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Film / Phantom of the Paradise

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Swan... he has no other name. His past is a mystery, but his work is already a legend. He wrote and produced his first gold record at 14. In the years since then, he’s won so many others that he once tried to deposit them at Fort Knox. He brought the Blues to Britain. He brought Liverpool to America. He brought Folk and Rock together. His band, the Juicy Fruits, singlehandedly gave birth to the nostalgia wave in the 70s. Now he is looking for the new sound of the spheres, to inaugurate his own Xanadu, his own Disneyland: the Paradise, the ultimate Rock Palace. 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.

Phantom of the Paradise is a musical Cult Classic film from 1974, directed by Brian De Palma. It is essentially a sort of reimagining of The Phantom of the Opera, but set in The '70s and is more of a Rock Opera than a traditional one.

Winslow Leach (William Finley, a De Palma regular) is an aspiring singer/songwriter who's quite thrilled when powerful music producer, Swan (Paul Williams, who wrote all the film's songs), expresses interest in using his music — a rock version of Faust — to open The Paradise, the ultimate rock theater. However, Winslow quickly finds out that Swan wants absolutely nothing to do with him after taking his music. Winslow gets lucky the first time he sneaks into Swan's mansion, when he meets cute wannabe singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper, in her first feature film), but he's not so fortunate the second time, where he's beaten up by Swan's men, framed for drug dealing, and sent to prison for life.

Life in prison isn't so kind to Winslow. His teeth are extracted for experimental purposes, and he winds up with a set of sharp metal replacements. One day, when he hears one of his Faust songs on the radio— watered down into cutesy pop and performed by Swan's most popular band, The Juicy Fruits— he goes insane and manages to escape prison, he even manages to terrorize Swan's offices and the thugs who beat him up, but ends up in a freak accident with a record press, severely deforming his face and damaging his vocal cords. Angry and desperate, Winslow heads to The Paradise and dons a cape and a mask, now becoming the titular Phantom. He attempts to kill The Juicy Fruits (now retooled into "The Beach Bums") with a bomb, but fails. When he confronts Swan alone shortly thereafter, he's put off-balance by Swan's now conciliatory manner.

Swan not only gives Winslow a shiny new voice box, but the opportunity to have his music produced properly. Winslow agrees, but only if Phoenix can be the only one to sing his songs. Swan agrees and insists that Winslow sign a contract with his own blood. However, Swan doesn't care to keep his promises and instead hires glam-rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham, another De Palma regular) to perform with "The Undead" (previously The Beach Bums). Outraged, Winslow decides to take matters into his own hands...and discovers Swan's plans for Phoenix — and his very nature — are even worse than he thought.

A combination of The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Faust, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Phantom of the Paradise is a rather polarizing film, having been a complete flop when it was first released (though at least receiving an Oscar nomination for its soundtrack). It's now considered a cult favorite.

Compare and contrast The Rocky Horror Picture Show, another 1970s rock musical that tackles horror themes (albeit in a much spoofier manner and sticking to more conventional themes like mad scientists, aliens, and haunted houses) and was considered a failure when it first came out, but is now a cult classic. (Also, both films were by 20th Century Fox and Harper played Janet in Shock Treatment, leading some fans to see all three films as a loose trilogy.)

"And now, the tragic Tropes...":

