Phantom of the Paradise

|Matt Levine|

Phantom of the Paradise screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, October 14 to Sunday, October 16. For tickets and more information, visit

There’s a common conception about Brian De Palma that he’s little more than a Hitchcock imitator: wildly entertaining maybe, sumptuously stylish definitely, but without many original themes or ideas of his own. (One of the other titans of recent American cinema, Paul Schrader, said as much during the two directors’ well-publicized feud, calling De Palma “trite and artistically weak.”) The accusation that De Palma’s success is based on borrowing instead of true ingenuity is understandable, especially since the director’s use of allusion and parody calls on a history of well-known media sources to form connections in the viewer’s mind. But to consider De Palma a mere regurgitator obsessed with visual style––a description that applies more aptly to Tarantino than De Palma––ignores the subversive political subtext of the latter’s work.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is one of the best examples of De Palma’s wild infusion of style and radical substance. Indeed, this film and 1972’s Sisters serve as a bridge of sorts in his career, separating his early, overtly political films––such as Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970)––from such opulent thrillers as The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), etc. Of course, some early films demonstrate De Palma’s extravagant style (such as the use of split screen in his documentary Dionysus in ’69) and later works retain a heavy dose of political provocation (for example, the sense of paranoia and state-sanctioned violence that permeates Blow Out). In other words, De Palma’s work reminds us that, in great cinema at least, form and content are inseparable.  

Released a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of the Paradise more brazenly melds the comedy, horror, and musical genres while injecting a heavy dose of camp. As the title suggests, the story is lifted from The Phantom of the Opera, though the setting is updated to a 1970s glam-rock arena called the Paradise, wherein all sorts of sins and horrors take place. The rich and demented overseer of this bacchanal is named Swan (Paul Williams), a diminutive music producer in the vein of Phil Spector, with the power to make anyone a star (or destroy them). As the film begins, Swan’s house band The Juicy Fruits is playing a cheap knockoff of a ‘50s greaser/rockabilly song, like the kind that would be popularized by Grease four years later. Opening voiceover narration tells us that The Juicy Fruits “singlehandedly gave birth to the nostalgia wave of the ‘70s,” instantly lambasting art that uncritically duplicates bygone styles in a bid for popularity (and contrasting that with the purposeful citations of Phantom of the Paradise, in which nostalgia is nowhere in sight).

As The Juicy Fruits play their cringe-inducing music onstage (a performance rife with weird gestures like the lead singer’s mimed disembowelment––only the first intersection of art, entertainment, and death in the movie), Swan and his troll-like assistant, Philbin (George Memmoli), have a secretive conversation in a hidden room. It turns out their most recent starlet, Annie, wants to break her contract and find a new label, as she plans to perform free concerts for Vietnamese orphans (which Philbin explains in the most racist language possible). “I even taught her who to ****,” Philbin gripes, the last word obscured by a blast of microphone feedback. The sexual grooming of young women in the entertainment industry will be one of the most prominent themes in Phantom of the Paradise (more on this later).

The “phantom” in Phantom of the Paradise is a nebbishy pianist named Winslow Leach (William Finley), who sneaks into the Paradise after The Juicy Fruits and plays a song from his original cantata, an adaptation of Faust. Between The Phantom of the Opera and Faust––not to mention allusions to The Cask of Amontillado and Frankenstein later on––De Palma recycles the tropes of Gothic horror and Grand Guignol, updating these styles with a neon kineticism that suits the 1970s.

The connection is emphasized by numerous scenes that imitate silent cinema aesthetics: titles boldly displayed onscreen, frenetic music composed of strings and piano, storytelling that eschews dialogue in favor of pure visual depiction. In this way, De Palma’s allusions aren’t simply vacuous and nostalgic (unlike The Juicy Fruits’). Implicitly, De Palma asks us to recontextualize ideas of the horrific, the soulless, the artistic, and apply them to a New American Cinema (and a fraught American society) that was rapidly in flux. (To use one notable example, the film premiered less than three months after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.) Throughout Phantom of the Paradise, De Palma makes the point that depictions of evil and power as envisioned by Shelley, Goethe, Poe, and Leroux haven’t fundamentally changed in the late twentieth century––they’ve just become both more extreme and more permissible.

In any case, Swan and Philbin overhear Leach’s performance and offer to stage his version of Faust on opening night at the Paradise. Philbin and Leach’s differing approaches to art are crudely but amusingly conveyed: “It tells the story of Faust,” Leach explains of his cantata. “What label is he on?” Philbin responds. “A song is a song,” he later explains. “You either dig it or you don’t.” The contrast between Leach the committed artist and Philbin the conniving producer is hardly subtle, but takes on added insight considering De Palma’s later battles with producers and censors. (As De Palma said of Columbia Pictures, which was then owned by Coca-Cola, during his censorship battle on Body Double: “Do you think the guys who run Coca-Cola want publicity about violence? … They’re not showmen, they’re corporation types.”)

