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

Revised June 2021, Phantom of the Opera month.

We see a stage painted black and white, with an open coffin. It’s ready for an elaborate funeral, a Frankenstein christening if you will. Three men step forward in unison, walking towards their frenzied audience. The lead singer slashes his microphone stand across the crowd, slicing a manikin in half. His assistants pull up the torso and begin to sew it to other flailed limbs. They place it in the coffin and stand back as it begins to rise to a hidden catwalk. An electric thunderbolt begins to strobe across the performers’ faces. “Life at Last!” screams the figure in the coffin, as he stumbles out and begins to sing. He flounces around the stage, proudly displaying his Frankenstein stitches and ripped clothing to the audience. He is a butcher, both in flesh and song. The song does not belong to him, he ripped it from the throat of another singer. And deep in the theatre, past this ignorant crowd, a figure, a phantom, plots his revenge. A what a loud revenge it shall be.  

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 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 lends to the film’s ongoing discussion on style versus content, and it’s not entirely outlandish. In a time when people were not talking about the political and intuitional violence against musicians, particularly female musicians, Phantom addresses them in a blatant way. It is not afraid to talk about casting couches or corrupt police, even though these elements are depicted through satire. For instance, when the leading lady, Phoenix, tries to audition for a production, she is led to a crowded room of seminude women, a couch, and a leering manager. She is escorted out after she refuses to sleep with the manager and is quite upset, rightfully, by the whole experience. The film, and the other male characters, quickly move on from this incident, the Phantom character is even visibly confused at why her audition didn’t go well and why she didn’t get to sing. Phoenix is not confused by what she has gone through, or what other female artists content with daily. The film implies that just as its Phantom figure suffers, Phoenix suffers in a different and gendered way, a way which even the Phantom cannot understand. She addresses this situation multiple times, even jeering at the manager during her second audition, noting “Do I get to sing this time?”. The story is not about Phoenix necessarily, nor is it told from her perspective, but we do get these weighted moments, just very quick disturbing shots that talk about what women like Phoenix face in the industry. The film is thus a complex and intertextual commentary on 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, yet it remains largely 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. However, those very qualities make the film extremely relevant, particularly in the age of Me Too.

“There Really Is a Phantom”

Like it’s namesake, Phantom of the Paradise is quite operatic and dramatic, but there is an underlying reason for that style. To briefly summarize, it focuses on 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 rock club, Winslow has his music stolen by the club’s diabolical and mysterious owner, Swan. Swan has Winslow wrongfully imprisoned so he can open his club with this incredible music. Winslow manages to escape prison, but then accidently falls into a record press and has his face squished and deformed. Having lost his voice and face, 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. More specifically, he becomes fixated on Phoenix, an ambitious chorus girl and his muse. Winslow decides that only Phoenix can perform his music the way he intended, as a sort of extension of himself and surrogate voice. He treats her like a literal Phoenix, as though her voice can give his music new life. The film thus focuses on two versions of resurrection, as we get this rebranded Frankenstein version with Swan and Beef, where bodies and song lyrics are interchangeable, but also this rebirth form, a new life from a dead place.

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 (this Frankenstein concert) and forces Phoenix to finish the show. Swan is delighted by the crowd’s reaction, as they begin worshipping Beef’s death, and so he decides to cast Phoenix, marry her, and then publicly assassinate her on stage. 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 it’s also an adaptation of Faust, the same subject which inspires Winslow’s cantata. These allegories are just one of the ways the film focuses on mirrors and reflections, or duplication. Winslow’s music is technically about Faust, but it relates closely to the events in the film. So, we get two levels of reference, both a literal reference to Faust, and a more complex narrative reference. It is important to note that this Faust reference is also made in the original Phantom of the Opera novel, and so the Phantom film is making a reference through a different reference. It’s version of Faust is entirely dependent on the depiction of Faust in Gaston Leroux’s novel. Again, we get these mirrors reflecting onto De Palma’s film, layers of reference and character. The film also includes references to The Picture of Dorian GrayFrankenstein, and the pioneering 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all of which are frequently cited by other glam and rock musicals. These references explain why Phantom is so often compared to other projects, as each rock opera movie essentially cites the exact same works. Phantom relies on this shared reference base; it incorporates our familiarity with these original sources and their later influences to create even more mirroring. Before discussing how the film operates independently, I think it would be useful to discuss why it makes these references, and why it is noteworthy that people consistently compare it to other projects.

