want from a movie? Plus, you have Rod "Twilight Zone" Serling doing the opening narration! What a beautifully cheesy movie.
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Belongs in The Unnamable Top-Ten List with "This is Spinal Tap"
Dave_Violence19 November 2005
My father wouldn't let me see this in 1974 (I was 11) and I recall him reporting a coworker's opinion that the film should have been rated "R."

So finally, in 2005, I see the film at age 42.

The film is disturbing on a variety of levels. First and foremost, I realized that most of the players are now in their late 50's and 60's. Disturbing, why? Well, because there's a band out there called "the Undead" (Bobby Steele, ex-Misfits) who, turns out, stole (or did he?) his name from Phantom of the Paradise's "the Undeads" Likewise, the Undeads in this film were doing in 1974 what Scandinavian death metal bands _started_ doing in the early 1990's. Furthermore, did the Damned's Dave Vanian rip off the Undead's gimmick?

I felt uneasy realizing that, had I seen the movie when it came out, I probably wouldn't have gotten any of the jokes; I wouldn't have laughed out loud at Beef, the lesbian jokes, the parody of self-important wimpy rockers. And I wouldn't have appreciated the successful composite of Phantom of the Opera, Faust, Picture of Dorian Gray, etc.

The acting is top-notch - the only way "camp" gets laughs. Paul Williams's Swan is the most black-hearted villain I've seen.

The wait was worth it for me on this one.
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A Unique Rock Opera, That Is All I Can Say
gavin69425 April 2011
A composer has his music stolen by a big-time record producer and vows his revenge. Things get more complicated after he gets sent to jail and apparently commits suicide in the river...

Howard Maxford feels the film is "dated", and that is the best criticism one can make of the film. The songs do not hold one's attention well. The plot in general is decent, but the music -- a central focus of the movie -- is just average.

Brian de Palma, the director of "Carrie" and "Black Dahlia", is in charge here. He makes a visually appealing film, with angles and colors that call to mind Stanley Kubrick's "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange", as well as Dario Argento's "Suspiria" (which star Jessica Harper would appear in after this film).

Gerrit Graham ("TerrorVision") as Beef is great, and a nice send-up of glam rock. The critics had called the film "funny" and "hilarious", but both are exaggerations. The humor is very subtle, with this being a musical first, horror film second and comedy third.

The references to Dorian Gray are awesome, and unspoken. There are also cues from Poe and previous "Phantom" films. Some have said there is even an homage to Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (and I believe them, but I have not seen the film yet). Sissy Spacek is credited as a "set dresser"... you decide what that means.
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Great "tongue-in-cheek" horror film.
Skragg4 November 2004
This is probably one of those ones that most people either love or hate, so there isn't that much point in trying to sell it to anyone. I've been hugely attached to it since it came out. I don't think I'm alone in saying that it's "my" answer to Rocky Horror (which to me is simply "entertaining" - which is no insult). A lot of people seem to really dislike Paul Williams. But, love him or hate him, he threw himself completely into the role of Swan. To me, Swan is one of the best comical or semi-comical villains ever (it took me a long while to think of it, but I wonder whether his use of the word "Excellent" in one scene might have inspired Mr. Burns' line on The Simpsons). Everyone else was very good in it, obviously Gerritt Graham as Beef, and George Memmoli as Philbin. I wish , in the first place, that there were FEWER tongue-in-cheek horror films (or whatever you want to call them), and in the second place, that they were as original as this one.
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truthckr10 January 2006
For the time this movie was made it compares to anything made these days. I only wish it was available to purchase, I have to look more. I can't believe the number of people that I ask about it who have never heard of the movie. I own the soundtrack on vinyl and I still pull it out from time to time and listen to it. Jessica Harper has an incredible voice as Pheonix, and when she sings Old Souls, I still get goosebumps. Should there be anyone out there read this and know where I may be able to obtain a copy of the movie, could you please post and I will check back. Musicals are not usually one of my favorite types of movies, but I would highly recommend Phantom of the Paradise to anyone. Paul Williams is an awesome actor and his role of Swan, well, I don't think it would have been the same had another actor taken it. Again if anyone knows where I could obtain a copy of this movie, please write. Thank you
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A Super-Cult of My Generation
claudio_carvalho5 January 2008
The powerful and awarded producer of records and owner of the successful label Death Records, Swan (Paul Williams), steals the Faust cantata composed by the unknown and naive composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) for the grand-opening of his rock-palace, The Paradise. When Winslow bothers Swan trying to meet him to produce his album, he is framed by Swan and sentenced to life in Sing Sing. Winslow escapes from the prison and is accidentally disfigured by the record press of the Death Record. He haunts The Paradise and finds Swan, who proposes a thick contract to Winslow to be signed with his blood. In accordance with the deal with the evil producer, the composer could finish the cantata he was composing for his muse and passion, the singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper), to sing in the theater. However, Swan double-crosses Winslow again, and he finds the dark secret of his contract.