It’s no surprise that Swan steals Leach’s composition as soon as he finishes it, then offers to follow up with him but never does, refusing to give him credit for his work. An irate Leach then storms into the headquarters of Death Records (Swan’s label) and through a narrow, mazelike corridor that evokes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in its skewed angles and monochromatic hues. Is Leach––and the public at large––the brainwashed Cesare from that classic horror film, with Swan the power-hungry Caligari pulling the strings? De Palma evokes the Frankfurt school in asking how seemingly innocuous media reinforce the dominant ideology of a political state. Just as Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler (1947) analyzed how pop artifacts (movies, consumer goods, radio shows, etc.) swayed an entire country to obey a genocidal tyrant, Phantom of the Paradise conveys how a powerful media producer can brainwash a population of consumers who are merely looking for entertainment. The difference is that, while Kracauer uses philosophical rigor to make such an argument, De Palma uses camp, comedy, and extravagant visual style.

The connection between Phantom of the Paradise and the Frankfurt school is made even stronger by the fate that befalls Leach. After he goes to Swan’s secluded mansion to confront the mogul, Leach is beaten by Swan’s security goons and chased out of the estate; two cops then plant drugs on Leach and arrest him for possession, after which he’s sentenced to life in prison. (This scene takes place over a minimalist black background with an enormous American flag dwarfing the judge who sentences Leach; it’s a wild composition that reaffirms how De Palma’s visual opulence often carries with it a critical subtext, in this case symbolizing America’s cruel carceral state.) Now jailed in Sing Sing prison (a bleakly funny pun), Leach has his teeth removed as part of a dental experiment for which he “mandatorily volunteers,” then escapes through a truck delivering boxes of Tiddlywinks (which the prisoners have prepared for shipment––even that’s some kind of comment on the chain of misery and exploitation that exists behind an innocuous kids’ toy). All of this happens in about five minutes of screen time––a perfect encapsulation of how quick-moving and efficient De Palma’s storytelling is.

Finally, Leach makes it back to Swan’s production studio and confronts the man, only to be trapped in a record press, where his face and part of his body are crushed by the machine. Now a mangled, toothless, rage-filled monster, Leach is offered a compromise by Swan: the latter will rehabilitate Leach, outfit him with microphones and sound filters to restore a functioning voice to his eviscerated larynx, and stage Faust on opening night of the Paradise, in exchange for a lifelong contract that binds Leach to Swan.

Frankfurt School offshoot Walter Benjamin would have a field day with this scene. His landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” lamented how pop media like movies contribute to humanity’s alienation by removing the “aura” from the work of art. “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production,” Benjamin wrote, “the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice––politics.”[1] Even if his proclamations can seem a little dire these days (especially for movie lovers who don’t want to believe that their beloved art form can serve the capitalist superstructure), there’s no question that mass media can instill various ideologies in their audience, reaffirming the political and economic status quo through media artifacts that seem like harmless entertainment. That’s one of De Palma’s main themes with Phantom of the Paradise: the movies and music that comprise the pop culture zeitgeist may actually be instilling a cult of death, money, power, and exploitation. (Anyone who’s skeptical of that theme should watch modern reality TV, which encourages people to forsake their humanity for fame, money, youth, and sex.)

The moment Leach is crushed by that record press and outfitted with a computerized voice box, he is turned into a mechanically duplicable product; it’s not so much his physical disfigurement and distorted voice that make him a monster, but this forced removal of his human “aura.” (A plot twist later in the movie reveals that Swan has undergone a similar transformation, though the bodily vessel in his case is a strip of celluloid film.) This isn’t so different from the aspiring musicians and starlets we see in Phantom of the Paradise, who are all too eager to give their voices and bodies to uncritical, mainstream art that only serves to make Swan more rich and powerful. It’s all a process of dehumanization through the guise of pop culture. Benjamin would have called this a process of Fascism, encouraging the audience to shut down their capacity for critical thought, not only in the realm of art but also in politics and morality. De Palma depicts a similar process, though he couches it in camp, baroque visual style, and nonstop allusions to works of film, literature, and philosophy.

Speaking of starlets and exploitation: it’s during the scene in which Leach goes to Swan’s Xanada-like mansion that Phantom of the Paradise most powerfully condemns the entertainment industry’s pattern of rampant sexual abuse. As soon as he enters the mansion, Leach sees a parade of young, beautiful women lined up on a winding staircase, waiting for their turn to “audition” for Swan (and his lecherous assistant, Philbin). Here, Swan meets a singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a real artist with a beautiful voice in the midst of an army of wannabe pop stars; there’s real tenderness to their first interaction, as they haven’t yet given up their humanity for the sake of fame. However, after Phoenix is ushered through a pair of doors manned by security guards, Leach breaks through and sees glimpses of a woman being pinned down on an infamous casting couch, with other women waiting and watching in the wings. Phoenix storms back out the doors a moment later: “I just can’t do it. Not that way.” Later, after Leach breaks back into the audition room dressed as a woman – metaphorically aligning him with the others who are forced to sell their body and voice to achieve success – he overhears other women taunting the new recruits: “What’s the matter?” asks one of them. “Can’t you sing on your back?” The sexual exploitation of women is so pervasive in this world that it’s led to a culture of internalized misogyny, even among the women who have had to endure the experience themselves.

