A musical may not the most … obvious choice for Halloween viewing. But of course there are a variety of exceptions this out there. Pre-dating some of the more popular rock operas in this vein, this take on the classic masked killer/masked avenger combines the music – and screen persona – of Paul Williams, with plenty of Brian De Palma’s own cinematic style to inject new life to the Paris Opera tale we’re all familiar with. By deciding to move the action to the present day it allows for a scathing fantasy vision of a parasitic music industry, where we’re treated to voice modulators, deaths by neon lighting fixtures and a twist on the material which merges the original novel’s Faust performance with the plot itself. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a wild ride.
To get started it helps to consider this a take on the Universal/Claude Rains adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, since the storyline about stolen music is still present but now with fresh thematic meaning. De Palma’s version spins a tale of diabolic pop moguls, all powerful corporations and disposable pop stars — fame hungry youngsters who are chewed up and spat out as soon as the next big thing arrives. The 1940s version of the Phantom’s mask also carries over a little as there’s some resemblance in the new design. It’s still a silver bird like creation, but it’s been merged with ’70s design chic and a sci-fi bike helmet style visor. And why the hell not. The electronic apparatus, the leather outfit and the black lipstick somehow all work together. Darth Vader clearly took some fashion tips from this guy.
The basic storyline is straightforward enough, as composer Winslow Leach finds himself framed for drug dealing after a run in with thieving double dealing record label owner Swan. Sentenced after what can barely be called a trial montage, he’s soon subjected to work at an assembly line behind bars. To make matters worse he’s also ‘volunteered’ for prison medical experiments that replace his teeth with metal implants. At least they look intimidating when he’s in costume later! Adding insult to injury he escapes and forces his way into Swan’s property, only to be hideously burned and scarred by the very machinery pressing the LPs of his stolen work.
Of course as things unravel this all completes the monstrous look required for him to become the eponymous ghoul. William Finley as the title character is almost unrecognisable from his creepy turn in De Palma’s previous movie; the highly entertaining Hitchcock homage Sisters. Finley combines layers of sympathy and boiling rage that make it all work as an original character. The swirling cape and the robotic voice add the final touches. This whole first act is great, particularly the wacky escape sequence. All the themes and visual elements come together before it takes a few unexpected turns.
Originally however Paul Williams was set to play Winslow – so he could be the musician on and off screen. Instead he gets to be the villain and do a mixture of the devil and the damned as Swan, the producer who steals the souls of creative minds… but is also in a Dorian Gray style predicament of his own. (The cursed oil painting is replaced with video tape, what else!) Rounding out the principle cast Jessica Harper brings charisma to the new talent that both Swan and Winslow want to see rise to fame, strutting her stuff in auditions and adding a certain charm which mirrors Winslow’s earlier naivety.
There are a lot of influences at work, but it never feels muddled. The opening narration tells us exactly how it’s going to go down, and since it’s told from a perspective favourable to Swan you can tell it’s not going to be a happy ending. Singers are treated like whores at his palace and the brand imagery of his company is plastered everywhere (even if threats from the real life Swan Song label owner mean much has been edited out or disguised). For him anything goes when it comes to selling a product and massaging his narcissistic personality.
He’s a sly devil, and even after Winslow takes his first steps to settle the score he’s soon in the clutches of the corporation with promises that the star of his choice, Phoenix, will perform his songs. All Winslow has to do is sign a sinister tome of a contract, in blood naturally. It’s a clever touch that after his accident the electronic vocoder he must use starts to become the singing voice of Paul Williams himself…. while Swan’s own dulcet tones seem rather more scratchy and evil when they’re heard on play back. Later Phoenix is replaced by glam rock diva Beef (an absurd performance from Gerrit Graham) and so the revenge plan quickly resurfaces.
Visually there are plenty of signature De Palma choices including the stylish split screen effects and voyeuristic points of view. Who else would add a Psycho shower scene joke during a musical? Cartoonish electrocution gags are combined with gory stab wounds and flaming corpses, and insane fans chant for dead stars even as they’re being zipped up in body bags for everyone to see. It’s always a feast for the eyes whether these sequences are set inside the sinister Death Records offices or Winslow’s second prison cell – the studio recording booth. The Phantom running through the crimson hallways of The Paradise with his cloak flowing behind him is a particularly memorable touch.
The grand finale tops all this as a sniper suspense sequence and a televised wedding party are merged into one crazy spectacle set piece. The grisly fate of certain characters is treated as part of the show by the swathes of oblivious dancing viewers and performers who never stop gyrating. I guess a live assassination does make great entertainment, as Swan himself so dryly puts it. This is a cult favourite for many reasons and it’s inevitable that the ’70s soundtrack won’t be for everyone. But for the amount of flare involved alone this is certainly up there amongst the greats from this decade, and it certainly deserves to be at the top when considering Brian De Palma’s body of work. An unholy genre merging romp of the best kind.