Starring William Finley as Winslow Leach
Harpor Productions, 1974, Rock Musical and Dark Comedy
directed by Brian De Palma
We need a man that is simple perfection, there's nothing that's harder to find.|
Someone to lead us, protect us, and feed us, and help us to make up our minds.
We need a man that's sophisticated, quiet and strong and well educated.
Where to go, what to do? Could it be somebody super like you?
We need a man that can stand as a symbol, and symbols have got to be tall.
Someone with taste and the tiniest waist, with his help would not life be a ball!
If we had fun he would not restrain us! If we got caught he would just explain us!
Where to go, what to do? Could it be somebody super like you?
We pledge allegiance to his gracefulness and charming manners!
With a voice that's both sides choice, he'll bring us to our knees in admiration.
He is king of all who see and hear his perfect pitch
And more surprises when his time is come a stallion rises
~from song "Somebody Super like You"
This movie is by far the most unusual phantom movie I have seen to date. There is just an entirely different way of doing everything this time around. It almost seems as if the story goes back into the Phantom's history, during his days in Persia. Instead of staying in 19th century Persia, however, the setting is now in 1970's United States. There is a mysterious character who just goes by "Swan" (Paul Williams), who runs a rock and roll palace called the Paradise and a company called Death Records. He is the villain of this movie, a dwarfish person with long blonde hair and perpetual youth.
Not another dwarf! (Peeks at corner) Bad dwarf! Stay in that corner! Don't you move!
Swan appears to have absolute power not just at the Paradise and Death Records, but also the whole business of rock and roll. Nobody claps until he claps for a musical number, a singing group, anything. The story almost appears to be told through his point of view. His sadistic streak runs rampant but it is portrayed as comical. He is the Little Sultana reborn as a 20th century American man.
Winslow Leach starts off as a nerdish nice guy with glasses and long hair. He has composed his own cantata about Faust. Swan loves it, but hates Leach. He manipulates a deal in which Leach innocently hands over his only score of this opera. He returns to the Paradise, where a long line of singers wait to audition. One young woman in this line catches his attention: Phoenix (Jessica Harper). He loves her voice and stops for a moment to coach her on how to sing the lines she had been practicing. Both Phoenix and Leach are in for a suprise. Phoenix never gets to sing. She is instantly placed on a couch, from which she runs away screaming and crying. Leach learns his music has been stolen.
I thought Professor Petrie (from the 1962 film) got it bad, but D'Arcy is a sensitive loverboy compared to Swan. Swan just cannot leave well enough alone. The music is stolen and Swan has his ghouls plant drugs on Winslow Leach. Leach is taken to prison and it gets worse. His teeth are extracted for dental research, courtesy of the Swan foundation. After hearing about a new performance at the Paradise, Faust, the outraged Leach can take it no longer and goes for a prison break. He breaks into the Death Records factory and tries to destroy the machinery producing the albums of his cantata, but gets his head caught in a vinyl press. His face is badly disfigured and his voice is destroyed. He steals a silver helmet and a costume, thus begins his life as the Phantom of the Paradise.
While the Juicy Fruits rehearse a horribly rewritten version of the cantata, a car on the set explodes. The Phantom confronts Swan, and still yet another strange, untrustworthy agreement is made. Swan provides the Phantom with an electronic device that allows him to speak. They agree that Leach will finish the cantata, it will be produced according to his vision, and Phoenix will sing the lead role. The contract, which contains some very bizarre fine print, is signed in blood.
Of course, Swan has deceived Leach yet again. He has no intention of allowing any such things to happen, abusing the fine print as a loophole. Secretly the whole piece is being rewritten once again in "glitter rock" fashion, and the stereotypical rock singer Beef (Gerrit Graham) is cast in the lead role. Beef struggles with the music and protests that it is "scored for a chick," but Swan strokes the new Prima Donna's ego which encourages him to continue.
As the Phantom finishes writing Faust, Swan drugs him and has him walled up in his room down in the cellars. The Phantom wakes up and makes such a horrible cry, Beef hears it all the way up in his dressing room. Beef tries to relax by taking a shower, only to get a visit by the Phantom. The Phantom threatens him, telling him the music is only for Phoenix and anyone else who tries to sing it will die. The terrified Beef tries to run away, but is stopped and persuaded to go on stage for this opening night.
