The Phantom of the Paradise: A Macabre Meditation on The Entertainment Monster and All It Devours
Dystopian science fiction gets all of the credit when it comes to genre as social commentary. Classic films like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home take our current social ills and spin them out to their logical and terrible conclusions, but social commentary in horror films often shows us a truth that is far more galling – that we live in a dystopian present. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead preached the evils of consumerism, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs exposed the insidiousness of gentrification and Reaganomics, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out shamed us for claiming any progress in racial equality and understanding. We are a broken people, and social horror films prove that it only takes some rotten people or poor circumstances to expose us for what we really are - human garbage.
During an early autumn re-watch of one of my favorite horror-musicals, Brian DePalma’s/Paul Williams’ masterpiece The Phantom of the Paradise, I found myself shivering with that familiar sense – the sense that humanity is doomed. We know it, we have always known it, and we are too selfish to change it. Brian DePalma’s cynical allegory about the media chewing up humanity and spitting out pap for our entertainment is as salient as it has ever been. Paul William’s manipulation of his own tunes proves, without a doubt, that the tools of our undoing are in our utter lack of taste and bottomless appetite for celebrity. How can a movie leave me feeling so simultaneously justified and guilty?
The film opens with the indelible voice of Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) narrating over a black screen with a picture of a dead sparrow in silhouette and halftone dots, the striking logo of Death Records, telling us the legend of Swan (Paul Williams), a record producer and tastemaker of unparalleled renown. Swan was singlehandedly responsible for all post-50s musical trends – the American invasion in England, the British Invasion in America, the emergence of folk-rock in the late sixties, and finally the wave of fifties nostalgia in the 70s, epitomized by his hit band The Juicy Fruits. He has earned so many gold records, “that he tried to deposit them in Fort Knox,” or so the legend goes. Rod Serling’s resplendent baritone goes on to set the scene that Swan is now is search of a new sound, music worthy of opening of his “ultimate rock palace,” a new venue, The Paradise:
Swan is a quintessential example of absolute power corrupting. His uncanny ability to give the people what they want has given him the fame and fortune to, in turn, tell the people what they want, molding the culture into his own image and, with the Paradise, creating an environment that is a true reflection of his worldview idealized. Rod Serling’s introduction draws the parallel to Disneyland, a destination created by Walt Disney that is very much his vision. There is an inherent darkness to this sort of all-encompassing, totalitarian creative power, because without the egalitarian voice of committee, the environment becomes infused with the creator’s insecurities, selfishness, and flaws.
The first victim of Swan’s insecurity is the composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), the man with the sound. Swan is not a creator, not a progenitor of ideas, but his influence gives him the leverage to negotiate them out from under anyone, especially an idealist like Winslow Leach. At first glance, Winslow is unremarkable. He is a dweeby looking guy with the stereotypical, folksy mop of unkempt hair. His voice is serviceable, but un-extraordinary. But there is something about his song that strikes Swan’s golden ear and he hears the music of his Xanadu, the Paradise. Swan sends his right hand lackey, Philbin (George Memmoli) to steal the sound from Winslow Leach and make it his own. When Philbin goes to Winslow to get the song, he discovers Winslow’s artistic vision is far grander than a few poppy singles on an album. The song that had captured Swan’s interest is the title aria from his unfinished rock cantata Faust, based on the German legend in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune. Swan doesn’t seem interested in Winslow’s soul at first, just the fruits of it. Swan tries to extricate the man from his music, going so far as to frame Winslow for possession of heroin and having him shipped off to Sing Sing, but the loss of creative control over his masterpiece causes Winslow to mentally unravel and so commences the monster-fication of the unassuming Winslow into The Phantom.
Winslow’s initial attempts to sabotage Swan’s bastardization of his brainchild cost him his teeth, his face, and his voice, but not his determination, and The Phantom manages to single handedly bring Swan’s pop-media engine to a screeching halt. Swan believes that he has the upper hand, however, and offers The Phantom something of a truce. The composer wants his work heard, and Swan has the platform to do it. He sets The Phantom up with a recording studio and an electronic voice box and The Phantom’s first word is ‘Phoenix,’ the name of a singer with whom he’s become infatuated. Swan then offers a deal: if The Phantom re-scores Faust for Phoenix, then The Phantom’s cantata with the muse as the voice will open the Paradise. The convoluted contract is signed in blood and the deal is made. Swan, of course, reneges on his promise, recasting Phoenix and relegating her to a background singer. Swan’s downfall was that the presumption that The Phantom had any moral character left, a shred of human dignity that would stop him from prioritizing his artistic vision over human life. But Winslow Leach is entirely eclipsed and The Phantom shares a lot in common with Swan - a flair for the dramatic and a determination that his vision prevails at any cost. Swan’s desire to cut the artist out of the art cost him his life, his legacy, and his Paradise.
