In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This fortnight, we address Brian de Palma’s cult classic, Phantom of the Paradise.
Brian de Palma is one of the most famous filmmakers in the world. Today, he’s known for his series of classic 80s Hollywood pictures. Out of the New Hollywood of the 60s and early 70s it’s arguable that it’s de Palma who adapted best to the blockbuster world of excess that came with the 80s, churning out hit after hit. First with his slick if disgusting slasher Dressed To Kill in 1980, a continuation of his move into more marketable horror and thrillers than his previous work with Carrie and The Fury, then with his next movie Blow Out he’d use the opening as a chance to knowingly recontextualise his image. Blow Out opens with a mockup of a trashy slasher movie of the kind the 80s were churning out with alacrity before revealing itself to be a movie within a movie, transitioning into a very slick conspiracy thriller. Scarface and Body Double would secure his reputation as the king of courting controvery to heavy box office success. His crime thrillers The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way would only secure this reputation further. The truth is though that if you want to see Brian de Palma at his most innovative, you have to go to his 70s output.
In the early 70s, Brian de Palma’s star was rising. Coming from the same cabal of filmmakers as Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Copolla, said group of filmmakers are quoted in the classic, ‘Easy Riders & Raging Bulls’ as thinking that it was Brian who was most destined for greatness. In the early 70s he went about proving it with a run of stylish, provocative films in a variety of genres such as Hi, Mom! and Sisters. His most stylistically bold to date was yet to come, and it would arrive in 1974 with a wail of pop rock guitars, Phantom of the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise is introduced by a brooding overlay of a dead bird while a creepy monologue introduces the mythical Swan. Played by the film’s composer and songwriter for muppets, Paul Williams, Swan allegedly made his first gold record at 14 and has since made so many more he tried to deposit them in Fort Knox. In a way not dissimilar to LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, Swan seems to have been written into every important moment in rock history up to that point. He’s about to open his new Xanadu, called The Paradise. It’s all very grandiose, before launching into the most corny pop pastiche you’ve ever heard, ‘Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye’. If you have any familiarity with the pop music of the 60s, you’ll understand this song not just to be a glorious send up but also that this music was totally out of fashion in the 70s. This sets the tone for the movie, deeply irreverent, grandiose and gothic, and deeply silly. It makes for a glorious cocktail. Brian de Palma has always been keen to insist Phantom of the Paradise came out before The Rocky Horror Picture Show but the tone it strikes is definitely different while I’d recommend each to fans of each film. Both feel transgressive in form and content and focus on the power struggles between different creative perspectives in pursuit of a goal and end in just, absolute chaos. Both are deeply metatextual and create a frisson around the cultural recognition of ideas. The Rock Horror Picture Show deals with homage to cheezy b pictures, Phantom of the Paradise skews slightly more classically minded, blending ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and ‘Faust’. It’s a heady mix.
An important thing to address in terms of its appeal is the general aesthetic, both audio and visual. Visually it continues de Palma’s deep dive into gaudy experimentation. It makes use of strange, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired sets and make up design that would go on to inspire Kiss. It makes use of huge gaudy pinks and reds but not in a tasteless way. In a similar way to Dario Argento’s Suspiria, it’s gaudy, but there’s a constant level of taste running through it that keeps it all reigned in. It is a movie where henchmen are dressed like cowboys and it seems silly but not too silly for it to work in a cohesive whole, if that makes sense. Sonically, the fact that Brian de Palma wanted to make the movie after hearing a musak version of a The Beatles song comes through. It combines multiple genre pastiches throughout and that only works to thematically reinforce its own themes. By using a medium like pastiche, it waters down the songs to a recognisable series of familiar musical ideas and hooks, so while the songs bang because they’re chop full of hooks, they don’t bang quite enough to escape the metatextual commentary and frisson the movie evokes, except for the compositions that are canonically by the central character, Winslow Leach. While unambiguously a creep, Leach has a definitive and authentic artistic vision. His work sounds like a mix between Joan Baez and more slow tempo proggy tracks and it’s honestly intoxicating. If you like Carole King you’ll like it. It honestly comes across like a sole moment of authenticity in a circle of debauchery.
The performances are also super strong, worth highlighting is Suspiria lead Jessica Harper in one of a numerically small but iconic run of cult films she starred in. It’s a very different kind of performance and a largely allegorical one but she carries it off with a level of charisma that cult movies deserve to have seen more of.
Thematically there’s one more point to make. Coming in the early 70s there seems to be a commentary on the decaying legacy of the free love of the 60s. Especially considering the idea that the film came from hearing The Beatles turned into elevator music. The fact is that the 60s sold out and slowly became the 80s and a lot of the cinema of the 70s is about documenting that process as it happened. The rebel boomers of the 60s who believed in free love are all the people who voted for Reagan and then bought into the Capitalist tech revolution and used it to exploit rather than build. In many ways, this is allegorically reflected in the plot of Phantom of the Paradise. You have someone who believes in something who gets gradually folded into Capitalism. This is only hammered home by the climax of the film in which dancing, carefree hippies stand and watch as characters burn and die and the filmmaking slowly devolves into delirium. On this note, the film is very frank about the sexual harassment rife in New Hollywood, the music industry, and the hippie movement. It confronts the pervasiveness of sexual harassment even in de Palma’s own movement where almost every other artist of his era was scared to even name the elephant in the room, and I have a lot of respect for that. It even goes out of its way to talk about micro-aggressions decades before that was even a word.
This film is relevant for Brain de Palma’s career for a few reasons. The 80s world he would be the king of sleek and polished blockbuster genre pictures. His next two movies after Phantom of the Paradise were Obsession and Carrie, the two films that seemed to more and more push him into that direction. Today in many ways it seems like Phantom of the Paradise was the last gasp of the kind of filmmaker Brian de Palma could have been if he’d have gone in another direction, and I personally would love to see that reality.