The kitsch "Phantom of the Paradise" is a super-cult of my generation, with a tragic love story that blends "The Phantom of the Opera", "Faust" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray". I do not know how many times I have heard the delightful soundtrack of this movie on CD and watched this film on VHS, and today I have just seen it again on DVD for the first time, thirty-three years after the original release and still enjoying and singing the songs together with Phoenix, Beef and the Juicy Fruits. My family also loves this movie and the songs of this underrated masterpiece. The awesome composer of the some of the most important classic songs of The Carpenters, Paul Williams, fits perfectly to the role of the evil Swan, with his blond hair and dark heart. I do not recall seeing William Finley in another movie, at least in a remarkable role. However, the debut of the talented Jessica Harper was stunning, with a top-notch performance and an awesome voice. I could bet at that time that she would become a sensation as actress and singer, but unfortunately I just recall her in "Suspiria", "Love and Death" and "Tales from the Crypt". Brian De Palma pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock with the shower scene of Beef. My vote is ten.

Title (Brazil): "O Fantasma do Paraíso" ("The Phantom of the Paradise")

On 18 January 2011, I saw this film again.
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In the court of King Williams
RResende11 June 2010
Talented underground creators. How great it is to be in their worlds! that's when we get them at the height of their more uncontrolled and pure creativity. unmanipulated, wild. The outcome of what they do when they work within the underground is hardly the best work they produce, but it's often their more passionate creations, and practically always indicates what they will master when they "grow up".

Here we have a film that exists in 3 levels (at least 3 that matter to me):

  • this is a film within a social and cultural context. The kind of music we hear here (not the multiple parodies, but the music that is intended to be "good") was a reaction to the 60', or the next step of the evolution. Within the same underground spirit that created this film, there was a growing tendency to extend and invent forms that would accommodate the fantasies of new musicians. That's what today we know as progressive rock. This film would pave the way for Tommy, for Live at Pompei, and for The Wall.

  • Paul Williams, great mind, great talent. Much of what works here is his vision, from the mood even to some roots of the story. His parodies are great, but his real stuff is good enough. I enjoyed getting to know him better, and it Is funny that he comes to perform the guy who steals his own music.

  • de Palma, who was my first interest when coming to this. The fact is i didn't know so well what to expect, and i ended up appreciating more the other levels than this one of the director. Apparently by this time he had clarified what he wanted to explore, but he was far from mastering any of his enormous visual skills, or this film was such a collective work that he just couldn't make his personal statement so well. Anyway we have here eventually the first split screen of his career (i'm not absolutely sure of this), something he would take all his careers with incredible results. Other than that, we don'te have his magical camera eye yet.

The story matters only for the fact that we have a battle between creative and money grower, something that all the people involved here might know pretty well back in those days.

