Phantom of the Paradise ★★★★

Ranked: Brian De Palma

A mishmash of various influences, most predominantly Phantom of the Opera, Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise is exactly what one would expect from a De Palma horror comedy musical. It is insane. It is violent. It is Hitchcockian. It has split-screens. It has women in peril. It has obsession. This film is often insane, but does have great music and is thoroughly thrilling, while De Palma finds comedy in the insane exuberance of the show and Swan's (Paul Williams) vanity and quest for youth and power. With many of De Palma's usual traits, this tale of a songwriter who has his work stolen, is disfigured, and begins to sabotage the resultant musical is a classic all the same and De Palma's stylistic infusion only improves the foundation. A great horror comedy musical, the film is a lot of fun to watch unfold, but even more fun to analyze and pick out De Palma's touch on the film.

Firstly, the camera work is very De Palma, in particular the split-screens. There are a few here, none truly notable though. Instead, the major contribution in this arena is when Winslow/The Phantom (William Finley) views the tape of Swan selling his soul and then getting Phoenix (Jessica Harper) to do the same years later. Viewing this all on security footage, there are multiple screens. One shows Winslow himself, another the ongoing show, and another shows an assassin hired to kill Phoenix. As with all other times where De Palma shows the tension in this fashion (films such as Sisters or Passion), this sequence is incredibly tense. Will Winslow find the assassin in time or will his beloved Phoenix die because of her bond to Swan? The mystery as to where the assassin is and the tension with him closing in on pulling the trigger is fantastic, especially when De Palma uses a point of view iris to put us right inside the assassin's field of view as he focuses in his gun on Phoenix's head. The use of iris once again feels reminiscent to a particularly hypnotic usage of it in De Palma's Sisters, which came out one year prior to this work.

De Palma also shows off the Hitchcock influence in his work with a recreation of the Psycho shower scene as The Phantom closes in on Beef (Gerrit Graham), a terrible singer tasked with performing Winslow's cantata. Furious that such a bad singer would perform the role of Faust and steal the show away from Phoenix, he attacks Beef while in the shower with a knife. He does not kill him then, but certainly puts fear into his heart. This obsession is what drove him to kill and is akin to the obsession portrayed in Psycho in regards to Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother. For Winslow, nobody else can have Phoenix, even if he barely knows her. Those who harm her or prevent her from reaching stardom must be executed. His obsession continues through a use of split-screen as Winslow watches through a glass window as Swan and Phoenix become more intimate. Clearly featuring Hitchcock's trademark voyeurism in this sequence, more akin that found in Rear Window or De Palma's Body Double or Femme Fatale, Winslow keeps an eye on the proceedings through the window. But, Swan sees him and turns on a security camera to capture his actions. The resultant split-screen is a menacing twist on the voyeurism often deployed in his work.

De Palma's touch also comes via the obsession and Winslow's inherent need to protect Phoenix. His films often portray women in peril and these sequences often feel filled with fear for the dangers that face women in the world. Phoenix is exploited and the other female singers are objectified and forced to have sex with Swan to get a part in the show. They are used and tossed out. While De Palma is often criticized as a sexist, just as Hitchcock is and was, this is not done to sexualize the women. Instead, it is done to demonize men such as Swan who take the beauty of women and opt to pervert and destroy it for their own personal gain. It is a very paternal and forlorn take on objectification of women feels incredibly depressing in that fashion. While it is distressing due to the controlling and obsessed feeling it instills, I would hardly say it comes from malicious intent. Rather, it is concern and a warning about what the true and ugly face of show business truly is and could present for women that do not know any better.

Thematically, Phantom of the Paradise touches on a variety of topics. Of course, artistic integrity is at the forefront as Winslow fears his work being distorted by the hands of big business. Big business takes the bait and distorts his work, shutting out Winslow and forcing him to sell his soul to even write any of the work and get credit for that work. He is systematically controlled and silenced and, as such, the film feels as though it is a critique of the studio system and the way in which artists slave to create great art, but it is then misconstrued and distorted by those who do not understand that work and what makes it great. On a similar line of critique, the film often functions as a social critique of rock. With bands such as the Jelly Fruits shown as being unartistic hacks, Beef being celebrated, and dumb young rock fans celebrating his death and violent dismemberment of stage props, rock fans are shown as very animalistic morons. Though this is a rock musical, there is a clear contempt and admonishment placed towards the fans of the genre and the way they conduct themselves at shows. The crowd is raucous and frequently storm the stage, even when people are killed. Instead of assisting them in their time of need, the stupid fans just hoist up their bleeding corpse and celebrate them as the party rages on.

The film also takes on a heavy religious slant as Swan sells his soul and then convinces Winslow and Phoenix to also sell their soul. The parallel between Swan and Winslow's rock cantata on Faust, a man who sold his soul, is clear. Yet, the most interesting touch is the very end. Having had Winslow rewrite the musical, the ending is changed from Faust burning in hell to a wedding between Swan and Phoenix. Though Swan knows what his true fate is and that he cannot go back on his deal with the devil, he still wishes to escape this fate, while remaining young forever. This rewrite is quite clear in that matter as it shows his underlying desire to escape his deal and become a normal person again. Unfortunately, he is so vain, that is impossible as he could never sacrifice his beauty, even if it is for his soul.

A very well-written musical, Phantom of the Paradise balances very good music with De Palma's traits and some classic De Palma thematic explorations. Fun, comedic, musical, and horrifying, Phantom of the Paradise is a very good film that finds beauty in its absurdity and comedy in its over-the-top nature.

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