Bad Movies Done Right — Phantom of the Paradise

Every day Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a movie either so bad it’s good or just downright terrible. Today: He sold his soul for rock and roll.

If Phantom of the Paradise was any more flamboyant, it would be spooning with the corpse of Liberace while simultaneously planning a one-man stage tribute to Judy Garland — and I mean that in the best possible way.

Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult classic is so out there in its queenish pomposity it would make the staunchest conservative consider giving his neighbor a reach-around — if only for a split-second. The movie is big, it’s gay and it’s wonderful.

William Finley stars as Winslow, a nebbish musician who has his music stolen by Swan, a powerful music producer played by Paul Williams in a role that, physically, is a cross between Zelda Rubinstein, Children of the Corn‘s Malachai and Phil Spector.

When he attempts to stand up for his rights and reclaim control of his music, Winslow is framed for drug possession and sent to jail — where a series of escalating mishaps leaves him horribly disfigured and unable to produce noise that is much more then a throaty hiss.

Escaping from jail (and would-be death), Winslow returns to haunt Swan and his Shangri-La of music venues, The Paradise. Clad in a black leather jumpsuit and operatic mask, Winslow becomes The Phantom, a force of destruction with his wrath set upon ruining Swan before the music producer can take Winslow’s opus, a rock opera version of Faust, and turn it into commercial drivel.

Swan, seeking to curtail The Phantom’s destruction, strikes his own Faustian deal with Winslow. In exchange for the musician’s soul, Swan will give Winslow co-creative control over the opera.

Winslow seizes upon the opportunity to re-write the music for a talented up-and-coming female singer named Phoenix (Jennifer Harper) whom Winslow pines over.

Swan, never up to any good, refuses to play by the rules and begins a series of attempts to undermine Winslow — including replacing Phoenix in the opening night performance with Beef, a glam-rock, burger-headed queen of a rocker played by Gerrit Graham.

Brian De Palma’s direction utilizes the full bag of tricks the famed director would soon establish as his trademarks — including split-screen and long steady-cam tracking shots.

Williams, in addition to playing Swan, provides the film’s Oscar-nominated score — a mix between Elton John-esque piano ballads and shock rock anthems like those Alice Cooper made famous.

A box-office failure and critical disaster upon its release, Phantom of the Paradise has been reassessed in the years since it’s initial theatrical run — mainly due to the fact that so much of the culture the film dry-humped during its 92-minute running time was only embraced by mainstream America in the decade following the film’s release.

The film’s storytelling is ponderous at points yet it contains a plot that is as light and fluffy as the retro-influenced doo-wop music the film parodies as its start. The script from De Palma isn’t just a straight-up retelling of The Phantom of the Opera — it contains a cornucopia of references to classic horror stories including Faust, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Frankenstein. Rod Sterling provides an introductory voice-over to the film that would not have been out of place in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Phantom of the Paradise is a strange film.

Having gathered a devoted following since its release more then 35 years ago, Phantom of the Paradise is exuberant in its offbeat nature and a Prime-A example of textbook cult film. More importantly, it’s highly recommended.

Robert Saucedo also sold his soul for rock and roll. When he dies, he’s gonna be a roadie in hell for GWAR. Follow him on Twitter @robsaucedo2500.

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