Jennifer Harper has a pretty face, and illuminates the set when she sings.

My opinion: 4/5
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Salutations from the other side!
ptb-824 February 2004
I am bewildered that viewers today think this film is a rip off or they don't see that it is a fact I think it is easily as much a cult comedy as ROCKY HORROR, albeit unappreciated and undiscovered. Dismissed in its day it ended up as a double feature with Rocky Horror and then played endlessly across Australia in the 1970s. It is a very funny film and anyone with a sense of humor can see that it is as silly as it is scary. The cinema in Sydney where it opened in 1974 was the 2200 seat Regent and looked just like the theater in the film. The film was forgotten the theater demolished and now everyone moans. .....yeesh.PHANTOM is great fun and has hilarious songs and satire. Just enjoy it. PHANTOM was filmed in the Majestic Theater in San Antonio Texas, and is famed Architect John Eberson's first 'atmospheric' theater with stars and sky as a ceiling.
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popculturethoughts23 March 2019
This early effort by Brian De Palma has often been referred to as the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" before there was a "Rocky Horror Picture Show," and it's not hard to see why. The two movies have a lot in common: Both have a midnight-movie feel that didn't exist before them, the characters are deliriously over-the-top, there's a healthy mixture of horror, musical and broad comedy, and both wrap things up before they overstay their welcome. The musical numbers are terrific from beginning to end, thanks to an anything-goes 1970s vibe and an engaging blend of dreamy, borderline psychedelic inserts and glam rock posturing not unlike the likes of Jobriath. It's certainly not for everyone, but thanks to its demented take on "Phantom of the Opera," there's a familiarity to the proceedings that makes the whole thing go down easy for open-minded audiences and fans of cult classics.
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Deserves a cult bigger that Rocky Horror!
Infofreak5 December 2002
I usually detest all musicals, with very few exceptions. 'Phantom Of The Paradise' is one of those exceptions. I still can't say I like many of Paul Williams songs (which he as well as playing the mysterious and egotistical record company mogul and producer Swan), but they don't make me want to stop watching the movie, which has a lot more going for it than his so-so score. Brian De Palma, who can be a most frustratingly uneven director, shows there is a lot more to him than attempting to channel Hitchcock. William Finley, who appeared in De Palma's underrated 'Sisters', and who went on to Tobe Hooper's misunderstood trash classic 'Death Trap', is excellent as flaky songwriter Winslow Leach. Jessica Harper, who would achieve screen immortality by starring in Dario Argento's cult favourite 'Suspiria', is very good as wanna-be pop star Phoenix. The late George Memmoli, who never seemed to fulfill his potential despite appearing in some excellent movies such Scorsese's 'Mean Streets' and Shrader's 'Blue Collar', is very amusing as Swan's gopher Philbin. Finally, if nothing else watch this movie to catch Gerritt Graham's hilariously camp turn as effeminate shock-rocker Beef! Graham had appeared in De Palma's two counter culture black comedies 'Greetings' and 'Hi Mom!' (both with Robert De Niro), and subsequently has had one of the oddest careers of any contemporary actor, working with everyone from Louis Malle to Jim Wynorski, starring as "Bud The Chud", and writing for both Disney and the Dead! Graham is a legend in my circle of friends, and playing Beef is a big reason why! 'Phantom Of The Paradise' is a rare beast, a worthwhile rock musical, and in my mind deserves a cult bigger than the incredibly overrated 'Rocky Horror Picture Show'.
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Musical and Horror combine to great effect!
The_Void15 November 2004
Brian De Palma is a filmmaker that takes existing ideas, and regurgitates them into something fresh and original (or at least he tries to). Usually it's Hitchcock that comes under De Palma's 'list of things to tribute', but on this occasion it's the classic tales of 'Phantom of the Opera' and the German legend, 'Faust' that get the honours. De Palma has managed to fuse the two stories into one...very, very weird film.

Winslow Leach is a musician who has his lyrics stolen by the megalomaniac record producer known as 'Swan'. Winslow doesn't take this lightly, and much less so when he gets framed by Swan and sent to Sing-Sing. However, he gets out and while attempting to avenge himself, he ends up falling into a record press, which disfigures his face...ouch. The plot thickens due to the fact that Swan is planning to open up a new rock club known as 'The Paradise', and it's Winslow's lyrics that he wants to use for the opening. However, now scarred and with nowhere to go; Winslow decides to haunt The Paradise with the help of a silly plastic mask...becoming known as 'The Phantom'. But wait! The fun doesn't stop there, as De Palma, not content with an already thick plot has decided to complete the Phantom of the Opera side of the story by adding a girl singer for the phantom to obsess over - here played by Jessica Harper.

This is an important film for Jessica Harper, as it is with this performance that she impressed Dario Argento into giving her a role in her career highlight - 'Suspiria'. It's a shame that Harper didn't make more films, as she has a very cute look that bodes well with the euro-horror feel that is abundant in both this film and, obviously, Suspiria. I'm not sure what Brian De Palma was trying to achieve with this film...there's no real point to it, and the plot is anything but coherent a lot of the time, leading me to believe that he simply wanted to make a flamboyant musical with horror elements, and if that is the case; I dare say he succeeded. Phantom of the Paradise is a lot of fun; the musical numbers are hilariously entertaining, and the movie is very fun overall. Some people won't be able to appreciate it, just because it is so surreal and absurdly weird; but if you're a fan of that type of film, you've come to the right place.

While not as well done as 'Dressed to Kill' or some of De Palma's other tributes, and although the plot can get a little messy at times; Phantom of the Paradise stands out because it's so different to almost anything else ever made, and it comes with a recommendation for that reason.
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Video killed the radio star
tieman649 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"I've been obsessed with this kind of visual storytelling for quite a while, and so try to create material that allows me to explore it." - Brian De Palma

One of director Brian De Palma's best films, "Phantom of the Paradise's" wacky premise gives De Palma carte-blanche to sustain his now-customary exuberance for a film's entire running time. Satirizing glam rock long before anyone else did, "Phantom's" a relentless parade of camera wizardry, inventive sets, kinetic storytelling and breakneck wit. But how do you categorise the film? Glam Rock Gothic Classicism? Baroque Camp Opera? I don't know. I call it weird-ass cinema.

De Palma's film predates "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "MTV", "Greese", "Saturday Night Fever", and "The Little Shop of Horrors" by several years. It's based on a French novel written by Gaston Leroux in 1909, but the film's tone is more akin to Andrew Lloyd Webber's campy "Phantom of the Opera", itself released almost a decade after De Palma's picture.

The plot? Winslow Leach, a talented composer, has his music stolen, is framed for selling drugs and is sent to Sing Sing (a maximum security prison in New York), all at the instigation of Swan, the creepy founder of Death Records. It later turns out that Swan has made a pact with the devil in exchange for eternal youth.

The film's plot is a neat reworking of both "Faust" and "The Phanton of the Opera", but De Palma puts his own spin on things. Swan specialises in taking beautiful things and destroying them, corrupting art with his grotesquely commercial hands. Indeed, Swan's immediate reaction upon hearing Leach's wonderful lyrics (Leach plans to write an album based on Goethe's "Faust") is to taint them by giving Leach's songs to a talentless singer. "That's entertainment!" Swan yells repeatedly, interested only in a kind of Frankenstein combination of profit and sadism.

Later Leach – aptly named, he's always leached from - is maimed by a record-pressing machine, literally made into a hideous monster by the music industry. Ashamed of his appearance, now too ugly to perform in what he deems to be the increasingly superficial world of music TV, Leach becomes the masked Phantom, haunting Swan's new rock place, the Paradise, in the hope of rescuing the girl he loves (Jessica Harper).

The film anticipates De Palma's later work. One sequence, for example, in which Swan uses a sound mixer to slowly "clean up" and "piece together" Leach's damaged voice, resembles a sequence in De Palma's "Blow Out" in which actor John Travolta uses an editing suite to piece together a murder.

Unsurprisingly, Swan's music is preoccupied with death. He creates several nostalgia bands (resurrecting dead genres) and has his Fifties act, "The Juicy Fruits", open the film with a song about a musician who commits suicide in order to become a commercially successful legend. The film as a whole contains a number of musical numbers, some of them very funny, others surprisingly emotional. Pay attention to their lyrics.

Elsewhere De Palma makes several visual and verbal quotes from "The Phantom of the Opera", "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari", "Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Psycho", "The Picture of Dorian Gray", "Touch of Evil", "Manchurian Candidate" and "Citizen Kane". He also heaps on layers of acid-rock satire and parodies everything from DC comics to German silent films, with their expressionistic designs and frenzied decor. But De Palma's "homages" in this film are linked by a strong thematic thread. The similarities between Goethe's "Faust", Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera" and De Palma's own "Phantom of the Paradise" are too numerous to list.

More playful (and pointless?) is De Palma's replication of "Touch of Evil's" famous opening scene. De Palma's humorous version involves a prop car being pushed onto a theatre stage with a time-bomb in its trunk and an increasingly panicky blonde woman in its passenger seat. Using split screens, this event is viewed by both Swan and The Phantom simultaneously. The rest of the film is similarly gaudy; Swan's thugs are dressed as Hells Angels motorcycle gang members, for example, very fitting considering Swan's pact with the devil.

Beyond all this, the film sharpens the political thrust of De Palma's earlier films. In many ways De Palma is creating a cynical portrait of his buddy Geroge Lucas' "American Graffiti", released one year earlier. At one point De Palma even called his film the "anti-graffiti"; the film wages war on the wistfulness of films like "Graffiti", mocking its exploitation of the "50s - early 60s" nostalgia fad and exposing how, in the space of just a decade, the musical industry had drastically changed. Indeed, Swan himself turns to milking 60s nostalgia (Beach Boys etc) when audiences in the 70s are fed up with 50s nostalgia. He's a corporate vampire, simultaneously milking and destroying history, repackaging everything for a youth market increasingly in search of idylls. Like other De Palma films of this period ("Rabbit", "Obsession"), "Paradise" is overtly critical of nostalgia. Elsewhere it satirises, not only the greed, marketing ploys and warped ambitions that pervade the music business, but also the lust of audiences for spectacular entertainment, especially if it involves violence and death.

With its suggestions that violence is supplied as a response to demand, and vice versa (the product creates the desire where none existed prior), the film thus works as a kind of explanatory prologue to the spectacular violence that would inform most of De Palma's subsequence films. Observe, for example, how the musical acts in the film become increasingly violent as the film progresses, moving away from the innocence of 50s pop, through to 60s hippie music, then toward glittery 70s rock and punk, until it predicts a kind of satanic death metal. Neat.

8.9/10 - Worth two viewings.
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Life at Last!
casarino8 January 2016
When Brian DePalma shot "Phantom of the Paradise," the name of Swan's(Paul Williams) record label was "Swan Song." Signs with the record label name were everywhere, as much of the action takes place in Swan's theater, production office, and lair.

Unfortunately, "Swan Song" was already in use - they were Led Zeppelin's label, among other bands. And thanks to an unfortunate coincidence between an event in the movie and the sad, shocking real-life death of Les Harvey, who had ties to Swan Song, the owner of the "real" label promised to sue the pants off Brian DePalma and the studio if they didn't change it.

Problem is, Phantom of the Paradise was already in the can at this point, and in 1974, it was nearly impossible - and way too costly - to fix the signs in some moving shots. So any shot with "Swan Song" in it had to be carefully edited out, ruining several long tracking shots by DePalma.

