Phantom of the Paradise (1974): De Palma's Tale of Rock, Roll, and Revenge

Today’s selection for Terrifying Tuesday might be a little light on the terror, but it gains plenty of horror cachet by taking its inspiration from Phantom of the Opera, Dorian Grey, and Faust. Plus, Paul Williams, even if he did write “The Rainbow Connection“, is a creepy little dude. The film in question is Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock/horror/comedy Phantom of the Paradise. The inspiration for the film hit him when he was in an elevator and heard a Beatles song as muzak. It made him dwell on how corporations take artistic endeavors and boil away what made it special in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. After combining these thoughts with the aforementioned horror classics and the tunes of the aforementioned creepy Paul Williams, De Palma created a truly original work.

The film follows the downfall of songwriter/composer Winslow (William Finley) whose cantata, based on the story of Faust, is taken by super producer Swan (Paul Williams) as the perfect piece to open his new venue, The Paradise. Swan steals the cantata away and frames Winslow for drug dealing. After breaking out of jail, Winslow goes on a rampage in Swan’s record factory which leads to him getting his face stuck in a record press. Donning a mask and costume, Winslow becomes The Phantom, and agrees to finish the cantata if Swan will cast Phoenix (Jessica Harper) in the lead role. The producer, of course, double crosses The Phantom, steals the finished music, and casts the glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham) in the lead. The Phantom pledges to ruin the production, and soon he discovers that Swan is part of his own Faustian bargain.

Phantom of the Paradise was De Palma’s fourth major production following the trio of films, Hi Mom (1970), Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), and Sisters (1973), that established him as one of the up and coming directors in the business. The studios were not keen on De Palma’s script, and so he started shopping the idea to record companies finally getting somewhere when an A&M executive introduced him to Paul Williams. At the time Williams was an in demand composer with hits like The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” on his resume. Originally, De Palma wanted Williams to write the songs, but after getting to know Williams, De Palma thought that the composer should take on the part of the wronged songwriter Winslow. At first, Williams agreed, but then he decided that he could not be menacing enough as The Phantom and instead agreed to play Swan.

Williams' portrayal of the super evil super producer is dead on, and this is only enhanced by his long floppy hair, large tinted glasses, and short stature. He seemed like an evil executive who was trying to be hip. The character was loosely based on producer Phil Spector, and in fact the character had been called Specter in early drafts. That wasn’t the only name change that went on in the film. Swan was intended to be the CEO of a media conglomerate called Swan Song, but after Led Zeppelin’s manager created a real record label called Swansong, the film, which had already been shot, had to be altered to replace mentions of Swan Song with Death Records. Unfortunately for De Palma’s well made film, some places where the logos had to be changed look really clumsily done and it takes away from the picture. De Palma also thought it took away from the picture and its indictment of corporate greed to reduce Swan to simply a producer. However, looking at it through a prism of modern times, when so much of music is controlled by producers, it seems just as meaningful.

Though Williams is not the star of the film, he nearly steals the picture away from William Finley as Winslow/The Phantom. Thankfully, Finley has some great comic moments before and after he becomes The Phantom. My favorite scene has to be when Winslow, in fully caped and bird masked Phantom garb, uses a plunger to attack glam rocker Beef in the shower. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone be menaced with a plunger before, but both Finley and Gerrit Graham sell the scene perfectly. Graham was another highlight of the film, and his performance as the fey rocker was probably the strongest full on comedic performance in the film.

There are a couple of other actors I’d like to briefly mention. First off is Jessica Harper. Not only did she beat Linda Ronstadt out for the role, she sang and acted the part beautifully. Harper really sold the ingenue role perfectly, and it made me wonder if Dario Argento saw Phantom of the Paradise before he cast Harper in his film Susperia. It definitely seems like De Palma’s film would have appealed to the Italian director. The other actor that I want to mention has the other purely comedic performance in the film, and that is George Memmoli as Swan’s right hand man Philbin. Memmoli, who also appears in one of my favorite films, Mean Streets, is delightfully sleazy throughout and has a kind of faux hippie air around his character that I found really interesting.

