There is often a fine line between comedy and horror in the movie business. The genres seem like they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but there’s nothing like a bad horror movie to make you laugh. With Phantom of the Paradise I have a difficult time deciding if it was intentionally humorous.
In reality, the movie does not move into the horror genre until perhaps the last quarter. It makes one laugh not because it is poorly made or the acting terrible, but because of goofy plot devices and character decisions. The story is loosely based on “The Phantom of the Opera” but with a theater named The Paradise instead of an operahouse.
William Finley plays Winslow who will become our phantom. The man is a talented songwriter who has composed a cantata based on “Faust”. Philbin (George Memmoli), the handler for famous record producer Swan (Paul H. Williams), passes the sheet music onto the producer promising Winslow he will hear about it soon. Instead of making Winslow a star, however, Swan steals the music and plans to use it as a musical to open his new theater.
In the process of barring Winslow from the Death Records headquarters, Swan also arranges for the man to be imprisoned. While incarcerated, Swan’s company funds an experiment whereby inmates’ teeth are removed because they are shown to be a source of disease. Winslow’s own set is replaced with a metal version. Winslow will escape the aptly named Sing Sing and storm the Death Records headquarters. There he finds the machine pressing the records made of his music and trips, his head landing in the machine and brutally burned on one side.
By this point, Swan has cast the “Faust” musical. Winslow hides out in the theater, borrowing a cape and bizarre helmet to cover his disfigurement. He assassinates members of the cast, which leads Swan to work with the phantom on the show. Winslow requires a girl, Phoenix played by Jessica Harper, to be the lead. He met the woman early in the story and is in love. Swan confines the phantom to a hidden room in the theater to rewrite all the music for her, but defies the man by hiring a singer named Beef (Gerritt Graham) to star in the Faust musical despite the high octave of the music. Phoenix is relegated to the chorus.
Swan continues to betray Winslow’s trust to extreme extents and the phantom takes his revenge on all around him, minus Phoenix.
Everyone in Phantom of the Paradise is goofy except for Harper, who gives her usual adequate performance. Winslow is your typical naive dork who becomes such a bizarre phantom. With grey metal teeth, a hoarse voice and a metallic helmet that reveals only one eye –surrounded by the same black makeup that covers his lips –he is only mildly frightening.
Williams as Swan, meanwhile, is unnervingly obnoxious in his omniscient role, always getting his way and never losing his cool. Then there’s Graham as Beef, perhaps the most humorous character. Playing the part in a flamboyantly gay manner, Graham makes the most absurd facial expressions and maintains a painted-on beauty mark that changes shape (sometimes a lightening bolt, sometimes a four-leaf clover). Treat yourself to some Beef:
One cannot really say Phantom of the Paradise is a bad movie because it is so entertaining. It’s literally a laugh-a-minute feature that is beyond absurd. The music is quite good as well, all being written by Williams who wrote music and lyrics for many films. If you’re looking for an obscure movie to laugh at, Phantom of the Paradise is it. It’s what you would get if you made “Phantom of the Opera” into a rock opera AND a horror film. Brilliant.