“That’s the Hell of It!”Allegory, Satire, and Musical Horror in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

 “My music is for Phoenix. Only she can sing it. Anyone else who tries, dies”

Phantom of the Paradise is a musical experience unlike any other, which is strange, considering how frequently it is compared to other horror musicals, particularly The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS). But Phantom is a masterpiece in its own way, as is its criticism and use of allegory. The film is a cacophony, a loud and direct statement against the corrupt, sexist, and overall exploitative music industry. Its story might seem insane, but there are multiple instances where that seeming exaggeration turns out to be fairly accurate. In a time when people were not talking about the violent repercussions’ musicians were facing, Phantom addressed them head on. It was not afraid to talk about casting couches or corrupt police, even though these moments are shown through satire. The film is thus a complex and intertextual satire about the horror underlying music production.

Released in 1974, Phantom was created at the height of the Rock Star persona. It was directed by Brian De Palma, who is predominantly known for his later works, including Scarface and Carrie. It is a cult classic which never reached the same level of mainstream success as films like RHPS. It has gained a small and persistent fandom but remains fairly obscure in even horror musical discussions. That might be because the film’s eccentric subject and focus on sexploitation is rather pessimistic, as is its ending. That said, these qualities make the film extremely relevant, particularly in the age of Me Too.

“There Really Is a Phantom”

The film concerns a timid music composer, named Winslow, who writes an epic Faustian cantata about love, greed, and the Devil. After performing one of his songs at the Paradise club, Winslow has his music stolen by the diabolical and mysterious Swan, the club owner. Swan has Winslow wrongfully imprisoned so he can open his club with the incredible music. When Winslow escapes prison, he accidently deforms his face with a record press, and loses his voice. Winslow disguises himself with a silver bird mask and hides inside the Paradise, where he torments the club and becomes increasingly obsessed and violent about his music, and its muse. He falls ‘in love’ with Phoenix, an ambitious chorus girl, and decides to make her his surrogate voice. Only she can perform his music the way he intended, as a sort of extension of himself.

Winslow makes an agreement with Swan so he can secretly orchestrate and rewrite the cantata for Phoenix, and in exchange, he agrees to stop terrorizing the club. Swan ignores this agreement and hires Beef, an ill-suited glam singer. When Winslow discovers this, he murders Beef mid-performance and forces Phoenix to finish the show. Swan is delighted by the crowd’s reaction to the murder, and so he decides to cast Phoenix, marry her, and then publicly assassinate her. Even more treachery unfolds, as Winslow discovers that Swan is an immortal being who can only be killed by destroying a film reel. Eventually, Winslow stops the assassination, kills Swan, saves Phoenix, and then dies. Phoenix finally realizes who was under the mask but its too late. She is left alone with the frenzied crowd, alone with the dead musician.

If this plot sounds familiar, it should. The film incorporates several familiar stories but places them in a modern – well, 70’s- situation. As suggested by its title, Phantom of the Paradise is an adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, but also an adaptation of Faust, the same subject which inspires Winslow’s cantata. This is just one of the ways the film focuses on mirrors and reflections, or duplication. Winslow’s music reflects these other works but also the events of the film. We see references to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, and the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all of which are frequently cited by glam musicians and other rock musicals. These references explain why Phantom is so often compared to other projects, as it mirrors their plots and creations. Before discussing how the film operates independently, I think it would be useful to discuss why it makes these references, and why it gets compared.

I first learned about Phantom of the Paradise because I was obsessed with adaptations of Phantom of the Opera. Because I stumbled across the film while searching ‘Phantom’ in IMDB,I have always seen it in comparison with other Phantom projects, specifically the way it shares its plot with Gaston Leroux’s book. Del Palma’s film modernizes the text, and in doing so, says something about our society versus Leroux’s.  For instance, the film transforms the competitive Carlotta into the pill popping, cocaine sniffing, and humorously ill-suited Beef. He is the wrong choice to sing Winslow’s music because he embodies a different music genre: glam. The level of excess and performance involved with glam doesn’t match Winslow’s cantata, as although both opera and glam rock are exorbitant, they approach this theatricality in different ways. The filmalso has a different kind of antagonist, as the Phantom character is traditionally the primary villain/antihero in the story. Not so in Phantom of the Paradise, as Phoenix is surrounded by villains who call themselves geniuses. She gets exploited by everyone, including Winslow. Its left unclear at the ending if Winslow’s sacrifice will liberate Phoenix, or if she is stuck in this toxic system. Both changes suggest that our modern world is far more complex and immoral than Leroux’s subject. Dastardly villains are no longer content with opera house basements. Now, they run the entire music industry and the poor souls within it.  