The opening number by The Undead (lead singer Harold Oblong/Peter Elbling) gets the audience into a screaming frenzy. As select people from the audience are "dismembered" and their parts "sewn together" on stage, Frankenbeef rises off of the surgery table with his song. By now, the Phantom has found his way to the stage and kills Beef via electrocution. Believing it to be part of the show (or maybe not?), the crowd goes wild and cries for more. Phoenix is brought out and sings a number, which brings her instant fame.
Again, Swan just cannot leave well enough alone. Phoenix has forgotten about her friend Winslow Leach by now, offering to do anything for Swan to have that audience again. She gives all the credit to Swan for her fame and none to poor Leach. In the decadent 70's style of Apollo's Lyre, the Phantom sees his betrayal from the glass dome rooftop of Swan's home as he looks down to see Swan and Phoenix in bed together. Even worse, the poor man tries unsuccessfully to kill himself. Swan approaches him and lets him in on a secret: the contract that had been signed in blood earlier states that the Phantom cannot die until Swan dies. Since Swan has achieved an immortality of sorts, his misery will continue indefinitely.
The Phantom realizes Phoenix is in great danger after she signs a contract with Swan using her own blood. In the same spirit as the Little Sultana, Swan has taken to killing for entertainment at his palace, thanks to the fiasco over Beef's death on stage in front of an audience. He sees his power growing. His will is law. He organizes a wedding for himself and Phoenix at the Paradise, to be followed by her assassination as soon as the "priest" says, "Until death do you part." The Phantom is in a race for time now as he uncovers the secret to Swan's wealth, power, and youth. He finds the video archives of the day in 1953 when Swan is about to kill himself because he is growing old. A devil in the form of his own mirror reflection appears with a contract to be signed in blood. If the footage of their contract is destroyed, Swan and his gifts will also be destroyed.
For Phoenix, the fame has become her Marguerite's jewelry box. She is swept up into the fame now, seduced by Swan's evil machinery. As the wedding progresses, the Phantom sets the film storage room on fire. Just as the assassin is about to shoot Phoenix, the Phantom interferes enough so that the "priest" is killed instead. He then swings across the stage and rips off a mask that Swan is wearing, exposing a decomposing face. Phoenix is terrified and Swan nearly strangles her, but the Phantom stabs him with one of the dancers' swan hats. Now that Swan is dying, the Phantom is now also dying. The audience is caught up in the frenzy so much that one young man jumps up on stage and begins to mimic everything the Phantom is doing. He, too, stabs Swan and begins to crawl across the floor, like the Phantom, as though dying and in pain.
The Phantom's mask falls off and Phoenix now recognizes her long lost friend, but now it is too late. Winslow Leach and Swan are now both dead, while she is left stranded on stage among all the decadence with a crowd of fans that are out of control.
It did not occur to me until I read an interview with Brian De Palma, who directed this film. It is not a typical musical in that the performers never stop what they are doing for a musical number. The singing is all done in context during an audition, a rehearsal, a performance, or as background music. The action goes along with the singing.
I'm a bit lost for words on this film. It has some aspects of Leroux's work, in that the Phantom's "past" is melded with his "present." Swan is the powerful and sadistic Little Sultana and the Phantom is just another pawn in the courtyard entertainment. The Sultana was known to kill her own servants for fun just as Swan sees killing his own performers for fame, money, and more power. His deliberate cruelty seems to have no boundaries, but good eventually triumphs over evil. True love that Winslow Leach has for Phoenix and for his music wins out over Swan's lust for power and fame.
Faust is real for the characters but in different ways. Phoenix takes a wrong turn in her seduction by the fame, as Marguerite does with the jewelry box. The Phantom and Swan interchange roles, it seems, between Faust and Mephistopheles. Swan, whose story is also much like Dorian Gray, gets his youth but becomes the devil with time. The angry wounded Phantom begins in the underworld but rises above it to destroy evil of Swan. Phoenix nearly escapes a cruel fate by the skin of her teeth, thanks to the Phantom and his love.
I enjoy watching the number "Somebody Super Like You." The lead singer almost reminds me of a masculine counterpart to an online alter-ego of mine from years ago: an Orpheus-obsessed, slightly homicidal Pierrette clown. She rarely spoke, but sang like the mysterious Master of Ceremony in the same spirit as Disney's Clopin (Hunchback of Notre Dame: "Festival of Fools"), but I digress.
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