Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise

Things have been quiet on the site for a long time now. Life does it’s own thing. Here however, is a guest review from a very good friend of mine, @henryatthemovies.


With the lush colours, mad story, blend of soulful ballads and adrenaline boosting rock ‘n roll; it certainly can be said that Brian De Palma gave the Phantom of the Opera story a bump of coke and dressed it up in flares and a sequin cape. The 70’s re-contextualisation of Gaston Leroux’s original 1910 novel transforms the gothic mystery novel into a commentary on the music industry of the time, with a healthy mix of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray to bring a supernatural spin on the idea of selling your soul for rock and roll. Its’ inception came from De Palma hearing The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ transformed into elevator music; sad how this beautiful song had been turned into soulless corporate background music. This was the genesis of this crazy commentary on the 70’s rock scene and filled it with sexual manipulation, back stabbing and musical neutering.

A lowly songwriter, Winslow Leach, has his music stolen by the mysterious record producer Swan and is thrown in prison. After an accident leaves him disfigured, he becomes the thorn in Swan’s side as he tries to champion the talent of the timid singer, Phoenix. That’s the setup but it’s a plot that’s brimming with so much. Things get crazier as it goes on, the unpredictability of a plot that reaches an insane conclusion that feels suited to the film. It’s a very free adaptation of Leroux’s novel, taking a good portion from the 1943 Universal remake. De Palma isn’t bound to the source material; he adds so much to the story, using that base as a jumping board for his own creativity.

It still has echoes of the Phantom novel with the mysterious hermit dispatching an ostentatious singer and replacing them with his own unknown, timid muse. The Faustian aspects allows for critiques on the music industry; Winslow signs a contract in his own blood and there is a later Satanic twist involving Swan. There is not a single scene that drags, they all entertain and work in the grand scheme of things. My favourite is the ‘Upholstery’ car bomb sequence where De Palma pays tribute to the legendary opening sequence of Touch of Evil but with split-screen. The tension builds up off-stage as we witness the first of the Phantom’s sabotage attempts that builds uneasiness in the audience as one of the Juicy Fruits becomes paranoid about a ticking noise. Behind the scenes we see the exploitative nature of the music business hidden behind the fun music and bright colours.

I often hear comparisons between this film and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both being rock and roll centred musicals with plain, normal characters thrust into a realm of freakishness. The two were also failures upon release but found new life as midnight cult movies, though Phantom beat Rocky Horror to the cinema by a year. Another fun connection is that Jessica Harper (Phoenix) played Janet in the sequel to Rocky HorrorShock Treatment (1981). Rocky Horror’s two leads, Brad and Janet, are very normal people who get sucked into the world of the mad scientist Dr Frank N Furter. Phoenix is the closest we get to a normal character in this film; our ‘hero’ Winslow shows from the beginning that he is unstable and can teeter between rationality and irrationality.

They’re really the only two main characters with any positive traits even though Winslow does resort to murdering people and violently disrupting the goings on at the Paradise. Winslow is a great anti-hero who can be both sympathetic and terrifying in the same scene. Finley’s bug eyes lend him a rather scary look that served him well in De Palma’s Sisters (1973) as it does here but it’s the dark avian look of the Phantom costume with the silver teeth that creates a menacing and iconic look. The bird look also pairs with Swan Songs dead bird logo – Swan has destroyed the songbird but this one rose up against him. Great work by costume designer Rosanna Norton and Finley for their aesthetic.

Up against Bill Finley as Leach is singer-songwriter Paul Williams as Swan. It’s genius casting having this embodiment of music scumbaggery being portrayed by a 5ft 2 soft-spoken, mop headed pianist known for writing songs for the Muppets (among others). It gives Swan an unassuming demeanour that hides his true malevolence. Originally called Spectre (in a not so subtle nod to producing superstar Phil Spector), we don’t see his face when we are first introduced to him, we only see who he is at the orgy scene. Discussing Winslow with Philbin, the faceless producer here begins to plot how to take Winslow’s pop cantata and manipulate it into something that suits the clean-cut Juicy Fruits. Gerrit Graham as glam rocker Beef is a part of Swan’s mutilation of Winslow’s music and is played with outlandish brilliance (his lip syncing not included). The glam rocker is this version’s Carlotta from Opera and his story beats are similar to her own, with an added ‘electrifying’ finale. A memorable moment between Beef and the Phantom is a drawn out homage to Psycho’s iconic shower scene with it’s own twist on the payoff. The glam rocker is a juxtaposition to the soft spoken Jessica Harper as Phoenix, who Winslow deems to be the only one who should sing his music. While not the most interesting character in the film, Harper makes up for it with her wonderful musical numbers and she is a strong actress.

Not only did Paul Williams take on the role of Swan, he was also responsible for the film’s fantastic score; writing the songs as well as lending his voice to ‘Faust’ and the ending song ‘The Hell of It.’ Due to the inclusion of the genre shifting Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/The Undead, Williams proves his excellent song writing skills by managing to create three separate songs in different styles: doo-wop, surf and glam rock. ‘Faust’ is transformed from a soulful section of Winslow’s pop cantata into the superficial (yet incredibly fun) ‘Upholstery,’ replacing deeper emotions for a surface level summer romance with girls and cars – very reminiscent of early tracks from the Beach Boys. There are two songs that also share similar traits: ‘Life at Last’ and ‘Old Souls.’ The bombastic ‘Life at Last’ is performed by Beef with unashamed brashness and flamboyancy whilst Phoenix’s rendition of ‘Old Souls’ becomes a ballad that gives the song an emotional edge rather than a sexual slant. ‘Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye’ opens the film and it’s an upbeat doo-wop tribute about a rock star who kills himself so his album sells in order to help out his ill sister. An incredibly strong start for the soundtrack but it never falters afterwards, the songs only get better and better.