“Our Paths Have Crossed and Parted” : RHPS and Phantom

RHPS casts an overwhelming shadow on Phantom, particularly as it was released only a year later, 1975. It is impossible to ignore the strange coincidences between Phantom and RHPS, as both horror musicals share similar characters and moments. Each includes a Frankenstein resurrection scene, a mysterious Gothic castle, and even a song about a man named Eddie who dies in the pursuit of pleasure and glory. They also share an interest in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, as Beef arrives in a coffin during “Life at Last”, and each fixates on resurrection and lightening. Its unclear why the films are so similar, as although RHPS came out the year after Phantom, it was a stage production beforehand. But this is just the start of the connections between the films.

We additionally see the same characters in RHPS and Phantom, as Janet and Phoenix are both tempted by the ‘devil’, Beef mirrors aspects of Frank-N-Furter and RHPS, the conniving Riff Raff mirrors Swan, and Brad and Winslow are both awkward and out of place, at least initially. The films similarly end the same way, as major characters are killed off, and the audience wonders what will happen now. They leave us with the question: can the remaining characters ever recover from the strange events which just happened? Can we?

These similarities and RHPS‘s immense popularity have become a bit of a running joke in the Phantom fandom, especially as Phantom is so unknown in comparison. It also seems like the creators of RHPS were aware of this comparison, as Jessica Harper (who plays Phoenix) went on to play Janet in Shock Treatment, the 1981 RHPS sequel **. This casting bridges the two fandoms, as Janet and Phoenix really are the same person.

At the same time, Phantom has a totally different position and criticism than RHPS. While RHPS parodies 50’s horror movies and critiques suppressive and traditional views on sexuality, Phantom critiques the music industry and nostalgia. We hear several versions of Winslow’s song, “Faust”, during the film, and each are done through a different music genre. For example, when Swan auditions singers, the song gets translated into country, soul, and rock. None of these versions suit Winslow’s music, and it feels like Swan is just flinging genre onto the song.

When Swan picks Beef, the film implies that glam rock is the opposite of Winslow’s original music. Glam is loud and distracting, while Winslow’s ballad is slow and stripped back. This demonstrates that genre is ultimately meaningless to figures like Swan, its just a way to tell a song, not the song itself. While Swan is interested in the bigger picture, how it will be received, Winslow is obsessed with the components of the song, its genre and Phoenix’s voice. This summarizes the film’s position on the industry complex, as Swan is only interested in the future, not the present or past. He uses nostalgia to lure his audience but isn’t interested in what constitutes nostalgia or its various components. That is why we get a bizarre car surfer song about halfway through the film (“Upholstery”), and why The Juicy Fruits transition from rockers to surfers. Nothing about their music or image matters, its only there to entertain people momentarily. The characters switch between genres because of Swan’s mentality. That is why Swan ridicules nostalgia, noting “Who wants nostalgia anymore?”. It is just a cheap and quick way to captivate people, and none of it matters.

“We’ll Remember You Forever Eddie”

Swan lacks dedication to any genre or person in the same way he lacks morality. Every aspect of his industry and approach to music are horrible. Casting, production, and performance, each of these are just layers in his Dante-like inferno and network. Take “Goodbye Eddie”, a song about a washed-up musician who decides to kill himself so his record will sell, and so his sister can afford medical treatment. The lyrics claim that Eddie did a good thing, and that his suicide was valiant and admirable, rather than critiquing a system which drives people to suicide to help their family. Likewise, although they are singing about a martyr, the musicians are busy trying to assault women while singing. The song thus juxtaposes immoral actions with moral subject, a jarring comparison.

