This psychedelic pantomime is a smorgasbord of delinquent riches
Brian De Palma’s delirious rock-opera horror spoof, Phantom of the Paradise, tumbles its helter-skelter way onto UK Blu-ray, courtesy of genre champions, Arrow Video.
Turning the classic tale of The Phantom of the Opera upside down and injecting it with ego-inflated obsessional insanity, and hauling it over the coals of 70’s musical excess, his psychedelic pantomime is a smorgasbord of delinquent riches. William Finley’s rock singer/writer Winslow doesn’t just have his work stolen by industry impresario, Swan (Paul Williams), but he is also beaten and maimed and driven insane. Returning to seek his revenge on the real monster, he inadvertently discovers the perfect voice and performer for his music in the sexy and diminutive form of Jessica Harper’s hip gypsy, Phoenix.
De Palma delivers a discordant and raucous mock thriller that boasts incredible set design and inventive, low-budget cinematography. Finley is off the wall, whilst Williams simply plays himself, albeit in a highly exaggerated guise. But the real talent is Harper. Soon to be Suspiria’s witch-battling heroine, Harper was also a genuinely talented singer and dancer, and her artistic “discovery” here is a revelation in a film that deliberately plays hopscotch with the formula. Colourful, fun and intentionally cheesy and abstract, Phantom has a giddy sense of humour and a queasy momentum that never outstays its welcome. After the savage Sisters, De Palma’s avant-garde style was still finding its niche, and whilst this will just bewilder some people, it is a flamboyant exercise in insane creativity.
Nobody would claim the film to be a classic, but then there are precious few examples of the horror-rock-spoof-fest to compete with its anarchic freewheeling approach to such archetypal material, and its liberally observant sending-up of the music industry and the counter-culture attitude of the funky and flamboyant seventies. Directed with verve and an over-abundance of stylistic joi-de-vive, this works best as parody, but for those of you who like such things, you can sit back and enjoy spotting the seeds that have quietly influenced other films.
Rocky Horror is too obvious, but check out the electronic voice-simulator on the Phantom’s chest for the genesis of Darth Vader’s control panel, and Winslow’s obscene, dribbling metal replacement teeth (Richard Kiel’s Jaws) and his hooked nose mask and blackened makeup (put ‘em together with the teeth … and you have Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns!) The blonde hair and pizza-face image would be reborn in Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and the film’s gaudiness, set design and neon-gothic sensibility can also be said to have been filtered into Argento’s Suspiria, alongside the delectable Jessica Harper, who must have brought along a fair old chunk of its rock-opera sensibility as well.
Far from amateurish, as some snipes have claimed, this is deliberately oddball and grotesquely fascinating. And Arrow’s release comes highly recommended indeed… for those who properly dig it.
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