Brian DePalma has become so asso­ci­at­ed with hor­ror and action fare that it’s easy to for­get he first made his mark as a direc­tor of under­ground come­dies: Greetings and Hi, Mom! were inde­pen­dent hits long before he shocked audi­ences with the likes of Carrie or Dressed To Kill.  The smarmy snobs who lazi­ly brand­ed him a Hitchcock copy­ist not only over­look the diverse nature of his tal­ents — but they also miss the sense of play and sub­ver­sive, satir­i­cal edge in how he han­dles his influ­ences and tack­les gen­res.

POTP-posThere’s even a rock opera in the DePalma fil­mog­ra­phy — and said film, Phantom Of The Paradise, is the best exam­ple of that form ever com­mit­ted to cel­lu­loid.  It’s a kind of ur-film for DePalma that allows him to unite all his artis­tic sides — hor­ror, sus­pense, satire, exper­i­men­tal film styles, Hitchcockian tech­nique — into one dense­ly lay­ered pack­age that demands repeat view­ings.

The premise revolves around ill-fat­ed song­writer Winslow Leach (William Finley), a com­poser who is hard at work on a can­tata inspired by the sto­ry of Faust.  One of his songs is over­heard by Swan (Paul Williams), a Machiavellian rock producer/impresario who wants to use the tune to open his new venue, the Paradise.  Winslow is sum­mar­i­ly framed and thrown into pris­on so Swan can steal his work.  He escapes but suf­fers a ter­ri­ble acci­dent that destroys his face and voice while try­ing to sab­o­tage a record press.

SwanPOTP-01 set­tles into prepa­ra­tions for the open­ing of the Paradise but he soon dis­cov­ers that Winslow sur­vived his tragedy — and is now a crafty, scary Phantom of the Opera-type fig­ure dead-set on destroy­ing the Paradise.  Swan fast-talks Winslow into rewrit­ing his can­tata for the Paradise open­ing, using Winslow’s love for aspir­ing songstress Phoenix (Jessica Harper) as a bar­gain­ing chip.  However, when Swan starts pulling his old tricks, Winslow plots revenge anew and dis­cov­ers that Swan’s evil is much old­er — and more lethal — than the music busi­ness itself.POTP-02

There is noth­ing that can pre­pare you for a cel­lu­loid jug­ger­naut like Phantom Of The Paradise.  DePalma penned the script him­self and the sto­ry­line moves like a pulp-charged bul­let, mix­ing ele­ments of Faust, Phantom Of The Opera and The Picture Of Dorian Gray into a satire that pokes fun at the music busi­ness, Phil Spector and the gen­er­al show­biz ten­den­cy to steam­roll over dream­ers as it end­less­ly repack­ages the same old thing.  It’s worth not­ing that the film boasts an end­less buf­fet of quotable dia­logue, thus illus­trat­ing one of DePalma’s most under­rat­ed skills as a writer.

BetterPOTP-03 yet, DePalma’s crafty, kinet­ic direc­tion adds anoth­er lay­er of influ­ences and ref­er­ences, includ­ing German expres­sion­ism, silent film com­e­dy, the Mamoulian ver­sion of Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde and plen­ty of Hitchcock, includ­ing a finale that evokes The Man Who Knew Too Much and the ulti­mate send-up of the Psycho show­er scene.  With the sleek cin­e­matog­ra­phy of Larry Pizer and the stun­ning pop-art pro­duc­tion design of Jack Fisk, DePalma cre­ates an out­landish, day-glo world that looks the way glam rock sounds.  The final visu­al touch is bril­liant, punchy edit­ing from Paul Hirsch that slick­ly mod­u­lates the film’s ener­gy and wealth of visual/aural ideas. Hirsch  also cre­ates a daz­zling end cred­its sequence that chron­i­cles the arc of each major char­ac­ter in just a few POTP-04min­utes.

Phantom Of The Paradise is also burst­ing at the seams with great per­for­mances, boast­ing a savvy cast that draws heav­i­ly from exper­i­men­tal comedy/theater troupes and the musi­cal world.  Finley, a reg­u­lar char­ac­ter actor in DePalma films, shi­nes in a rare lead­ing role, cre­at­ing a sense of heart­break beneath the film’s satire as we see a char­ac­ter who starts as a lov­able naïf but is tor­ment­ed into becom­ing an insane angel of vengeance.  Harper is lus­trous as the song­bird who inspires him — and her sul­try, alto vocal stylings provide some of the best musi­cal moments in the film.

There arPOTP-05e also scene steal­ing turns from Gerrit Graham as Beef, an ego­tis­ti­cal glam gen­der-ben­der whose acidic bon-mot lines are as unfor­get­table as his cos­tume changes, and George Memmoli, who brings a won­der­ful sense of dead­pan wit to his role as Swan’s Teamster-esque right-hand man, Philbin.  Special praise should go to Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (a.k.a. Harold Oblong), a trio of gift­ed comedians/musicians who jump from gen­re to gen­re to inter­pret the style of Swan’s dif­fer­ent bands: Sha Na Na, the Beach Boys, Alice Cooper — they do it all…POTP-06

That said, DePalma’s key col­lab­o­ra­tor on the film — both in act­ing and in music — is the great Paul Williams.  As Swan, he draws on sev­er­al years of music-biz expe­ri­ence to cre­ate a sin­is­ter yet wit­ty and odd­ly charm­ing vil­lain.  The way Williams plays the role, you can under­stand why peo­ple fall for his rus­es again and again — and lat­er in the film, he reveals some hid­den dra­mat­ic lev­els when the character’s past his­to­ry is explored.  Better yet, his score for the film is phe­nom­e­nal, mix­ing songs of stun­ning beau­ty and melan­choly with pitch-per­fect satir­i­cal pas­tich­es or rock styles (George Tipton’s silent film-style under­score is also beau­ti­ful­ly com­posed and arranged).

Simply put, this is the ulti­mate rock opera, the movie that The Rocky Horror Picture Show wish­es it could be.  It wraps up satire, pathos, killer music and stun­ning visu­als into a kinet­ic daz­zler that nev­er stops deliv­er­ing the goods.  As a result, it’s one of the most unique achieve­ments in DePalma’s still-under­rat­ed fil­mog­ra­phy and required view­ing for any self-styled cult movie fanat­ic.