April 7, 2007

Phantom of the Paradise

THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is an important piece of CARRIE history for several reasons. Prior to CARRIE, this was director DePalma's most mainstream film... which really isn't saying much. Released as a spoof of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1974, the Faustian film was a major bomb. However, the film did find an audience -- a small cult of fans who appreciated it and continue to keep Winslow Leach, the Phantom, alive. Singer/songwriter Paul Williams (who was huge at the time, and who wrote many of the songs performed by The Carpenters and other hitmakers of the day) wrote the music and score, as well as starred as Swan, essentially the devil to whom the Phantom sold his soul.

But what makes this a relevant piece of CARRIE history? Several things. Director Brian DePalma had been honing his skills throughout his early career, but this film kept the same sense of style that he employed in CARRIE. For starters, there's the split-screens. DePalma cleverly shot an entire scene utilizing the split-screen process, which involved the rehearsal of a musical number -- with the performers unaware that there was a bomb in the trunk of the car that they drove onstage. Personally, I think it's the most effective use of the process ever shown in a movie -- though DePalma managed to successfully incorporate split-screen shots into many of his early films. In addition to this scene, DePalma (who had already shown his interest in Hitchcockian direction previously in SISTERS) utilized the camera as the storyteller many times, as he did in CARRIE. An arial shot of the stage during the ending, for example, was reminiscent of the camerawork during the prom scene in CARRIE -- though not quite as elaborate. Even the themes in CARRIE were somewhat established in this film. Winslow was also an outcast loner who set out to get revenge on the one who wronged him. Though in CARRIE, the end result is much more dramatic and heart-wrenching.

Other points of interest were the involvement of key players from CARRIE. Sissy Spacek was considered for the role of Phoenix, the lead in the film, but DePalma was told that Spacek couldn't sing (little did he know that she started her career in music, and would later star as Loretta Lynn in the film adaptation of COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER). The role of Phoenix went to then-unknown Jessica Harper, who gained a cult following of her own after this film and from roles in other perennial cult favorites like SUSPIRIA and SHOCK TREATMENT, the sequel to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Spacek's husband, Jack Fisk, who was the art director on CARRIE, was the art director on this film as well. Working on a shoestring budget, Spacek was hired as a set decorator on the film as a favor to her husband. The art/set decoration is every bit as stylish as CARRIE, though in a different vein. Whereas CARRIE was very much grounded in the reality of '76, PHANTOM was over-the-top, as the premise implied, with a kaleidascope of colors and (now very dated) effects and setpieces.

Another pivotal CARRIE star, Betty Buckley, was also considered for a role, but DePalma wasn't sure how to use her (again, another musical sensation overlooked -- Buckley went on to originate a role in the Broadway production of CATS, and her rendition of the song "Memory"
is regarded as the definitive version). Buckley was later brought in, however, to dub lines for some of the minor characters in PHANTOM. One would guess that some of the vocals during the audition of "Faust" are probably Buckley intentionally wailing off-key. It was probably from her work on this film that Buckley was offered the role of Ms. Collins in CARRIE. DePalma didn't bother to audition her again -- the role in CARRIE was essentially given to her. Another key CARRIE player, Amy Irving, learned of DePalma's work when she returned from schooling in Europe to find her family raving about PHANTOM... Ironically, she was destined to work with PHANTOM's director a few times.

PHANTOM is certainly worth a look for fans of CARRIE, and for any fans of rock musicals. Williams effectively wrote music that covered the spectrum of the time -- from the greaser feel of "Goodbye Eddie
" to the surfer-feel of "Upholstery" to the shock-rock "Somebody Super Like You/Life at Last," the entire soundtrack/score is phenomenal. And the film also boasts the enchanting ballad "Old Souls," which is a beautifully haunting song reminscent of CARRIE's "Born to Have It All." The film is currently available on DVD (and has popped up in $5 bins at U.S. Walmarts), though the American release is rather lackluster and dusty (the French DVD features a myriad of extras and a pristine print of the movie). The soundtrack has had a few CD releases around the world, but it's easier to find a copy from an online merchant (or on a file sharing site) than in stores.

There's a wonderful site, The Swan Archive, devoted to the film. Head over there for a wealth of information about The Phantom. And that's the hell of it!