Winslow Leach represents true genius. Phoenix (Jessica Harper) represents true talent. When Winslow discovers her voice amongst the squawking fray at the back up singer auditions at Swanage, he begins to envision new possibilities for Faust with her as the vessel for his music. Winslow sends Phoenix into the auditions feeling bolstered and confident, but Swan and Death Records clearly don’t prioritize musical talent in their female back up singers. The opening stage of the auditions sends Phoenix weeping out of the room, with the back of her blouse undone, crying that Philbin had tried to take advantage of her. The other auditionees seem to be in on the whole process, willing to paw and writhe with each other on a large circular bed with two-way mirrors for a ceiling. When Swan enters the orgy/audition room, they enclose upon him cooing until he is completely enfolded.
When The Phantom finally convinces Swan to deign to hear Phoenix sing, she looks defiantly up to the balcony where Swan is hidden in shadow, “Will I get to sing this time?” She proclaims. She’s a singer without compromise, declaring that what she has to offer is better than the cheap carnal pleasures of the other women and she is not wrong. She performs with an ease of confidence that can only come from disdain. She sings “Special to Me,” presumably from Leach’s score, and her voice is rich, and warm, with a natural beauty that is inherently sensual. She looks daggers at faceless judge as she sings the words of the chorus, “Working hard to be somebody special, not working just to survive.” Swan admits freely that she is good, but that is exactly why she cannot be the voice that opens the Paradise. When Philbin asks why he is opening up auditions again, Swan spits matter-of-factly, “You know I abhor perfection in anyone but myself.” The Phantom’s desires are not to be ignored, however, and when his sabotage leads to Phoenix taking center stage at the Paradise the crowd erupts with applause and adoration, the convalescence of the music and voice together at last. The power is undeniable.
The veneration causes a change in Phoenix. She is immediately intoxicated by the ovation of the crowd and she is doomed. She is a junkie in need of her fix, and Swan has the hook up – Swan owns the stage. She feels indebted to him and she repays him in the currency that keeps women in show business – her body. Swan wastes no time publicizing and capitalizing on their relationship, the taste of the moment in bed with the tastemaker, a match made in Paradise. The desire and self-worth that grounded Phoenix as an artist was drained, and what is left is a giggling starlet hooked on pills and itching for the spotlight. Dare I say it? Phoenix’s fire was out. All that was left was for her to sign the contract in blood, which she did without question. Swan cursed Phoenix with the bottomless desire for attention at any cost, a weakness he knows intimately and can exploit expertly. Her guards are entirely down and that is when Swan plans to strike – an assassination on the stage of the Paradise would be the perfect climax to this spectacular of blood. If it wasn’t for The Phantom’s devotion to her and his mission to end Swan’s ruination of Faust, that would be her end, but Swan’s corruption had over extended itself and his Paradise was a castle built on sand.
In his hauntings, The Phantom discovers a secret room that Swan has filled wall to wall with his video diaries. In that trove, The Phantom finds a particular tape that is about twenty years old, though you would not be able to tell from looking at Swan’s image. It is clearly unchanged in the twenty years since. In that video, Swan signs a contract of his own with Satan himself to stay young forever. Satan, who looks exactly like Swan, gives him his wish with one condition, that he keep the tape safe and that the contract expires with the video. Swan’s vanity is his weakness, the source of his corruption, and the downfall of The Paradise. We see this corruption manifesting in Swan’s treatment of Winslow’s score for Faust. What starts as precious, intimate, and entirely Winslow’s gets more consumerist and twisted every time Swan touches it. First, he subjects the titular song “Faust” a full substance-ectomy, removing all of the heart and replacing it to references to “carborators, man,” in the Beach Boys-esque rendition entitled “Upholstery.” When the mad Phantom, Winslow Leach, insists that his cantata is only be sung by Phoenix (Jessica Harper), the tune gets given a macabre makeover worthy of Alice Cooper, with heavy guitar and the gravely rock vocals of Beef (played by Gerrit Graham, rock vocals by Ray Kennedy), and it is now the horror rock anthem “Life at Last.” Swan makes the music like him – all style with a dark, depreciating vacuum underneath.
To what end does Swan put on his charade? The film climaxes with Philbin shot, Swan’s face melted like the videotapes The Phantom burned, and Phoenix weeping over the bleeding body of the figure that was Winslow Leach. Who profits? The answer is in the teaming hoard, the audience dancing around the corpses like the show has only just begun. The answer is us. We are the monster that the soulless entertainment machine is serving, and terrible things are done to please us. That is the horror. We are the horror. Brian DePalma’s fantastical allegory with disfigurement, death, and mayhem disturbs us into talking a long look into his twisted mirror and Paul William’s music is the active metaphor that drives the point home. Brain DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise is part horror, part musical, part German folklore, part Oscar Wilde, all morality tale. Through powers of music and horror combined this film is the ideal vessel for the social commentary that will scares the pants off our very hearts and minds.