The musician’s behaviour demonstrates that the words do not mean anything, they are just singing because it’s a job. This trend continues throughout the film, as only figures like Winslow and Phoenix pay attention to the songs. Likewise, “Goodbye Eddie” makes a direct link between commodity and morality, in addition to death and success. The film suggests that music is a destructive entity, as are the people who run it. They only care about the result, not the people who make it. By associating music deals with Devil pacts, Phantom suggests that the industry is a corrupt system of legal damnation which abuses and distorts true artistry.

It’s ironic that the film was later dominated by the very industry it critiqued. Prior to its release, the manager of Led Zeppelin “created a real-life record company called ‘Swan Song Records’…. [beating] Phantom to the name by only a few months” (“Swan Song Fiasco”). Having recently witnessed one of his singers electrocuted on stage, the manager thought Phantom was a personal insult and “threatened to block release of the film.” (cont.) As a result, the film was recut with a new name for Swan’s company: Death Records.  However, because the film was already finished, it had to be quickly reedited before it could be distributed. Seeing as this was the 70’s, these edits are rather glaring. There are a few missed shots which include the original name, and then others which have a new blurry title hovering just slightly in the frame. These additions have never been retouched or fixed, and so Del Palma’s film is satirical in more than one way. Not only is its subject about a domineering industry, but its very form is a demonstration of that domination.

“Now That’s Entertainment”

Another way the film critiques the music industry is by suggesting that music consumption is equally depraved. We have already seen that society is terrible in the film, as the police are easily bribed, and Swan’s men try to rape Phoenix. However, the audience additionally functions as a horror movie monster, a type of hyper violent mass. They enjoy Beef’s performance, and his theatrical dismemberment, but they dissolve into a frenzy when he is graphically electrocuted.

The audience is unable to distinguish reality from theatricality by the end of the film because both are forms of entertainment. Every act of violence and immorality is theatrical and thus meaningless. When Winslow saves Phoenix at the end of the film, all barriers between reality and show break, and the audience descends into absolute chaos. By stopping the performance, he essentially disrupts the frail borders around what is real and not. This allows the audience to transform into a cult fandom, a rabid and blood thirsty demon created by Swan’s industry.  

One way the film emphasizes this cult mentality is by focusing on mirrors, or extensions of self. Swan is often shown through mirrors, as though his presence is everywhere in the Paradise, and is reflected in the audience. That said, Swan’s one weakness is a small film reel, which contains a reflection of his true devil self. Only by destroying the film reel can one destroy Swan, which says something about the role of cinema. Film is the only mirror you can trust in Phantom, the only thing which will show you things as they are. This implies that Phantom captures the true depravity occurring in the industry, just as Swan’s film captures his own depravity.

“And Tho’ Your Music Lingers On, All Of Us Are Glad You’re Gone”

Phantom is a hard hitting and nihilistic satire of music and commodification, but its also a cautionary tale about corruption and fame. This is perhaps its strongest difference from RHPS, which does not really have a moral lesson other than “Don’t dream it, be it”. There is no happy ending in De Palma’s world, just a finale and ambiguity. The film draws back the curtain and reveals the true face of music production and distribution without providing closure. As the end credits roll, the audience is left to contemplate what they just watched, and why these issues cannot be tidied away. These themes and questions about our society are just as relevant now as they were then. But at the same time, we hear Paul William’s lyric during this credit role: “Nothing matters anyway, that’s the hell of it”, and that is the film’s take away. When nothing matters, other than one man’s ambition, everything and everyone fails.

**Want to learn more about Shock Treatment, the lesser known follow up to RHPS? Check out my blog post from earlier this week (http://youremindmeoftheframe.ca/2020/09/ive-just-come-to-tell-you-how-fabulous-i-am-the-shock-in-shock-treatment-1981/)

Works Cited: “The Swan Song Fiasco (Or, Why Are All Those Dead Birds Floating Around).” The Swan Achieves, https://www.swanarchives.org/production_fiasco.asp

2 comments on ““That’s the Hell of It!”Allegory, Satire, and Musical Horror in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)Add yours →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *