If you’ve ever read this blog before you’re probably familiar with my love-hate relationship with Brian De Palma. More than most directors, I find his work extremely polarizing. His are the films that rarely fall into any other category than “good” or “bad.” Good are films like Sisters, Hi, Mom, Blow Out, and Carrie. Bad are Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia, and Dressed to Kill. (Now that I think about it, there are a few that ride that middle ground – The Untouchables, Scarface, and Obsession, all of which are so close to parody that they’re comical – are average flicks).
I wouldn’t take offense if any ardent De Palma supporter took me to task for disliking his rock-opera-horror-film Phantom of the Paradise. For one, Phantom really knows what it is: part satire, part over-the-top sci-fi/gore, part musical camp. But missing are those things that make the director’s other films – his good ones – exceedingly interesting. Hi, Mom’s satire is so sharp, its irony so thick that there’s no other lens to view it through. The same is true of Carrie. Blow Out and Sisters, among others of his, rely so heavily on self-reflexivity and/or a certain kind of didactic filmmaking where De Palma is as interested in the methodology behind the film as the film itself.
Phantom attempts some of these, alongside very 1970s (and kind of awful) musical numbers and, ala The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which it predates), looks for a cult following amidst the wreckage of the mid-70s musical and burgeoning television scene.
Phantom feels like the kind of movie that, if you see it in the right setting, which in my opinion is either at a really young age so that it takes on a nostalgic quality or with a group of friends all of whom are open to and schooled in the idea of cinematic nonsense, it may just become a personal favorite. Outside of those options (and how I viewed it), the film succumbs to the poor acting of lead Michael Finley, De Palma’s excessive technique including enough fish-eye lens to make Terry Gilliam or Spike Jonze puke, and a misguided script that, while nailing the representative of greed in the entertainment industry into a coffin, does little worthwhile otherwise.
This is pure cheese in a Portrait of Dorian Gray meets Phantom of the Opera kind of way, exemplified by its tight sets that feel ripped out of a Roger Corman picture and its vinyl costuming (the second image below) that is as much gothic robot as it is haunting phantom.
De Palma is also interested in the evolution (or de-evolution) of the industry, best demonstrated by how the popular music of the time begins one way…
…and ends another way:
The difference between the two performances is obvious and startling, and De Palma’s points – that tastemakers rapidly change our tastes, that the performers are generally the mere pawns (note that these are the same guys from that first, Juicy Fruits, image in the second gothic one), and that some kind of artistic upheaval is generally inevitable at any time – are made, but they fall flat amidst the absurdity that takes place between this transformation.