The 1970s were a very unique time for the entertainment industry. Now well past the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” it was clear that change was on the horizon. There was more and more that you could now get away with doing in films during this time, the barriers of censorship lessening. Thus, this was around when dark comedies began to arise.
As time progressed beyond the 70s and 80s however, those dark comedies, which were used as a riveting way to make a statement, would become less and less common. This could be because doing a proper dark comedy is more difficult a task to pull off than it seems. There’s much more pathos that are involved than just shocking the audience or being downright raunchy or risqué. This is something Brian DePalma’s 1974 musical-horror-comedy film, Phantom of the Paradise, manages to master gracefully. It always tows the line between tasteful and tasteless, realism and ridiculousness, but it can always be reeled back in.
Phantom of the Paradise tells the story of Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), a singer-songwriter, who has put everything he has into his cantata, which tells the story of Faust, the German magician who sells his soul to the devil. In a classic representation of life imitating art, that’s precisely what happens to Winslow when Swan, the all-powerful record mogul acquires Winslow’s music. Swan (played brilliantly by Paul Williams), is the sort of character that would put the cliché of sleazy record producers of that era to shame. Swan is determined to make sure Winslow Leach never sees the light of day. Discarded, framed, deprived, (and winding up assumingly dead after a humorous mishap), Winslow vows to haunt Swan’s newly opened Paradise Theater, at which his cantata is premiering. In addition to this tale of one man’s vengeance, you’ve got the love story between Winslow and Phoenix, the singer he’s chosen to sing his cantata, (played by Jessica Harper), as well as a story of greed, a story of fame, and a story of deceit.
This story seems to serve as a great social commentary. It shows just how much greed and change takes us over, and the sacrifices we must make to have these aspirations met. It also does a tremendous job of holding a mirror up to the music industry of the time, and how record labels were insistent (much like movie studios) of having a hold on a performer, signing them up with long-term contracts. No longer is that artist an independent. They have now become a commodity. And that’s what this film does best, is expose that mentality for precisely what it is.
In a story so intricate and so meta, where you have multiple storylines weaved in so seamlessly to one plot point, it’d be rather easy to lose sight of what is going on. Thankfully, Brian DePalma, in what might just be his best work, never allows the film to drift off too far into the realm utter ridiculousness, while also maintaining card-carrying membership of all things hilariously bizarre. The story never manages to astray to the point of no return because of this. And unlike other musicals, the songs are weaved in a way where they are not random; They always make sense within the story. Nobody breaks into song; The song is apart of the plot. Not to mention, the score by Paul Williams may be one of the best scores of the 1970s, spanning so many different genres, you’d believe they were all composed by varying different artists.
Even with all of this, the film was not well-received (or even received much at all) when it was released in America. However, it gained a cult following in two places: Winnipeg and Paris. Why those two places? Perhaps that’s just something that adds to the mystique lore.
Over the years, the film has largely been regarded as a key director’s sort of film. It has influenced many renowned directors, among them: Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino, and Guillermo Del Toro. In fact, if you look closely at the Phantom’s get-up, you’ll notice a voice-box that is given to him by Swan. If this looks familiar, that may be because 3 years after Phantom was released, George Lucas used the same voice-box concept for Darth Vader. However, much like The Simpsons, Phantom did it first.
Ever since its release in 1974, slowly but surely the film has garnered the recognition and cult it certainly deserves. Though sadly never achieving the Midnight-fame Rocky Horror obtained, Phantom of the Paradise has become a great staple in the horror-comedy cult genre. It’s very niche, but if you’re into that sort of thing, then it will surely be a scream. In fact, so successful it has become that an annual “Phantompalooza” is held every year in Winnipeg. Additionally, documentarian Malcolm Ingram is wrapping up a documentary on the film’s phenomenon entitled Phantom of Winnipeg.
“I think the film works because it’s so unpredictable,” says Peter Elbling, who plays one of the Juicy Fruits, a fictional band, in the film. “Aside from Rocky Horror it’s really the only rock horror comedy musical that I know of. I think the blend of those elements are what makes it work and why it’s timeless because the music is really terrific.”
But what exactly makes something a cult film? That surely will remain a mystery. There’s no specific recipe for a ‘cult film’. It is simply something that happens organically. A film can’t just be declared a cult film; the audience has to come to it. It is predicated so largely on word-of-mouth, moreso than any sort of advertising campaigns. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book. People just have to get talking about it.
And that’s what the true beauty of Phantom of the Paradise is. To this day, people keep talking about it. Slowly but surely, the cult of the Paradise is growing larger and larger. And it’s all because the film succeeded where so many comedies failed. The key to satirizing something is to treat it like it is not a comedy at all, but a serious drama. It’s just like Airplane. The movie works because the actors, all classically trained dramatic actors, played the movie entirely straight. And the same can be said for Phantom of the Paradise.