I first learned about Phantom of the Paradise because I was obsessed with adaptations of Phantom of the Opera. I stumbled across the film while searching ‘Phantom’ in IMDB, so I have always seen it in comparison with other Phantom projects, especially as it’s a fairly accurate adaptation of Leroux’s book. De 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 film also 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. Swan is as much of a Phantom figure as Winslow, as he is often shown hidden in the shadows of an opera box, like Leroux’s villain. There are several corrupt figures in the film, which is why it is so troubling that it ends with no clear moral resolution. The film’s ending is left ambiguous, and it’s unclear whether Winslow’s sacrifice will liberate Phoenix, or if she is stuck in this toxic system. These narrative 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”, while Rocky arrives in one during “Sword of Damocles”, and both films fixate on resurrection and lightening. I mean, RHPS features a performance by Meat Loaf, and Phantom has a character named Beef. Its unclear why the films are so similar, as although RHPS came out the year after Phantom, it was a stage production beforehand. But these are just some of the cursory similarities between the films.

We 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 Rocky in 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 each leave us with the question: can the remaining characters ever recover from the strange events which just happened? Can we? Phantom of the Opera ends in a similar way, as the Phantom dies, but we are not sure what happens to the other main characters. Suffice to say, Phoenix is never just one character, she is constantly compared to Janet and Christine in our cultural consciousness. These similarities, and RHPS‘ immense popularity, have become a bit of a running joke in the Phantom fandom, as Phantom is so unknown by 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 criticizes the music industry and the concept of nostalgia. For example, we hear several versions of Winslow’s song, “Faust”, during the film, and each through a different music genre. 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 genres onto the song. Focusing entirely on style rather than content.

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 juxtaposition between style and content 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 ultimately isn’t interested in what constitutes nostalgia or its various components. That is why we get a bizarre car surfer song which makes absolutely no sense 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 this 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 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 memorial record will sell out and pay for his sister’s medical treatment. The lyrics claim that Eddie did a good thing, and that his suicide was valiant and admirable. It does that rather than critiquing the American health care and music industry, the things which drove Eddie to suicide. Only death can feed these organizations, as it can make you famous but that comes with a steep price. This song features some strong foreshadowing for the later events in the film, but none of the characters notice this subject, nor it’s satiric relevance. The singers spend the entire song trying to assault women, and they don’t pay any respect to the song or it’s subject. So, we get this strange juxtaposition of moral subject and immoral action. The musicians’ behaviour suggests that the song’s moral words are irrelevant, and no one is really listening to the song. This trend of style over content continues throughout the film, as only figures like Winslow and Phoenix pay attention to what they are singing. They unfortunately don’t pay attention to what they are signing, which leads to their downfall.

The song “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 criticizes. 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. As this was the 70’s, these edits are 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 De 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 an absolute frenzy when he is graphically electrocuted and dies on stage.

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. Because the audience never pays attention to the lyrics, nor the components or people who write music, they don’t know where style ends, and content or life begins. When Winslow saves Phoenix at the end of the film, all barriers between reality and show break, and the audience descends onto the stage. By stopping the performance, Winslow 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. There are also mirrors through the film’s reference style, as previously stated. That said, Swan’s only 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 stance is perhaps its strongest difference with RHPS, which does not really offer 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 earlier blog post (https://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 Archives, https://www.swanarchives.org/production_fiasco.asp