I bring this up because the only real flaw of Phantom of the Paradise, a goofy, strange, funny, satiric, unsettling, all-around wonderful midnight movie is the omission of these long, gorgeous shots, shots that remind you that DePalma is a visual artist who took this material very seriously. Fortunately, that's the only way stuff like this could possibly work. The story itself is a complex merger of Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and Picture of Dorian Gray, with several other threads, twists, and homages thrown in for good measure, and it works because it has so much heart. Nobody ever winks to the audience, even when things get incredibly weird.

This aesthetic can be seen in the wonderful, juicy lead performances that flirt with the top but never climb over. William Finley, as the hapless Winslow Leach, blends theatrical flourishes with operatic emotion to create an unforgettable Phantom. We're with him, all the way, even when he does some fairly unpleasant things. Paul Williams gives a "delicious" performance as Swan, the evil Phil Spector-like impresario - watch how he turns the tide on the Phantom in their first scene together, mesmerizing his attacker with the promise of employment (and a healthy assortment of drugs). Jessica Harper plays it completely straight as Phoenix, as she must - any unnecessary flourishes would have broken the spell. But best of all is Gerrit Graham, stealing every scene (as he would later in Used Cars) as Beef, the flaming, paranoid, diva-in-the-making, hand-picked by Swan to sing Winslow's music just to irritate him.

No need to say another word about the plot. Sure, there are moments that could have been tweaked a bit - a revelation about Swan, based on an old photograph, would have a stronger impact if it opened the movie, rather than showing up in the third act. But the point is it HAS a plot, and a point. It's stunning, how thoroughly DePalma has seen this nonsense through, finding a line to the end that satisfies the romantic, operatic, classic horror movie, and even satiric setups. You'll want to stand up and cheer at the end.

Then there's the music. If you only know Paul Williams for his emotional ballads - "Rainy Days and Mondays," "The Rainbow Connection," "I Won't Last a Day Without You" - you'll be surprised by the range he shows here. Sure, there are his trademark ballads, like the maybe-too-slow "Old Souls" and the song that first captures Swan's attention, the stunning "Faust." But there are also satirical throwbacks ("Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye," "Upholstery"), glam rockers ("Somebody Super Like You, Life at Last"), even country-rock ("Special to Me"), and they all matter. This isn't a characters- burst-into-song-and-dance kind of musical - the numbers are naturally woven into the story, into stage shows and auditions, into the heads of characters. But the music is crucial to the success of the film, and Williams nails it. The songs aren't quite as fun on their own, but it's still a kick to play the soundtrack and remember the scenes.

"Rocky Horror" gets all the rock n' roll midnight-movie love. But great as "Rocky" is, "Phantom of the Paradise" is its superior in every way; it's funnier, more satisfying, a lot more moving. If you haven't seen it, get yourself a copy, wait until midnight, and fire away.
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Forgotten with time, but I don't know why
karydacunha23 January 2009
Somehow this movie isn't as popular as it should be. Hopefully the remake will bring some attention to this wonderful piece of work. Brian de Palma really creates a dark and twisted mood throughout this film with his style of filming. Some shots throughout the film remind me very much of Stanley Kubrick's work specifically "Clockwork Orange". If you are a fan of either I strongly suggest this film. Also the music is very good. After falling in love with this movie I went and purchased the soundtrack. This is a fantastic movie and as a musical I rank it up with some of my favorites such as "The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Moulin Rouge, Sweeney Todd, and Dancer in the Dark".
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Completely Unique...Beautiful, and Nightmarish Too
roddmatsui11 September 2005
I saw this back when it was new, and it's strange..... At that time, it didn't seem at all remarkable, just another product of the "anything goes" 70's. At that time, it was easily dismissed--just another strange movie in a world full of strange movies.