  • Abominable Auditorium: Legendary record producer Swan creates a spectacular concert hall known as the Paradise as the crowning glory of his career. As such, it's his personal villain lair, complete with hidden passages, surveillance everywhere, regular mistreatment of performers, and even a private audio suite in which he essentially imprisons the Phantom - and seals him inside once his work is done. For good measure, Swan has no problem allowing his performers to be murdered on-stage for the sake of publicity.
  • All Part of the Show: The audiences at the Paradise apparently think everything is this, including Beef's death and the chaos at the wedding in the end.
  • Animal Motifs: Used with a healthy sense of irony.
    • Winslow Leach's name is ironic considering that the success of the Paradise is dependent on Swan leeching from Leach's work.
    • Phoenix's name highlights her character arc. This comes to the fore with Beef being burnt to a crisp before she symbolically rises from the ashes of his failure. She's also the only named character who survives, mirroring the phoenix's status as immortal.
    • Swan is as regal and luxurious as the implicit cultural implications given by his name. As well as resembling an inversion of the ugly duckling tale seeing as he becomes more and more monstrous, from a personality perspective, as the movie goes on. Swans are also known to be much more vicious than their appearance lets on.
    • Beef's name stands out among these; he's the only one named after a dead animal and the first one to die.
    • The Phantom's mask is also reminiscent of a stylized owl, or similar bird of prey, making the Love Triangle very avian themed. Which fits in a musical setting since the sounds and chirps many birds make are considered melodic.
  • Aside Glance: Jessica Harper looks directly into the camera several times as she sings Phoenix's audition song ("Special to Me").
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Swan's desk. It's a giant, round gold record with the Death label. Since the desk is about a dozen feet wide and the only place for Swan to sit is dead centre, he must have to scramble across the top of it.
    • We also see a fashion version in Beef's wooden platform shoes. When he trips on his microphone cord, he has a lot of trouble getting up.
  • Badass Biker: All of Swan's security come from his own personal motorcycle gang.
  • Bait-and-Switch: For much of the first act, Swan's face always off camera, with his gloved hands visible. This can easily lead to the audience assuming he is the Phantom of the title. And then we do see his face. Lo and behold, Winslow turns out to be the Phantom.
  • Bath Suicide: It's shown that Swan was about to do this when he was offered his Deal with the Devil.
  • Berserk Button: Winslow is very protective of his music and gets very angry when it is not performed the way he wants it, by whom he wants to perform it. This is even before he becomes The Phantom, in an early scene he puts Philbin through a wall for suggesting that The Juicy Fruits might perform his songs.
  • Big Applesauce: Set in New York City. Some it was filmed there, but interior shots were mostly filmed in California, and most of the song sequences and a lot of the exterior shots were done in Dallas. The outside of the Swanage is the old Dallas County courthouse (also called Old Red).note 
  • Bittersweet Ending: Winslow manages to stop Swan and brings about his death but his fatal wound reopens as he dies in Phoenix's arms. Before dying, however, he achieves recognition, Phoenix's love and saves both his and Phoenix's souls while ensuring Swan goes to his final damnation.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: It's the horrible, merciless music producer Swan versus the mentally unstable and vengeful Winslow Leach, though they end up working together at different points of the film.
  • Blood Oath: Swan, Winslow, and Phoenix all sign one.
    Ink isn't worth anything to me, Winslow.
  • Bury Your Gays: Beef gets impaled with a fake lightning bolt.
  • Call-Back: The line "I was not myself last night" from "Faust" is re-used in the bastardized rewrite, "Upholstery".
  • Camp Gay: Beef, specifically of the Macho Camp variety.
  • Careful with That Axe: Part of the Glam Rock (Alice Cooper/KISS style theatrics) show features the guitars as literal axes, "dismembering" an audience member, along with several musical shrieks.
  • Casting Couch: Exaggerated. Swan's process for selecting female singers is three of his bodyguards ushering an assembly line of applicants through a door, throwing them onto a waiting couch and pawing at them; those who make it to the next round have to cuddle with each other in a Sapphic orgy that Swan himself joins (one girl mentions that she's been called back a dozen times, just never to sing). And then, maybe, you get to audition on-stage later.
  • A Chat with Satan: Satan talks to Swan when he attempts to kill himself in a bathtub.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: A rather unfortunate case. Swan's record label, Swan Song, was featured in many scenes, including long shots and panning shots. At about the same time they were filming, Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant started a real record label with the name, and beat Phantom by a couple months with their first album release. Grant threatened to block release of the film, so De Palma and his editor very poorly covered up the offending words with the new label name, Death Records. Even worse, several long take scenes with too much movement were reedited so as to not show the original name, wasting the long single take shots. That name was everywhere. Luckily, the original takes survive in the hands of a fan, though who knows if they'll ever be used in a future release.