When Phantom of the Paradise was released, it was not a rousing success. In fact few people really got the picture, though strangely it was a massive hit in the Canadian city of Winnipeg running for four and half months and selling over 20,000 soundtrack albums. (For more info check out the interesting essay Why Winnipeg?) In the intervening years Phantom of the Paradise has grown as cult film, but it hasn’t ever reached the wide appeal of the other well known rock/horror/musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. De Palma went on to direct Scarface and Carrie, Williams wrote the hit song Evergreen from A Star Is Born and basically all the classic Muppet songs, and The Phantom of the Paradise became a cult classic that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. I can’t recommend this film enough. It has a little something for fans of comedy, horror, and even musicals to enjoy. So check it out, but don’t let Paul Williams creep you out too much.

Bugg Rating


  1. Keep thinking I was going to do this one on my blog, but you beat me to it! I love this film, and serves for me what Rocky Horror (which I've never enjoyed, on its own or in a crowd) serves for other people.

    It's appropriate that my two favorite DePalma films, The Phantom of the Paradise and Obsession came out back-to-back, and that except for a love of cinema, they are so radically different from each other.

    The song "Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye," is a great rock number that should've been rediscovered and covered many times over. Can't believe the price you paid for love.

  2. Excellent review as always, T.L.! And this is definitely one of my absolute favorites of De Palma's work, as mentioned in my own review of this little number. I think it's actually one of my more popular reviews, even!

  3. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJanuary 19, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    Jessica Harper was such a gorgeous little darlin` back in `74.

  4. One of my all-time favorite genre mash-ups.

  5. Glad there are some folks out there giving this film some love.

    @Ryan- First off, how could you have never enjoyed Rocky Horror? That boggles my mind honestly. Second, I also like Obsession very much, but I have a soft spot for Sisters which I need to get around to reviewing. The songs are all great. Paul Williams acted creepy, but he sang (as The Phantom's singing voice) divinely and wrote sublimely.

    @Bill- It's a great film an there's so much to take in. I think that's why I go back to it.

    @Snob- that's true! she looked much better here than Susperia.

    @Nate- Couldn't have said it more concisely.

  6. Hi.

    Love the review! I'm actually a Winnipegger and have never declared that fact more proudly, that when I'm connecting it with this movie! I had the singular honor of getting to meet and HUG William Finley and have both parts of Goethe's Faust autographed by him!

    As far as 'creepy' Paul Williams' and his supposed connection with the song Evergreen, from A Star is Born, you can file this under the 'Truth is stranger than fiction' category;

    Despite the 'collaboration' on the song, Streisand has NEVER ceased to call the song HERS, period, pretty much from the get go. I THINK she mentioned Williams ONCE,back in the day, but ever since it's been 'MY SONG'! The song she wrote 'HERSELF'. As in solo. As in, "The Juicy Fruits singing STREISAND'S EVERGREEN", if you're looking for a cinematic comparative. At every concert, she performs it as her....trophy. NOT simply because she won an Oscar for it, but because, for all intents and purposes, she beat williams out of it. He may have 'legal' credit, but Barb's constant and CONSISTANT insistence that the song is hers, and hers, ALONE, has stuck with most Streisand fans. And the MAIN reason for her success on that front is that...well, paul williams is NO Winslow Leach OR William Finley. Winslow went to the limit for what was his and William Finley braved the record plant scene after a rehearsal nearly did to him what the machine did to poor Winslow. Keep in mind that he was nearly injured for SOMEONE ELSE'S MUSIC while williams didn't have the gumption to stand up to Barbra for what once his. As I already pointed out, he MAY have a credit, but as far as the public forum is concerned, Evergreen is Barbra's, period! And whenever Phantom is talked about, and the song 'Faust' comes up, I can always be counted on to cause a controversy by declaring that it was written by Winslow Leach.

  7. Mrs OReilly,

    this is one of the most fabulous comments ever left in the history of The Lair, and I thank you for it.

    I knew about the Evergreen controversy, but as I am a massive fan of all of Paul Williams I had to give credit to my man. Thanks for the additional background it makes for a great addendum.


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