Phantom of the Paradise ★★★½

Film #28 of 33 in my Hoop-Tober 2017 challenge

Can you dig it! A musical for Hoop-Tober! It's a rock opera horror comedy, written and directed by Brian De Palma. Yeah, baby, dig it! And it fulfills exactly none of the requirements for this challenge because it's my fourth of six "free choices" this year. D-d-d-d-dig it!

Let's start with a couple of admissions. First, the story is highly derivative. It borrows flagrantly from Arthur Lubin's film "The Phantom of the Opera" (1943) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play "Faust," with no apologies for referencing Mary Shelley's classic "Frankenstein", Oscar Wilde's novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado," or Orson Welles' film "A Touch of Evil" (1958). It is a homage, not an imitation.

Second, composer Paul Williams, who stars in the film as the Elton John-looking satanic record producer Swan, wrote all ten of the film's original songs, including the satirical opening number "Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye," the oft reprised "Faust," and the closing number "The Hell of It." He richly deserved the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations he got for his score here. If you enjoy music, you have got to enjoy this.

As the film begins, YESSSSSS ... that's uncredited Rod Serling narrating the opening. Then we get The Juicy Fruits singing before Swan "discovers" talented singer-songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley), who wants to create a musical version of "Faust" for the theater. Talent manager Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) tricks Leach into handing over his music to review and, before we know it, Swan is auditioning singers for parts in his own new stage production of "Faust."

To keep uncredited Leach from causing trouble, Swan has him framed for narcotics possession and sent (appropriately enough) to Sing Sing Prison. Leach escapes and heads to Death Records (Swan's label), intent on stopping the piracy of his music. But when a guard surprises him, Leach gets his head caught in a record press, causing irreparable damage to his face and vocal chords. He gets away and sets up residence in the Paradise, Swan's theater, where he's intent on stopping his music from being performed.

De Palma gives us some split screen sequences and a little fourth wall teasing. He has Swan convince Leach to work with him instead of against him, signing a contract worthy of Geothe. He promises "The Phantom" that his songs will be sung by a promising young vocalist named Phoenix (Jessica Harper), but instead he uses her as a back-up singer and gives the lead songs to a drugged out, glam rock artist called Beef (Gerrit Graham).

Look for a cinematic nod to the shower scene from "Psycho" (1960) with a toilet plunger in place of a knife, and a group called the Undeads dressed up like Cesare the Somnambulist from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920). Some of the sets are right out of German Expressionism, too, while the music ranges from California surfer cool ("Upholstery") to Rocky Horror-esque.

Beef's immolation on stage creates an opening for Phoenix to sing in front of the opening night audience. Her rendition of "Old Souls" is simply superb. Swan decides he wants more from the new singing sensation than her voice. Marriage. Nothing the Phantom can do makes any difference because, as Swan puts it, "I'm under contract, too." That's why, like Dorian Gray, he never ages.

I could have done with more music and less dialog, but it's all good fun. The film got De Palma nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation at the Hugo Awards as well as a WGA Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen. The movie bombed at the box office upon its release, but it's clear why it has since become a cult favorite. Dig it!!

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