    • One unforseen consequence was Peter Grant getting upset at Beef's death, as it resembled the onstage (accidental) electrocution of Les Harvey, guitarist for Stone The Crows, a band managed by Grant.
  • Creator Thumbprint: As one of the earlier films from Brian De Palma, it's got his trademark style all over it, including the split-screen POV. Another subtle Running Gag in his films is using "Paradise" (or a translation of it) as a business name.
  • Cult Soundtrack: Spurred by huge sales in Winnipeg, the soundtrack album went Gold in Canada.
  • Dance Party Ending : A pretty ghastly version. After Winslow crashes the wedding and both he and Swan die the audience runs forward and boogies amid the chaos. Cue credits.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: Invoked twice:
    • The opening number, "Goodbye Eddie" by the Juicy Fruits, tells the story of a singer who commits suicide right after his first album is released so his struggling mother and sister can profit from the resulting publicity.
    • Swan attempts to do this with Phoenix at the climax, having her killed during the finale of the Faust rock opera.
  • Deal with the Devil: Swan made a deal with the Devil so that he wouldn't age. He also has his bands and singers sign contracts to him, not allowing them to die until he does. The catch is that he must film himself each day of his life and watch the results daily (in which he looks and sounds wretched), or the deal breaks; Winslow finds this out and destroys the reels, leaving Swan vulnerable. Also the story of Faust, as presented in-universe in Winslow's music.
  • Death Wail: Winslow's shriek of rage when he discovers Swan's second betrayal.
    Beef: That was something trying to get out of its premature grave, and I don't wanna be here when it does.
  • Deconstruction: Of the myth of the music industry. Most artist's success is thanks to the hard work of writers who are more than likely screwed over by the producers and companies, fame can get into anyone's heads, and the companies control their artists by giving them a steady supply of drugs. Which is in complete contrast to the belief that artists write their own record-making hits, real rock stars never sell out, and that the stars have a friendly relationship with their 'bosses'.
  • Depraved Dentist: All of the inmates at the prison Winslow Leach is sent to have their teeth removed and replaced with metal ones, because of an experimental health procedure funded by the Big Bad.
  • Diegetic Musical: The plot is centered around a songwriter's operatic adaptation of Faust, the evil music mogul Swan stealing it and framing him for a crime and the opening of Swan's new concert hall "The Paradise". Every song in the film is presented as an In-Universe performance, whether it's a concert, audition or the live-showing of the eponymous opera.
  • Dirty Cop: After one of Winslow's failed attempt's to get into see Swan, Swan has a couple of police officers plant heroin on him.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Winslow kills (or attempts to kill) anyone who isn't Phoenix that sings his songs.
    • For the crime of possessing heroin (albeit planted on him by Dirty Cops), Winslow is sentenced to life in prison.
  • Dramatic Unmask: Averted. Winslow removes his mask as he approaches Phoenix, but she's the only one who cares. The crowd just thinks it's part of the show.
  • Facial Horror: Winslow is permanently and hideously disfigured when his face is trapped in a record press at Swan's recording studio. After the Phantom destroys the videotapes and contracts keeping Swan, Phoenix and himself immortal, Swan’s face begins to rapidly putrefy before he is stabbed to death.
  • Fatal Method Acting: An In-Universe example when Beef is murdered by electrocution onstage and the crowd cheers it on, thinking it's part of the show.
  • Flag Drop: In the courtroom scene.
  • Follow That Car: Winslow hails a cab and tells the driver this when he tails Swann from his office to his home.
  • Funny Background Event: The Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/Undead's songs all have some amusing little bits going on alongside the singing.
  • Genre-Busting: The film somehow manages to be a rock opera, a harsh satirical deconstruction of the music industry, a parody of The Phantom of the Opera, and a retelling of both Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray, all at the same time.
  • Genre Shift: A mid-song example. As Swan attempts to find someone to perform Winslow's music, he watches several different artists perform sections of the song, each taking up exactly where the last one left off, and none of them for more than a line or two. You'll never think of genre the same way again after watching it.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: Swan likes his female auditionees to have sex with each other for his own enjoyment.
  • Glamour Failure: Swan refuses to be photographed or recorded by anyone but his lackeys because though he has eternal youth from his Deal with the Devil, he shows up the way he truly looks and sounds on film.
  • Glam Rock: A rather atypical example in Beef.
