Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mask-Off: Phantom of the Paradise

To conclude this weird look at a fairly-forgotten character as a horror icon, let's look at something that is scary for all the wrong reasons. This one is brought to you by another quite famous director, but will the results be different? Well, the first thing to note is that this film was made in 1974, so it pre-dates the previous two films by over a decade. The second thing to note is that it was directed by Brian De Palma, the man behind Dressed to Kill and Sisters. There are many moments when it is definitively a De Palma film for sure! It is also the official debut film of Jessica Harper, who, if you are anything like me, you know as the girl from Suspiria. She is our lead in the picture and, interestingly enough, does look very similar to other mistresses of the Phantom that would come later. The similarities in this version are very few, so they must be mentioned. Without further build-up, I bring you...
Oddly enough, the film begins with a long musical number by a band called- seriously- The Juicy Fruits. This wannabe Sha Na Na sings for a few minutes before a random guy wanders on while the stage is being cleaned and sings. This is when one of our two villains- a dead ringer for Meatloaf- begins to seemingly talk to the audience. We learn that he actually talking to the other villain, who we do not see until later. The man on stage sings a song, making it two in the first ten minutes. This is definitely a musical! They take the guy's music and pay him nothing. Well, at least it stops there. Oh wait, they just kicked him out of their building. At least it stops...oh, they beat him up when he dresses in drag and tries to talk to the man again. At least...they beat him up, plant drugs on him and send him to jail. At...oh and they put him in a prison experiment which involves him having his teeth replaced with metal dentures. This finally causes him to snap (this man is freaking Gandhi!) and try to smash all of the Juicy Fruit (giggle) records. Incidentally, he just runs out of prison. During the attempt, he falls into a record press and is maimed. Revenge is coming...eventually.
Wandering into the studio (this man is Solid Snake!), he wanders into the prop department & gets a leather get-up and a Prince of Space- style mask. He sets a bomb in a prop car used for a dress rehearsal. After a long build-up (plus a whole scene shot in split-screen), the bomb blows up, but neither kills nor hurts anyone. Damn, Phantom- you suck! He gets spotted by the boss (played by Paul Williams) and captured. Somehow, the man is tricked into a signing a contract to finish the rest of the work that he had started on. You can't trust him- he's The Penguin! Within less than a minute, we learn that the man is going to be betrayed again when his work is done. In addition, the young lady that our Phantom is swooning is over is taken off of the lead role to be replaced by a new singer. The man's name- Beef! Here's some historical irony for you: the lady is replaced by an effeminite male singer. The man dresses a lot like the lead from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (it came out the next year), while our lead actress would later star in Shock Treatment, the sequel to that film! I smell trouble brewing.Don't stop now- it only gets weirder, folks. The man is introduced to the public in a big show and backed by a band that dresses like KISS' cousins. Oh and they are the same men who also played The Juicy Fruits. We see in rehearsals that the show is changing drastically, even to the point where Beef is allowed to make up his own lines. When he finally finishes writing the lines in time for the show, The Phantom is walled up in his studio! He lets loose a loud scream which somehow goes through the whole building. One cut later and we see that he has broken loose and knocked out/killed the guards at the door. How? They never say. The power of love, I guess. He makes his way towards the stage as the show begins...and what a show it is! The KISS wannabes sing near the audience and fake chopping up fans! They use these 'parts' to assemble Beef, who sings a weird-ass song. As a bonus, their background is literally stolen from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari! Our Phantom gets revenge by throwing a lightning bolt-shaped light at Beef, which fries him to death on stage. Desperate, the men send out Ms. Harper to sing the next part, which the crowd loves. They love Alice Cooper-esque shows and opera? What a crowd!
But wait, there's more! On the roof, Harper rejects the Phantom and runs to the villain. She indulges in rock excess and seems too far gone. We learn that they plan to kill her in the next show! Why? Because it's televised and ratings would go through the roof. Clearly this guy does not plan long-term! We still need one more plot twist to make this confusing and silly, so here we go. Going through film reels in the man's office, The Phantom discovers that our villain made a deal with the Devil (aka his reflection shown in a red tint) to stay young again. This explains an earlier scene where our hero tried to commit suicide, but he could not die without the villain's say-so. Okay, it does not really explain it all that much. So our hero rushes towards the stage to stop the sniper who is going to shoot our heroine on cue. He does so and pulls off the villain's mask, revealing- for some reason- his scarred face. It was not scarred before, but it now because...I got nothing. Grabbing a nearby mask with a point on it, The Phantom stabs the minute villain and kills both of them in the process (since the contract dies with the villain). His mask comes off and our heroine figures everything out. Oh and the dancing crowd figures nothing out and just keeps dancing. The End.
That was...well, odd. All of the basic ideas are there (young opera singer, Phantom, etc), but warped to a really weird degree. Our heroine is a young singer named Phoenix- SYMBOLISM!!!- who does not exactly fall in love with the Phantom. Our Phantom is a misfigured music composer who has metal teeth and talks through a voice box. Congratulations, you just made another Doctor Phibes! In this film, our Phantom is mostly a hero, although he does kill a guy just for singing his music instead of Phoenix. Oh and remember my comments about the overly-done Faust referrences in the first of three Phantom films? Well, this one ups the ante! Not only does the show do 'Faust,' but our villain makes a deal with the devil, as well as our hero and heroine (albeit by proxy)! Do you get it?!?!? As a film, it is experimental and weird to a fault. It is a cult film in all of the best and worst ways. If you ever said, 'I wish Brian De Palma did a musical with glam rock and opera,' you are in luck. If you love the famous musical by A.L.W., look elsewhere. This is just it's weird, freaky cousin that nobody likes to talk to at the receptions.
Up next, Dolph Lundgren makes a film about time-travel. Ironically enough, it was locked in a vault for nearly three years. Stay tuned...

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