Phantom of the Paradise ★★★★

Brian De Palma is a director who is highly praised by nearly everyone I follow here on Letterboxd. I have one thing to confess about him and his oeuvre, and that is that I haven't watched much of it. Maybe it's because I have yet to watch some of his films from his peak years, such as Blow Out and Dressed to Kill, but I've just never felt that compelled to check out his other films. Now that I've seen Phantom of the Paradise a horror rock opera inspired by works such as Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and a hint of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I might change my mind for the better on going through De Palma's work in the future.


To begin with, this film has some amazing production and costume design. It all works wonders in terms of lifting this film from being more than a goofy rock opera to one that has poignancy and dread to it, even when it has some truly silly elements to it. The cinematography by Larry Pizer is great as well, as the use of washed-out colors worked brilliantly to foreshadow the illusory nature of every main character's personal success, while the close shots further heightened the restricted creative freedom that weighs Winslow (William Finley) down. De Palma's blend of genres work surprisingly well in terms of showing a 1970's update of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera, in which excess and decadence both are themes that play a bigger, and less subtle, part in the overall story. The lack of subtlety honestly did not become much of a problem for me, as the film just had a lot of fun with itself, best evidenced through Beef (Gerrit Graham), the cut-rate version of David Lee Roth that is hired as the star of Swan's (Paul Williams) opera show, a character who is so balls-out terrible at singing and performing that you can only fall in love with his lack of talent and rampant diva behavior.


Where the film becomes less impressive for me is the acting and some tonal flatness. I found most of the performances wooden, and some of them, such as Jessica Harper's Phoenix, suffers from being underwritten, which makes them come off as rather bland. Also, whenever the film wanted to be taken seriously, I just couldn't get myself to do it. The excess is fun to watch, but when the film wants to go in a tragic direction, it just falls flat. The circumstances for the tragedy is so melodramatic that it's just funny. I mean, Winslow becomes the Phantom because he escaped music prison! Swan is eternally young because of a horribly contrived reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but now including a deal with the Devil, because this film is inspired primarily by Faust! Come on, don't take yourself this seriously in these moments; revel in your insanity instead of trying to turn this into a Greek tragedy. Especially since the short runtime doesn't merit those epic proportions of drama that De Palma wants to reach.


In conclusion, Phantom of the Paradise can feel a bit messy at times, but it is still a glorious excercise in camp rock horror with amazing design that I can only recommend.

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