dir. Brian De Palma
"I know drug real from real real."
There are some movies so self-assuredly insane that it is impossible to watch them without a smile on your face. The 70's was the perfect time for a coked up party of a movie like Phantom of the Paradise to get made. I was going to make a remark about it being impossible for a movie like this to get made today but a quick look at imdb reveals that a remake is, in fact, in the works and is scheduled for a release in 2010. By now it seems utterly pointless to complain about the lack of originality in Hollywood. All one can do is sit back and accept it. I actually take a kind of perverse joy in seeing which masterpieces Hollywood decides to give to the latest successful director in order to hip up for the youngsters. I'm just waiting for Paul Haggis to helm a remake of The Rules of the Game, or for Rob Marshall to splooge his artistic vision all over a reimagining of 8 1/2 (side note: I just checked imdb and this is in fact in the works (second side note: fuck)).
Honestly, any complaints about the willingness of Hollywood to rob its past would be disingenuous in a post praising a De Palma movie. De Palma has often been criticized for his apparent lack of originality; in particular, his willingness to rip off Hitchcock. I'm not going to argue against this, but I will say that I have never been bothered by De Palma's propensity for movie theft. His movies are directed with such a confident, unique style that one can not watch one without realizing it is a De Palma movie. His movies may be all style and no substance, as some might argue, but God, what style. It is telling that, in a scene which employs De Palma's famous split screen technique, he pays homage to both surf rock and Touch of Evil, while still advancing the plot in a compelling way.
POTP is a rock opera retelling of Phantom of the Opera, with a little Faust and Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure. It is significant in that this is probably the least Hitchcock influenced of De Palma's early movies. It has one scene that is an obvious Hitchcock homage to be sure, but it is not the non-stop Hitchcock-suck-a-thon that was a movie like Sisters (a movie that I thoroughly enjoy, by the way).
POTP centers on Winslow Leach, played magnificently over the top by De Palma veteran William Finley. Leach is an overly eager musical prodigy who is in the middle of penning his masterwork: a rock opera of Faust. Leach performs one of his songs for maniacal music producer Swan, played wonderfully by the versatile Paul Williams (Williams is best known for writing the theme to "The Love Boat", playing Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit movies, and doing lots of blow). After being blown away by Leach's song, Swan offers to use Leach's music to open his new theater -- The Paradise. What could go wrong, you say. Nothing, aside from Swan stealing Leach's music and getting him thrown in prison after planting cocaine on him. After Leach escapes from prison, he gets caught in a series of events that get him horribly disfigured. Now spending his time terrorizing the Paradise, Leach gets convinced by Swan to stop his shenanigans and finish writing his rock opera. Why would Leach do this, you ask. Because Swan promises to use the woman that Leach has been pining for as the lead in this rock opera, Phoenix. She is played by Jessica Harper -- an actress I had a crush on after seeing Suspiria the first time (Not that I have a crush on her as she is now. I mean this more in the way of, "If I could bang her at her peak." That's what you call a time travel fuck). From there the movie just gets crazier.
One of my favorite things about this movie is the myriad of interesting characters. Aside from the ones just mentioned, there is the eccentric (i.e., flamboyantly gay) glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham). Like everyone else in this movie, he is played extremely over the top (his performance actually seems like an exaggerated Paul Lynde imitation). It's also fun to hear him singing, in typical cock strutting, Stones imitating fashion, about his sexual escapades (although his actual singing more resembles Marc Bolan's shrieked vocals in the T. Rex song, "Rip Off").
Now let's talk about the music. Aside from being an update of Phantom of the Opera, this movie is also a survey of rock history. It covers everything from doo wop to the theatrical hard rock of Alice Cooper. The songs, by the way were all composed by Paul Williams. Williams was actually quite a prolific composer. He wrote songs for The Monkees, The Carpenters, and Three Dog Night. He has a really good feeling for rock genres -- from the tragic death theme of his doo wop song to the Beach Boys inspired ode to cars song's opening line, "Carburetors man, that's what life is all about". Everything about these songs is spot on.
Watching this movie again, there are little flourishes that I hadn't noticed before. Chief among them is a beautifully shot scene, which is reminiscent of a similarly shot scene from the movie In Cold Blood. On a rainy night, Leach is looking through a window into Swan's building when he sees something that saddens him. It is shot in such a way, that the rain streaking down the window looks like tears streaming down Leach's face. The movie is full of little touches like this. It really let's you know that you're watching the work of a director who is a master visual storyteller.
I don't have the best track record when it comes to recommending movies. My tastes are so eclectic that it's hard to gauge, sometimes, what others might enjoy. Some movies that I might think easily accessible and mainstream, like Annie Hall, are met with cold indifference. When I first showed POTP to friends, it was with the warning that it would be too weird and I wouldn't be offended if they turned it off. What a surprise when everyone I recommended this movie to fell in love with it. It's deliriously entertaining in a way that only the best rock opera retellings of Phantom of the Opera can be. If you hate this movie, then you hate life.