Even if you’re a devoted movie buff, you probably haven’t seen Phantom of the Paradise. I’m not here to tell you that you should. I just saw it recently for the second time; the first time was in the late 1970s. There’s been a lot of brain cells under the bridge since then, and the time has come for me to recalibrate my relationship with this movie.
Phantom debuted in theaters on Halloween day, 1974. It was little noted at the time; such notice as it did receive was pretty uniformly negative. I first saw it in a second-run theater on a double feature with Young Frankenstein in about 1977. I was there with my mom and a couple of siblings and we were really there to see the Mel Brooks offering; none of us had ever heard of the other one. Here’s the first clue that I’ve changed a little over the years: I regard Young Frankenstein as an utter classic today, possibly Mel’s best movie, but on that night in 1977, we all agreed that the better movie was Phantom of the Paradise.
I will not recount the plot of Phantom in detail, but I would describe it as a blend of Faust, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and a few others, set to a rock and roll beat in a garish, over-the-top style. The most recognizable face is that of Paul Williams, who plays Swan, a music industry mogul who has sold his soul to the devil. Williams also wrote the movie’s score. It is also worth noting that this movie marked the film debut of Jessica Harper, who went on to roles in Love and Death, My Favorite Year, and Shock Treatment, among others. I went out a few weeks after I saw the movie and bought the soundtrack album, though it was loaned out never to be seen again only a few years later.
Fast forward to 2005. My mother passed away in May. She had amassed a collection of videos numbering in the hundreds. My dad made it clear that he didn’t want any of them, and anything we kids didn’t take would be donated somewhere or tossed altogether. I perused her shelves and . . . well, lookie what we’ve got here! Mom had bought her very own copy of Phantom, which is now my very own copy. I watched it recently, and I have to tell you, I could hardly believe it was the same movie. Here’s my brand new review, circa 2006:
Let’s get the bad stuff out right up front. This movie is a mess. The acting is generally dreadful, and even where it isn’t, the actors’ efforts are wasted on a screenplay that sounds as if it were assembled through a combination of inconsistently utilized hallucinogenics and a dialogue dart-board. Even the lip-synching is crappy. In terms of production values, the movie needed either a lot more or a lot less spent on it. Brian DePalma wrote and directed it, and he has directed some memorable flicks (e.g., Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables), although this one has helped me to more clearly see what defines DePalma’s work. I would put it this way: In his best work, DePalma raises lack of subtlety to an art form. But alas, in Phantom, he has not yet found the “art form” half of the equation. And yet . . .
. . . and yet, there are gems to be seen sparkling in the cat litter. Paul Williams’ score is snappy, tuneful, and fun. One of the best songs is Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye. It is sung by The Juicy Fruits, a 50s nostalgia act, and it tells the story of Eddie, whose sister needs an operation to save her life. Eddie is a struggling singer, and the only way to get the money is for Eddie to become an overnight sensation. Eddie does this by killing himself, thus making him a national sob story. To quote the lyrics, “Well, you did it Eddie, and though it’s hard to applaud suicide, you gave all you could give so your sister could live, all America’s choked up inside!” Cynical? You bet. But a catchy, sweet little poisoned dagger of a song. And there was something I hadn’t realized before about these songs in the context of the movie – many of them are cut off early or are sung behind dialogue, obscuring and diffusing a lot of Williams’ fine work. I know them as well as I do from listening to the album, which I’ve just bought again on CD. There’s also the aforementioned debut of Jessica Harper. She’s a quietly captivating screen presence, and I can remember thinking that I’d happily see more of her. While her career has never really taken off, she’s worked pretty steadily ever since and has amassed a long list of movie and TV credits.
But I come back to the frustrating experience of the film as a whole. What’s frustrating is that one occasionally gets a glimpse of the movie it could have been. Problem is, in order to make that movie, you’d have to begin by utterly tossing this screenplay; not a line could be left standing upon a line. Characters would have to be added, subtracted, reconceived, and recast. And frankly, why would anyone want to go to all that trouble? Why remake a movie that was a box office dud the first time around? If I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that Phantom of the Paradise probably belongs exactly where it is now – buried in the plastic tastelessness of the 1970s. It is an artifact of that time. I’ve only just recently gotten cable TV again after a hiatus of about 9 years, so I don’t know whether this movie ever shows up there, but I’ve done what I can to prepare you for the experience. For that matter, if you have seen it, I’d love to hear someone else’s take on it.
Jessica Harper as Phoenix
Paul Williams as Swan and William Finley as the Phantom