De Palma’s Phantom is a wonderfully delirious trip delivered in his trademark 70’s style with loud colours, split screen and crash zooms galore. The zany film is backed up with an incredibly strong soundtrack provided by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, each one as strong as the other. The often sad stereotype of dishonesty in the world of music is exaggerated with voice control and satanic pacts, but also among the flashiness is a glimmer of hope for the struggling artist to come out on top of it all. Certainly one of De Palma’s best and should be mandatory viewing for any fan of cult cinema. Check it out.

-Henry


 

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-Alex

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Suspiria (2018)

Suspiria 2018

To remake Suspiria is a bold move, the original is such a vivid slice of Giallo at its purest form it’s difficult to imagine how one would be able to do the original justice. Luca Guadagnino was named as the director of this remake of the Dario Argento shocker, Guadagnino hot off the back of his much-loved tender romance Call Me by Your Name (2017). You couldn’t help but think that these two names, Suspiria and Guadagnino were hardly a match made in heaven, one renowned for its violence and the other renowned for their deft and classy dramas. Having only recently seen the original (reviewed here by Alex), and loving it for its schlocky otherworldly expressive brand of witchy horror I felt that whilst it is clearly a great piece of horror cinema, it wasn’t perfect and I was interested to see where a retelling by such a different director would take us. From the first trailers it was clear that Suspiria (2018) would be a drastically different beast. Could this be a rare remake that succeeds in justifying itself as a standalone film and not just a clamouring homage? Having seen it now I can safely say that for me it has succeeded and bring so much more to the table than I could have imagined.


Luca Guadagnino has done a lot with Suspiria but has kept the basic framework of the original. We still have a naïve Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arriving in Berlin to join a prestigious dance academy under the tutelage of the brilliantly played Madame Blanc, Tilda Swinton is loving every moment of this film in one of three roles she fills in the film. The setting itself is what sets this film so apart from the original however. The opening scenes of the 1977 original had Berlin appear an utterly alien landscape with the dance academy being the only tangible reality, along with a few choice encounters outside its baroque walls. Gone is most of the expressionistic lack of reality, instead we are firmly rooted in Cold War divided Berlin. Guadagnino even places the film around the real-life turmoil the country was going through with the actions of infamous far-left radicals the RAF (Red Army Faction) and their abduction of a former SS officer come powerful industrialist. This is not to say that the film becomes overtly political, at its heart it is still very much a horror film with a penchant for gore, the director has just taken the story into a very necessary different direction. If Guadagnino had just aped the originals colour palate and story overtly the film would be effectively worthless. However, Guadagnino is much more astute and has created a different beast that slowly and surely seeps into your bones.

The beiges and browns of Berlin 1977 are brought out through the Bauhaus-esque dance studio, all wood and sparse modern dance studios. Colour is rarely seen in vivid tones unless Guadagnino wants you to be shocked by them. He keeps the colour central to the story and yet uses the sense of space and time so much more to root the film with some deeper meaning than just a slasher tale based around some creepy dancers. If the original was prog rock, this is much more post-punk, less Goblin and Yes, more Joy Division or Bauhaus (surprisingly) in tone. More screen time is given to the actual dance within the film as well, whilst the original may have had a little it was much more a background for the story to unfold on top of, in this remake however it has become a central point of the plot. Some scenes put the dance front and centre creating some incredible visuals, with the spastic movements of the contemporary dance being performed echoing a darker underbelly of the institution. Guadagnino is clearly drawing inspiration from the art scene of west Germany in the choreography used, echoing the work of Pina Bausch (See Pina, 2011, Dir. Wim Wenders) who would have been working in West Germany in the time frame of the film.

The pacing of this film is not on a par with the original I do have to admit, the originals 90 minutes rips by and Guadagnino has added a whole lot into the story. I found it much more slow burn than some have given it credit for, and for all its plot I must admit I never found it boring. The scope of the film is much wider than the original and I wonder that the fact this is such a drastic departure from the original is more of an issue for some than it needs to be. The acting in the film is also given much more space with everyone able to justify their character motives through backstory, no longer is Susie the blank slate that she is in the first film… Well she kind of is still but Dakota Johnson does a good job in imbuing her with a sense of willing ignorance and obsession. This however is clearly Tilda Swinton’s film, with her work as Madame Blanc along with two more central characters being almost more of the central focus of the film. She is such a mercurial talent, a fact that Guadagnino is clearly very aware of this due to his utilisation of her talents in three overarching roles throughout his Suspiria.

I found this possibly overlong and maybe pretentious art horror film to be a true highlight of the cinematic year. Whilst it may not always be scary in the conventional sense, there are high levels of creepy throughout and the focus by the director on the film and not just the bravado moments made it pop for me. A worthy and brilliant remake of an already revolutionary film, although I sense I may be in the minority on this one.

-Ed

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Suspiria (2018)