Forty years before the #MeToo movement would transform the film and music industries, Phantom of the Paradise shines a caustic light on the cruelty and harassment that young women in this sex-and-image-obsessed world are forced to tolerate. (There are numerous brief examples of this in the film, including a moment in which Philbin forces a backup singer to stay dressed in only a bikini during a long rehearsal, despite how cold it is onstage.) No one would call De Palma a feminist––throughout his career, he’s been decried as the exact opposite––but this film, at least, shows an outraged sympathy for aspiring artists caught in this web of abuse. His later movies do present women as sexual objects, but often simultaneously undermine the predatory gaze of men in the audience (that’s true at least of Body Double [1984] and The Black Dahlia [2006]). Things are rarely simple in De Palma’s movies; he both questions and perpetuates the long history of women as sexual objects in cinema, which stems in part from his emulation of Hitchcock. (It also connects back to one of his formative experiences, trying to catch his philandering father in the act of adultery when he was a boy by placing hidden cameras throughout the house––an act of surveillance that’s repeated by Swan almost verbatim in Phantom of the Paradise.)

The film hurtles toward an operatic conclusion in which Leach’s Faust is performed at the Paradise on opening night. As per usual for De Palma, we are treated to a number of astounding stylistic feats along the way: for example, a split screen sequence in which a bomb is placed in the trunk of a prop car that pays homage to Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and a single-shot scene in which Swan observes a number of musicians auditioning to play the lead in Faust, with the camera panning to catch a hippie folk band, a jam poetry session, and other acts that the movie gently ridicules. Swan ultimately casts a shock-rock singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham) to play the lead, proclaiming that this is “the future” of music–– apparently, the future of the art form is just as suspect as looking to its past for retro nostalgia. (Graham’s hilarious but questionable performance paints Beef as a flamboyant, lisping, drug-addicted gay man; the depiction is potentially offensive, but everything in the movie is presented at the level of over-the-top caricature.) After Beef is cast, the Phantom begins his reign of carnage in the Paradise as he schemes to get Phoenix back into the show in the lead role.

The climactic performance, at least as much as De Palma’s Blow Out, pays homage to Antonioni’s landmark Blow-Up (1966). In that film, a performance by the Yardbirds at a swinging London club culminates in Jeff Beck furiously smashing his guitar onstage and tossing the neck of the destroyed guitar into the crowd. The concertgoers furiously scramble for the neck of the guitar, which is grabbed by the film’s protagonist, taken out to the sidewalk, and indifferently tossed onto the ground, its value now divorced from the celebrity status from which it came. Culture is increasingly defined by artifacts like this one, Antonioni suggests: prized only for the status conferred upon them but meaningless unto themselves. This is the end point of commodity culture, in which we don’t need the things we buy––we only covet them because society tells us our lives will be better, happier, more fashionable if we own them.

Something similar happens at the end of Phantom of the Paradise. The Faust opera has begun, as performed by Beef in a provocative glam-rock phantasmagoria: the band members wield bladed instruments and mimic dismembering people in the crowd, holding aloft clearly fake heads and limbs and torsos. The audience members scramble for the fake body parts, desperate to possess any item that comes from such a culturally loaded source. As the concert progresses, murders and tragedies and shocking revelations abound, though the audience is unaware of all of them, believing the dramas between Phoenix, Beef, Swan, and the Phantom to be merely parts of the outré performance. They’re unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, dancing as if they’re part of a free-love pageant while an orgy of death and violence surrounds them. The audience has been successfully swayed by Swan and his pop culture machinery: they’re oblivious to how bad things really are, distracted by surface pleasures and entertainments. For an American culture in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate––and on the brink of mainstream blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars––that theme couldn’t be more prescient.

These ideas and connections might sound farfetched, but they’re less so when you consider that De Palma initially strove to be the “American Godard” and made early short films for the NAACP, the Treasury Department, and various experimental artists and theatre groups. In other words, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a wealth of subversive themes lies beneath the swooping camerawork, giallo lighting, and breakneck editing in Phantom of the Paradise, since those subversive themes were there from the very beginning of De Palma’s career. With eye-popping visuals and a legitimately great soundtrack, the film takes your breath away with surface pleasures. But, once that visceral rush subsides, you may take a longer, closer look at reality, newly aware of the darker truths so often obscured by the glitz of pop culture.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” In H. Arendt (Ed.), Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 1-26. (Original work published 1935.)

Edited by Michelle Baroody

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