A musical may not the most … obvious choice for Halloween viewing. But of course there are several exceptions this out there. Pre-dating some of the more popular rock operas in this vein, Brian De Palma’s take on the classic masked avenger combines the music – and screen persona – of Paul Williams, as well as his own cinematic style to inject new life to the old Paris Opera tale. 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.
Let’s consider the Claude Rains adaptation as a starting point, since the storyline about stolen music takes on fresh meaning here. They spin a tale of all powerful corporations and disposable pop stars; fame hungry youngsters who are chewed up and spat out by diabolic pop moguls as soon as the next big thing arrives. The 1940s mask bears some resemblance to the new design with its bird like silver browed look, but it’s been merged with a sci-fi bike helmet style visor. Because why not? The electronic apparatus, the bucked leather outfit and the black lipstick all work together somehow. Darth Vader clearly took some fashion tips from this one.
Composer Winslow Leach finds himself framed for drug dealing after a run in with thieving double crossing record label owner Swan. Sentenced after what can barely be called a trial montage he’s soon subjected to working an assembly line behind bars. This is bad enough, but to make matters worse he’s ‘volunteered’ for prison medical experiments that replace his teeth with metal implants. 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 this all completes the monstrous look they need for him to become the title character.
This whole set up is just great, particularly the wacky escape sequence. All the themes and visual elements come together, before it takes some familiar and some unexpected turns. William Finley as the title character is almost unrecognisable from his creepy turn in De Palma’s movie the Hitchcock homage Sisters. He combines layers of sympathy and boiling rage that make it all work. Originally Paul Williams was set to play Winslow – to 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 the producer who steals the souls of creative minds, but is also in a Dorian Gray style predicament of his own. The oil painting is replaced with video tape recordings, what else. Rounding out the principle cast Jessica Harper brings charisma to the new talent they both want to see rise to fame, strutting her stuff in auditions and adding a certain naive charm which mirrors Winslow’s earlier state.
The opening narration tells us how it’s going to end, and since it’s told from a perspective favourable to Swan, you can to see where this is all going. 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). For him anything goes when it comes to selling the 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 the clutches of the corporation with promises that the star of his choice, Phoenix, will perform his songs. All he has to do is sign a sinister tome of a contract… in blood of course. It’s a sly omen that after his accident the electronic voice box he must use starts to become the voice of Paul Williams himself…. while Swan’s own voice seems rather more scratchy and evil when played 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. Cartoonish electrocution moments are combined with gory stab wounds and flaming corpses, and insane fans chant for dead stars even as they’re zipped up in body bags. It’s always a feast for the eyes whether these are set inside the sinister Death Records offices or Winslow’s recording booth cell. The Phantom running through the long hallways of The Paradise with his cloak flowing behind him is a particularly memorable touch. Who else would add a Psycho shower scene gag during a musical?
The grand finale tops all this as a sniper suspense sequence and a televised wedding party are merged into one crazy spectacle. The grisly fate of certain characters is treated as part of the show by the dancing swathes of oblivious viewers and performers who never stop gyrating. I guess a live assassination does make great entertainment, as Swan 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 this is certainly up there amongst the greats in this decade and deserves to be at the top when considering Brian De Palma’s body of work.