director Brian De Palma
You think you know Brian De Palma. Director of a number of excellent films in the 1970’s-1980’s and a few notable films in the time since. His greatness, or lacking in greatness, might be encapsulated in seeing him as a stylist with a rich visual aesthetic, though perhaps shallow in ways that might allow for a more auteurist assessment of his films. But if you go back to his earliest work, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, you might gain a perspective on an altogether different filmmaker.
Riffing off the Faust narrative, De Palma envisions The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as “rock” opera and the resultant horror-fantasy-cum-musical is a spiritual sibling and predecessor of the far more famous camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), not to mention a cult classic all its own, though culturally more obscure.
Obscure as it may be for some, I think I’ve been aware of Phantom of the Paradise for virtually all of my life. I think it was in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or other writings about horror films that I first saw images and references to the movie, and it has more or less lingered as one of those movies that I need to get around to seeing for all of that time. Though it wasn’t until this Sunday that I finally got a chance to watch it courtesy of a friend who is an avid fan and his Blu-Ray disc.
I don’t know if it’s the Blu-Ray, but the movie is gorgeous.
De Palma’s signature split-screen shots are there (has anyone done this better?) but the whole production design and cinematography are beautiful. For such an oddball, camp flick, it’s about as good-looking a movie as you’re like to find.
William Finley plays Winslow Leach, the composer who gets ripped off, disfigured, and imprisoned by the nefarious impresario Swan (the wonderful and weird Paul Williams, who also wrote all the music for the film and performed the voice of “The Phantom”.) The gorgeous and beautifully-voiced Jessica Harper is Phoenix, the woman and the heart of the story. There are a lot of great smaller roles throughout as well.
But the whole thing is a comic and camp phantasmagoria of rock’n’roll, pop, theater, sex, fame, and a hilarious skewering of the music industry through a prism of artsy oddity. It’s pretty frickin’ brilliant.
I don’t know what else to say about it other than I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to seeing it. Great, fun stuff!