The only sad part about it is the seemingly lack of love for it. Sure, there's this whole "Rocky Horror vs. Phantom" debate going on on the internet (Phantom is easily far superior than the former), and it does have a sizable cult following, but there aren't any cool releases or anything of it. A special edition DVD and a Blu-Ray were both released in France (complete with bonus features), but stateside, all we have is this DVD with OK picture and audio and only one bonus feature (a crappy trailer). And since there is no commentary available (yet), I have decided to go through and break down the various elements of this great movie. I also explain what some of the elements symbolize, but don't take my word for any of this. I could be completely wrong, or get very lucky and be completely right on some of these, but this is what these things symbolize to me, and I hope you enjoy it.
HEAVY SPOILERS FOR PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE AHEAD!
HEAVY SPOILERS FOR PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE AHEAD!
0:00:16 – That’s Rod Serling, the creator/writer/host of the best TV show of all time, The Twilight Zone, doing the opening voiceover.
0:01:20 – “This film is the story of that search. Of that sound. Of the man who made it, the girl who sang it, and the monster who stole it.” Of course, the man is Winslow, the girl is Phoenix, and the monster is Swan.
0:01:22 – Here we have our first song, “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye.” This is easily my favorite song in the movie, and definitely one of my favorites of all time. Despite having a depressing premise, of a singer who kills himself so his new album will be popular enough to make enough money to pay for his little sister’s operation, it’s is a really upbeat song that’s a throwback to fifties music. It does have some relevance, as the subject matter does foreshadow Winslow giving everything he has to his love. The people singing the song (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Peter Elbling) sing all the Juicy Fruits songs in this movie, with the lead singer alternating. Here, Hahn is the lead vocalist while Comanor and Elbling are backup.
0:02:50 – This isn’t very important, but I love that giant joint the back-up singers pull out and make all the instrumentalists smoke. Classic.
0:03:20 – Here we have Winslow Leach, our main character and future phantom, played by the late, great William Finley (Eaten Alive).
0:04:57 – I think the audience waiting to see if Swan would clap before they started applauding is DePalma’s message on how people will just follow what celebrities do and not use their own judgment.
0:06:51 – Now we have a really good and beautiful song by Winslow entitled “Faust,” about the legendary German musician who sold his soul to the devil.
0:11:11 – PLOT HOLE: If Winslow hates The Juicy Fruits so much, why is he blasting their music in his room?
0:11:57 – Swan’s record producing company is called Death Records. It was originally called Swan Song Records, but then Led Zepplin’s record label took that name and sued, so they had to change it.
0:12:37 – Look on the secretary’s card index, and you’ll see they also have files on Alice Cooper, Peter Fonda, Dick Clark, and more.
0:13:36 – Here we get a little snippet of what might be a full song or just an excerpt inserted into the movie. Either way, it’s really catchy and I love it.
0:14:50 – Here we meet Phoenix, the love interest, played by Jessica Harper (Suspiria). My guess for why her name is Phoenix is because a phoenix is a bird that bursts into flames, yet rises from the ashes as new bird. In this movie, Phoenix’s personality changes as she becomes more famous, like her old self as combusted and she’s now a new, albeiut not better, bird.
0:16:55 – And here we see Brian DePalma create a better love story in two minutes and five seconds than Twilight did in four books.
0:17:45 – DePalma mustn’t have been a big fan of some musicians in the seventies, so this is how he explained them getting famous (sleeping with the producers).
0:18:35 – No good seventies movie can be complete without an orgy!
0:19:43 – Here we finally see Swan, the devilishly handsome yet very evil musician/producer, played by famous seventies musician Paul Williams. I assume he was given the name of Swan because a swan is a beautiful creature, yet it has the tendency to attack violently when provoked, much like him.
0:19:56 – And one of the best entrance lines, delivered to Winslow, who is dressed in drag so he could meet Swan: “Get this fag out of here.”
0:21:21 – Winslow’s taken to Sing-Sing. Get it?
0:22:45 – Winslow having to work in the prison wearing a Swan Foundation hat was a nice touch.
0:23:47 – When Winslow breaks into the record press, you can see a poster reading “Swan Song” above the door, but “Song” is obscured by some sort of object.
0:24:35 – The scene where Winslow gets his face burned in the record press was cut, because in one trailer, the scene is extended and we get to see Winslow stumble out of the press and see his gruesome burn in all its glory.
0:25:45 – Note how this scene, where we get a POV shot of Winslow breathing heavily, walking around, and putting on the bird mask, is eerily similar to the opening of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween. Coincidence? I think not.
0:27:21 – Now we have another musical number, a sixties beach-song throwback called “Upholstery.” While it’s hard to hear the song because we also listen to Philben and some other people conversing, it’s obviously a re-written rendition of Winslow’s "Faust.” It’s hard to tell, but the lyrics are similar (“I was not myself last night; I ran a light, without my registratioooooon…”). Here, Comanor is the lead singer, while Hahn and Elbling are backup.
0:27:33 – Here we have DePalma employing his “split screen” effect, showing the Juicy Fruits (or The Beach Bums, as they are now called) singing and a time bomb placed in the trunk of a prop car. DePalma would use this effect again in, of course, Carrie.
0:33:23 – Now there’s the weakest song of the movie, “Special to Me.” It’s not a bad song per se, but it’s definitely the weakest one in the movie. It doesn’t really have any sort of relevance, either.
0:35:11 – This is pointless, but I love that woman in the background’s afro.
0:37:33 – In this scene, Swan is repairing Winslow’s voice with his computer. However, the person singing isn’t Finley, but Williams, which is why it’s a funny in-joke when Swan calls the voice “perfect.”