  • Gothic Horror: The film is a mid-'70s Homage to Gothic Horror, borrowing visual cues and motifs from the likes of Frankenstein, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust. The film itself is built on many tropes familiar to the genre; its protagonist is a tragically deformed, morally ambiguous Theatre Phantom-Byronic Hero, the antagonist a Satanic Archetype whose industry reflects a Decadent Court hosting Dances and Balls, a waifish love-interest who is lusted after by both, religious overtones, a Creepy Crow motif, a Deal with the Devil (both metaphorical and literal), Malevolent Architecture and a Downer Ending with an aftertaste of divine justice.
  • Government Drug Enforcement— well, Corporate Drug Enforcement:
    • Death Records does this with all their musicians. For example, when one of The Beach Bums complains that he feels too bad to sing, Philbin just shoves some pills down his throat and pushes him back on stage. He was right to not want to perform.
    • Also happens later with Beef, when he doesn't want to perform because of the Phantom.
    • In the scene where Phoenix signs a contract, it's implied that it only happened because Swan got her high.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Old Scratch himself, who made Swan immortal.
  • Groupie Brigade: Phoenix gains one after her first performance at The Paradise. Winslow rescues her from it to have a private conversation with her on the roof. More bizarrely, Beef gains one after he dies: with the crowd enthusiastically chanting his name as his body is wheeled out to the ambulance.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Winslow finishing his cantata while a melancholy song plays over the footage.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: The female singers who audition are intentionally bad, to make Phoenix look better by contrast. By the third audition scene, when Swan is seeking his "new sound," they're all pretty good, just bland.
  • Iris Out: On Phoenix after she sings "Old Souls".
  • Irony: The title and first line of the song that gets Beef killed is "Life at Last".
  • Looks Like Cesare: Invoked with the makeup of The Undead, and the stage backdrop for their performance with Beef is an homage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well.
  • Musical World Hypothesis: The rest of the songs are performances or rehearsals but Never Thought I'd Get To Meet The Devil seems to be in Leach's head as he's going to confront Swan.
  • Mythology Gag:
    • Philbin is named after Mary Philbin, the actress who played Christine in the silent version of The Phantom of the Opera.
    • Swan also dresses like Lon Chaney for the press conference introducing Beef.
    • The Phantom being depicted more sympathetically and getting disfigured while trying to destroy the music that was stolen from him is reminiscent of the 1962 Hammer Horror adaptation.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: A very minor example. The film was released in October of 1974, but the calendar pages show December of 1974.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
  • Novelization: Released alongside the film, but author Bjarne Rostaing was working from a very early draft of the screenplay, and took free rein with the characters and story, to the extent that the Swan Archives website compares it to a Fanfic. The big difference is with Phoenix, who's a debauched Femme Fatale (!) in the novel.
  • Only One Name: Everyone except for Winslow Leach.
    • And Philbin. Arnold Philbin, that is.
  • Opening Narration: By none other than Rod Serling, talking about Swan.
  • Orbital Shot: A lengthy one on Winslow as he sings "Faust" alone at the piano.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Winslow's attempt to infiltrate the Swanage as a harem girl.
  • The Piano Player: Winslow at the beginning of the film before Swan "discovers" him.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Swan is quite misogynist and rather homophobic as well.
  • Pun: Winslow is initially sent to (the real-life prison of) Sing-Sing.
  • Recycled Lyrics: "Upholstery", being Winslow's cantata ("Faust") turned into a vapid surf rock song, shares a line ("I was not myself last night") with it. There's also other lines that aren't exactly the same but sound very similar.
  • Reference Overdosed: The plot of the film is remarkably coherent given how many sources it draws upon, not to mention the inevitable Alfred Hitchcock homages that director Brian De Palma is fond of throwing into his works:
    • The title and the first half of the plot specifically invokes The Phantom of the Opera.
    • The "sold his soul" aspect of the plot is obviously based on Faust, just like Winslow's cantata (and Faust is the production in the climax of the original novel of The Phantom of the Opera).
    • Swan's deal with the Devil features a recording that ages in his place, much like The Picture of Dorian Gray.
    • The Phantom's attack on Beef in the shower homages and parodies the infamous shower scene in Psycho.
    • The assassination during a stage performance recalls The Man Who Knew Too Much as well as The Manchurian Candidate.
    • Many allusions to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It was even mentioned by name in the advertising as one of the films that established the tradition that Phantom was honoring.
    • A very obscure example—"A typical ‘schlemiel’, stumbling from one situation to the next; he gets robbed, cheated, unjustly arrested, frequently beaten and exploited. In a parallel plot [his] love interest is raped, abused, and sold into prostitution." Sound familiar? That's the plot of A Cool Million, a 1934 novel by Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust). Specifically, Winslow having his teeth removed in prison is lifted from the novel, and the line about teeth being "a source of infection" is a direct quote.
