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PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE: Brian De Palma's psycho rock musical

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Brian De Palma’s infamous tendency to divide his career between “one for me” personal works and “one for them” studio movies. One of his strangest and most beautiful films, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, airs tonight at midnight, and it is absolutely not to be missed. In fact, “strange” doesn’t even do it justice.

Ostensibly a rock ‘n roll riff on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, PARADISE is the story of a talented but hot-tempered musician, Winslow Leach (William Finley), whose elaborate, ambitious cantata based on the Faust legend is stolen by a mysterious rock impresario and record executive named Swan (Paul Williams). The socially maladjusted but determined Winslow, cast out into the cold (and even sent to Sing Sing for a stint) winds up horribly maimed after getting his head stuck in a record-pressing machine.

Somewhat shockingly, however, he and Swan eventually appear to come to an understanding: Swan will credit the cantata to the “late” Winslow, whom everyone believes to be dead, but get Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful young singer whom Winslow loves, to sing it. Sure enough, that arrangement also falls apart, especially when Swan beds Phoenix and drags her into his life of endless hedonism and drugs. The situation gains urgency, because Swan is no ordinary craven music honcho: He makes both Winslow and Phoenix sign ancient-looking contracts in their own blood, and he seems to have bigger plans for both of them than just making a few bucks off their hard labor. Let’s just say that the Faust legend winds up figuring into this story a lot more than initially seems.

But while the plot is certainly nutty, what makes PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE such a genuinely weird work is the wild tonal roller coaster De Palma engineers here. He mixes the bitter, cutting humor of a satire (the film is full of comic digs at the cult of celebrity and the music industry) with the genuine suspense of a thriller (this is a Brian De Palma movie after all) with the inflamed, high-stakes passion of a melodrama (the betrayal Winslow feels is palpable, actually touching). The writer-director even manages to get some of his pet themes in there, including surveillance, voyeurism, sexual treachery, and hidden identities. For all its cultish jokiness, this is a movie bursting at the seams with commitment: It’s a cult movie made by someone who clearly cares. It’s like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, but good.

The movie’s tonal mix extends even to its soundtrack, which features a range of excellent songs that run the gamut from old-fashioned, Beach Boys-style pop to hard-driving prog rock to moody ballads. In fact, there were plans some years ago to turn it into a stage musical. That this still hasn’t happened is criminal, frankly: The songs are all there, the story is there, the hook (“a rock ‘n roll Phantom!”) is there. In the meantime, we have the movie itself, one of the strangest ones ever made, by one of the most distinctive directors who ever lived.

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is part of Sundance Channel’s WTF: Watch This Film. Catch our weekly selection of the weird, wacky and way out every Thursday at Midnight.