Around the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a weird and short-lived film genre called “Rock Opera.” These films were a new form of musical for a young and hip generation, usually with big budget sets and stories that we narrated and/or motivated by that era’s top bands and composers. The most famous example of this new genre was the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but there were many others such as Shock Treatment (Rocky’s Sequel), Bugsy Malone, Tommy, The Wiz, Xanadu, Sgt. Pepper, Rock n’ Rule, Roadie, The Apple… the list goes on. When you think about it, even the comical mega-hit, The Blues Brothers could fall into this category. However, there’s one in particular that I want to talk about – one that’s perfect for Halloween. It’s a tragic story of love, loss, and a deal with the devil.
Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is about a man named Winslow Leech (William Finley), a classical composer lost in the current rock n’ roll world of the 1970’s. This nerdboy’s musical talent sparks the interest of Swan (played by Paul Williams), the most famous and most powerful music producer (Death Records) in the world. After Winslow has a meeting with Swan’s assistant about premiering his cantata at the opening of The Paradise (Swan’s mega concert hall), he soon realizes that he’s been swindled.
During one of Winslow’s unsuccessful attempts to see Swan, he meets a pretty and talented backup singer by the name of Phoenix (Suspiria’s Jessica Harper). After singing parts of the solo audition song as a duet, Winslow immediately falls in love. He rushes to the head of the line to talk with Swan about his stolen music, and his thoughts of a lead singer, only to get thrown out. After more failed attempts to meet the all-powerful Swan, Winslow gets the crap beat out of him, framed for drugs, and sent to Sing-Sing for life.
Months pass and while finding out his classical cantata is being turned into a 60’s bubblegum surf jingle about carburetors, Winslow snaps and escapes prison. In a blind rage, he breaks into the Death Records factory and, by accident, slips and falls headfirst into a record printing press. Now horribly disfigured and unable to speak, he sets his sights to destroy Swan and The Paradise once and for all. Unknown to most, however, something more devilish is going on behind the curtain…
Even though some might find this film a little dated, I think it’s one of De Palma’s best films. One noticeable scene is the real time 2-camera/2-angle split screen of the explosive demise of the house band, The Juicy Fruits. Later, De Palma would use this unique shooting style to film the finale of Stephen King’s Carrie. The soundtrack spans musical genres from the 50’s beep bob, 60’s bubblegum surf, and 70’s Glam rock. Even though the tracks are intentionally cheesy, they’re actually fantastically performed. So well-performed that the soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar that year.
The main love songs, including the creapy carnival end credit song, For the Hell of It were composed/sung by Paul Williams. Some of you would know him as the voice of the Penguin from Batman: The Animated Series or Little Daddy from the Smokey and the Bandit film series, but at the time Williams was considered music royalty; a classic song writer responsible for many 70’s chart toppers and talented solo musician. In simple terms, Paul Williams in the 70’s/80’s is the equivalent of Danny Elfman composers of the early 90’s.
Even though it’s not the scariest film in the world (actually more comical than spooky), I would definitely add this to your Halloween Moviethon – consider it a nice a break from gouged eyeballs and decapitated limbs. Personally, this is one of The Rube’s favorite movies of all time and I’d recommend it to any aspiring film director. Don’t forget to check out the audio commentary!
This article is part of the Countdown to Halloween blogathon, a month-long blogging marathon dedicated to honoring the Halloween season. For more information and a full list of participating sites, please visit www.countdowntohalloween.com.