The film made quite a different impression on me a few years later. I caught it on video around 1990, and was startled, because it became clear that NO ONE had made a film even remotely like it since. This is still the case. "Phantom of the Paradise" stands out. It's comically extreme and consistently tongue-in-cheek, but in the midst of all the laughter, the viewer's heart chips away piece by piece...DePalma baits us with humor, but the real story does its dirty work with ruthless intensity and unflinching truthfulness. There are so many ugly and disturbing moments in this "comedy" that frankly I am surprised at how dark the story is.

It's a satire of the music industry incorporating elements of both "Faust" and "Phantom of the Opera." If you are into its groove, it is watchable, exciting, and clever. It moves with lightning speed, and tells an unpleasant story--it makes you worry about where it will end up going, and then it hurtles towards a bitter ending for all its characters.

Wonderful sad fantasy with dynamite musical score and lyrics by Paul Williams. Immensely entertaining and hypnotic.
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DePalma's best ever
lee_eisenberg12 May 2005
In this melange of "The Phantom of the Opera", "Faust", "Beauty and the Beast" and a few others, musician Winslow Leach's (William Finley) music is stolen by death-obsessed rock impresario Swan (Paul Williams). When Leach attempts to take revenge, his face is smashed in a record press, and he becomes "The Phantom" and begins haunting Swan's music empire.

But it does not end there. The Phantom and Swan make a deal. But part of the deal allows Swan to pull some unseemly tricks. Above all, the Phantom wants to make sure that only diva Phoenix (Jessica Harper) can sing his music.

DePalma was clearly showing not only the slimy tricks within the music industry, but also how the performers were starting to get very outlandish. The character Beef (Gerrit Graham) is basically an exaggeration of this.

Certainly a movie that everyone should see.
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Finally getting the praise it deserves
tomgillespie200223 February 2014
For those who are familiar with the great work Brian De Palma did throughout the 1970's and 80's, his bright, energetic glam-rock opera Phantom of the Paradise may seem like something of an oddity. It's a spin on The Phantom of the Opera, with elements of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray, told within the context of the music business, who De Palma and scorer/star Paul Williams obviously hold some level of disdain for. While this may differ tonally and perhaps thematically to De Palma's more popular works, Phantom embodies the mixture of flair and homage that De Palma perfected, which many label him a rip-off merchant for (though I strongly disagree).

Sad-sack composer Winslow (William Finley) is overheard playing his Faustian opera by the powerful and mysterious music producer Swan (Williams). Swan is on the cusp of opening his new theatre The Paradise, and feels Winslow's music is perfect for his vision of nostalgia and kitsch. Winslow offers his work to Swan, but is never called or paid for his contribution. Seeking answers, he arrives at Swan Records to see an endless line of women, including Phoenix (Jessica Harper), auditioning to be a backing singer and singing his songs. He is thrown out, framed for drug possession and sentenced to life in prison. But Winslow escapes and, after being mutilated by a record press, seeks vengeance on Swan.

For all it's visual pizazz, where Phantom lacks is within the casting. Finley, who had worked with De Palma the year before in Sisters and who sadly died in 2012, struggles to make his character empathetic. Williams, while certainly looking the part, lacks the presence to convince that he would be able to wield such a control on his underlings. Harper, while cute as a button, lacks the charisma to really justify Wimslow's obsession over her. The only actor to really impress is Gerrit Graham as glam-rock God Beef, who behind the scenes is a fussy little queen. Beef is no doubt Paul Williams' stab at all those self- important diva's he unavoidably came into contact with during his time as a musician.