0:40:14 – In this scene, Winslow is meant to symbolize Faust as he signs his contract and unwittingly gives his soul to Swan, all so he could be with Phoenix again.
0:41:21 – Yet another wonderful musical number, “Phantom’s Theme.” It’s also put to one of the best montages that isn’t cheesy.
0:43:50 – This is the introduction of Beef, one of the film’s most popular characters and certainly my favorite. Beef is played by the underrated character actor Gerrit Graham (Child’s Play 2, Used Cars, C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D., etc.), and was most likely meant as a parody of how ridiculous musicians had gotten at this point.
0:45:40 – This is the scene at the airport when Swan “comes back from Transylvania” with Beef. On the podium, it’s painfully obvious that the Death Records logo is superimposed over the Swan Song logo.
0:51:49 – It’s inconceivable how someone could possibly escape with those tin foil doors blocking them!
0:52:20 – The most iconic, as well as my favorite, scene. Beef is taking a shower and singing, Winslow comes in with a knife, slices open his shower curtain, and sticks a toilet plunger over his mouth. Still classic to this day.
0:53:58 – The best dialogue exchanges in the whole movie. Beef wants to leave and Philbin won’t let him. They begin arguing about what Beef really saw, and it’s great.
0:55:20 – Now we get a glam rock send-up with “Somebody Super Like You,” a song complete with creepy sets, ghoulish singers, and mannequin dismemberment. Finally, Elbling is the lead singer, while Hahn and Comanor are guitarists.
0:59:54 – Yet another glam rock send-up with “Life at Last,” sung by Beef (actually, it’s sung by Ray Kennedy), which is supposed to be a rewriting of “Old Souls.”
1:01:05 – Winslow’s look here is classic. You can just see the hatred and shock in his eyes as he watches Beef mutilate his song.
1:01:44 – Instead of a chandelier falling on his head like in the original, Beef gets struck with a neon lightning bolt and bursts into flames, all while wailing out the final notes of the song a la Rocktober Blood. This was probably unintentional, but I like to think they intentionally had “Cooked Beef” on their minds while shooting this.
1:02:51 – My biggest complaint: why did the spotlight guy have to die? He didn’t do anything wrong, and Winslow just came behind him and strangled him. Granted, he could have passes out and not died, but that was still unnecessary.
1:03:05 – Now we get to hear what “Life at Last” was originally. “Old Souls” is a truly beautiful song, and Jessica Harper’s voice is fantastic.
1:03:22 – In case you doubted that William Finley was a great actor, just look at his eyes in this scene and how much emotion is in them. The man was truly a genius.
1:10:25 – Now Phoenix and Swan are getting it on at swan’s mansion while Winslow watches from a skylight while “Old Souls” plays. While “Old Souls” does make the scene very emotional, I can’t help but feel that Swan’s “Faust” (which is on the soundtrack) was meant to be playing. I think I might have preferred that, since that would have really driven the point that Swan has taken everything from Winslow deeper, since it would show that swan now has taken his music, his true love, his face, and his voice.
1:11:09 – Once again, Finley manages to convey so much emotion with his eyes.
1:14:45 – Phoenix is snorting cocaine in Swan’s Rolls Royce, which shows that now she’s no longer the sweet, loving girl that she was, but a drug-addicted woman who is high on fame.
1:16:00 – The only truly horrible acting in this movie: that girl that says, “You’re old enough to be his mother!” and “My God, he doesn’t look any different!” I cringe whenever she opens her mouth.
1:17:00 – Now we see Swan in the Faust role, as he sells his soul to the devil, only to keep himself young instead of love.
1:17:54 – Now it’s a bit like Picture of Dorian Gray, as Swan can only age on film and if the film’s destroyed…no more good looks.
1:26:00 – I love this part. Throughout the whole final climax/party scene, there’s just a whole bunch of noise with some “music” playing (it’s really just a beat). However, when Winslow’s wound opens and he is unmasked (the burn effects on his face aren’t the best, I’m afraid) and Phoenix slowly begins to realize who it is, the obnoxious noise fades out and is replaced by the soft noise of a piano playing Winslow’s “Faust.” It’s beautifully executed, very emotional, and has to be one of the saddest endings every to grace the silver screen.
1:27:10 – The final song that plays over the credits is “The Hell of It.” Supposedly, it’s meant to be sung by the devil to the deceased Swan, and when you listen to it with that in mind, it’s very cool. It also hearkens back to when Beef and Philbin have a conversation about how people don’t care about lyrics anymore, because the song itself is really chipper and upbeat, but the lyrics are really mean-spirited in a humorous kind of way. The credits also include clips and outtakes of each actor in the movie, which is fun.
-Sissy Spacek of Carrie was the set dresser.
-Sadly, the movie was a box office flop, except in Canada.
-Betty Buckley, who also went on to be in Carrie (as Mrs. Collins), did a lot of the voices for minor characters (like at the auditions and the orgy).
-The casting process was a bit confusing, as originally, Williams was cast as Winslow, Graham was Swan, Peter Boyle was Beef, and Finley had no part. However, Williams didn't want to play Winslow and Boyle was unavailable, so Finley, Williams, and Graham all landed their respective parts.
-During the record press disfiguring scene, they used a real record press, put in foam pads to substitute for an actual press, and put in chocks to stop it from closing all the way on Finley's head. However, the machine broke the chocks, but thankfully, Finley quickly made it out in time.
There you go! I hope you liked it or have at least grown a new appreciation for the movie, because if you can't tell by now, it is one of my all-time favorities. Of course, this was more than a little inspired by the April Fool's Day commentary over on the fantastic Retro Slashers website, so check that one out too!: Click Here