      • And A Cool Million is pretty much West's take on Candide.
  • Scary Teeth: Winslow Leach having his teeth replaced with sharp stainless steel teeth while he was in prison.
  • Sequel Escalation: In-universe, with Swan's public shows. The first in the film features a singer bloodlessly miming harakiri on stage. The second involves dummy audience members being hacked up by the singers and turned into a Frankenstein-like man. This show ends with said man being electrocuted on stage. The final show, the wedding, features a man being shot in the head, the Phantom's wounds re-opening, and Swan himself being graphically stabbed to death on live TV, with the theater audience themselves finally climbing up to take part in it all.
  • The '70s: Very much a product of its time, centering on a Fillmore-style rock palace, with songs that are takes on genres that were popular around 1974: pop-rock, Doo-wop revival, pop ballads, and Glam Rock.
  • Sex–Face Turn: Inverted and downplayed. Towards the climax of the movie Swan seduces Phoenix and presumably has sex with her while Winslow watches them through a skylight, which prompts him to try to commit suicide.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Pretty damn cynical, but at least with a bittersweet, tragic hero ending.
  • Soul Jar: Winslow's contract with Swan, and the tape of Swan making his contract with the Devil.
  • Sparse List of Rules: The contract that Winslow Leach signs with Swan is presented as a thick paper manuscript. Winslow only asks about one or two of the entries, including the all encompassing "All articles that are excluded shall be deemed included."
  • Stalker with a Crush: Winslow pretty much has to become this after his deal with Swan.
  • Stylistic Suck: "Upholstery," which shares the same melody as Winslow's beautiful "Faust" cantata, with new lyrics turning it into a vapid, materialistic Surf Rock number.
  • Theatre Phantom: Winslow a disfigured composer writes his music for a woman he loves so that she will perform his music. However, Swan betrays him and steals his music to open his rock palace, The Paradise. Betrayed, Winslow dons a new appearance and exacts revenge on the producer.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer reveals Beef's death at the hands of Winslow.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The Undead, with their elaborate stage makeup, seems like a parody of KISS, but at the time the film was being made (late 1973-early 1974) KISS hadn't released their debut album yet, and were still mainly playing the New York club circuit. They were wearing their makeup at that point, but it's doubtful that the production team was even aware of them.
  • Uncanny Valley: Throughout the film, Swan has a subtly off nature, from going to elaborate means to hide himself in public as well as his face seeming somewhat masklike in addition to looking very boyish for an unnatural 20 years. It's confirmed when it's revealed that this due to a Deal with the Devil in which he would record himself in private to ensure the immorality and avoid public reveals, which would negate the immortality— resulting in Swan rotting. His voice has a melodious but artificial quality, which is confirmed when his voice on recordings is much raspier and aged, reflecting on his inner corruption.
  • Video Credits: Extended montages of the actors in their key scenes in the film, with clips often chosen in relation to the lyrics of "The Hell of It" that are sung alongside them (like "Good for nothing, bad in bed" being heard as clips of both Paul Williams and George Memmoli taken from the orgy sequence play).
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Swan is this to a T.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Swan, having realized he's mortal again and putrefying by the second, attempting to strangle Phoenix while raving about being promised her voice, as per the demonic contract he got her to sign, which has now been burned along with his own.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: "The Hell Of It", which plays over the end credits and lyrically celebrates the death of Swan.
  • Vocal Tag Team: Each Juicy Fruit/Beach Bum/Undead gets a lead vocal on a song.note 
  • Weaponized Headgear: During the frenzied climax, Winslow stabs Swan to death with the feathered headdress he snatches off one of the dancers.
  • Wedding Smashers: Swan plans to have Phoenix shot during their wedding ceremony for revenue and to steal her voice. Winslow doesn't take kindly to this and proceeds to crash the party.
  • What Measure Is a Mook? : Winslow kills a few of Swan's staff members along the way, including the hapless spotlight operator, and no one seems to notice or care.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: In "Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye", when narrating Eddie's story, the lead singer of The Juicy Fruits puts on a weird accent that is hard to define besides that it sounds vaguely Italian or Hispanic.
  • Wipe: Used as a transition after Winslow hails the taxi cab. This film's editor, Paul Hirsch, later helped establish wipes as a signature feature of the Star Wars films.


Video Example(s):


Under Contract

The Phantom finds to his dismay that the contract he signed won't let him die while Swan lives... and unfortunately, Swan is under contract as well.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / MagicallyBindingContract

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