But with a bright and bouncy film such as this, the acting plays second fiddle to the visuals and the music. While the music may not be catchy in the same way as Phantom's close relation The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), in context they contemplate De Palma's camera. All of De Palma's visual ticks are there - crane shots, long takes, split-screen - and it even throws in a homage to Psycho (1960), only with a plunger. It makes for quite an exhausting experience, but you only really need to hold your breath and dive in, and it's really quite easy to fall in love with it. It was unfairly panned by critics and ignored by movie-goers on it's release, but with De Palma's early films getting positive re- evaluation with various Blu-Ray releases, Phantom is finally getting the praise it deserves.
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I've loved this movie since 1974 when I was 15
LadyBeth1017 March 2013
This is one of those rare films that unfortunately flew under the radar. I hope that is no longer the case. I had a copy of this and watched it over and over over the years, but I lost my DVD. Just watched it again and DVR'd it from cable. God how I still love this movie!! Very operatic and melodramatic. If you are a lover of musicals, Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Beauty and the Beast must get the tongue in cheek humor, the glam rock "Kiss" references, and the ultimate tragedy of a talented geek who had the unfortunate luck of meeting the Devil. Paul Williams' understated and perfect pitch portrayal of Swan is wonderfully perverse with a good dose of wink, wink, nudge, nudge... His cherubic outer image juxtaposing his inner evil was simply delicious! (I'm licking my lips. Can you tell?) And his score is still strong enough to pull me back through the years to a magically specific point in time. I'm really pushing for a musical on Broadway. This is just a natural for that venue! And Mr. Williams could expand on his score. It would be perfection. It's nice to know I can still dream.....
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Very Contemporary. Great Modern Horror And Great Rock Opera
johnstonjames23 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
this is a excellent horror musical that blends Gothic and modern themes together with stunning effect. it makes the current rock scene and music industry appear like something out of a Gothic novel.

the music is just great. i've always felt that Paul Williams was a underrated music genius. the music he's done for cinema is memorable and this work in particular smacks of brilliance. it's too bad it wasn't better appreciated and Williams might have written more ambitious musicals like this one.

i also think that Williams is underrated as a actor too. he may be of small stature, but he is very suave and his performance generates a debonair sophistication. his vocal talent is also effective and top notch.

the rest of the cast is also swinging and gives off excellent vibes with their rock abilities. Depalma's direction is also hilariously theatrical and fun and lively.

a definite must for fans of rock and classic rock in particular, as well as lots to appease fans in the horror genre. a true classic and wickedly gleeful fun.
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Give Rocky a rest.
BA_Harrison1 March 2012
As far as rock/horror/comedy/musicals are concerned, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has by far the most dedicated cult following, but in my opinion, Brian De Palma's oft-overlooked Phantom of the Paradise is just as deserving of such fervent admiration: its tunes might not be as 'instant' as those in Richard O'Brien's classic, meaning that an audience sing-a-long is unlikely, but the film manages to blend the same genres in as equally entertaining a manner.

To tell his tragic tale of betrayal and love—a wicked combination of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera, with just a soupçon of Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure—director Brian De Palma imbues proceedings with a garish comic-book look to complement the outlandish rock opera excess, delivers some neat horror references for fans of the genre (including a hilarious homage to Psycho's shower scene), stages several magnificent musical numbers (words and music by the brilliant Paul Williams, who also stars as the film's villain, powerful record producer Swan), and ends the film in a suitably chaotic manner.

Next time you feel yourself yearning to do the time-warp yet again, why not decide to give Rocky and pals a rest, and try the Phantom for a change—you won't regret it.
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I thought I was the only one who liked this movie.
ronshafer27 September 2018
I watched this in the theater when it came out in 74 and didn't really care for it at first because I thought it was going to be more of a science fiction film. I don't like musicals, ( You couldn't pay me to watch Mamma Mia.) but that's not the big part of the movie it is just a vehicle of the film. That being said I do like a lot of the songs and music and as it turns out it is a science fiction movie. This really grew on me over the years but nobody I ever loaned the tape to, yes I said tape, liked the movie, everybody hated it. I think the movie is brilliant but very dated now and it has a lot of silly parts to it and I feel it begs to be remade. We don't need another giant ape movie but this could be a great endeavor.
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