(Welcome to Videodrome. A monthly column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema — from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)
While Halloween goes hand in hand with horror, perhaps nothing captures the playfully gruesome spirit of the season quite like a musical horror comedy.
But blending laughter, tunes and good old-fashioned human slaughter is not an easy trick to pull off—nor are there many treats in this underserved genre. Beyond Sweeney Todd and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fans face the prospect of quenching their music-horror cravings with tremendous schlock stupidity like Hillbillys in a Haunted House or Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Thankfully, a recent high definition update of Brian De Palma’s wild glam-goth spectacle Phantom of the Paradise makes a worthy addition to this exclusive category, and a fine choice for your haunted harvest viewing pleasure.
The plot focuses on Winslow Leach (William Finley) an idealistic but talented young composer who is hoodwinked by the shadowy music mogul Swan, framed for drug crimes and imprisoned, then maimed, disfigured and forgotten. Re-emerging as the Phantom, he stalks the nooks and crannies of Swan’s Paradise Theater sabotaging sets and offing those who defy his musical aesthetic, before being tricked into writing a magnum opus for his muse, the beautiful, vocally endowed Phoenix (played by Jessica Harper, later of Suspiria fame).
Subbing in rock ‘n roll and a scurrilous music industry backdrop, the film offers a remix on Phantom of the Opera, while stitching references from works such as Doctor Faustus and Psycho together with themes from classical Gothic horror and high show biz satire.
Culminating in a bloody, campy, cheap effects-driven cacophony of electric guitar haze, dancing, screaming and 70s fashion, Phantom cuts a visually arresting exploration of the corrupt and creepy, with a soundtrack that sticks in your head. It’s also early evidence of the budding talent and filmmaking passion of De Palma, who hints at some of his later, bloodier work (Scarface, Carrie) while demonstrating heart and a sense of humor.
Of course, as can be expected from a B-movie of this era, the acting is unremarkable. From a technical standpoint, the film’s low budget nature is evident throughout. But no matter. The real highlight is a bizarre and captivating mix of songs and performances that artfully aids and abets the Phantom’s mad, music-fueled quest for vengeance.