‘Phantom of the Paradise’: De Palma’s Cult Horror Musical That Got Its Second Chance to Shine

The fantastic Paul Williams, a renowned composer who not only created the Academy Award-nominated music for the movie but also starred in one of its two most important roles, watched its reputation grow with pride. When you love something that the rest of the world ignores, Williams stated, you become impassioned

By Sven Mikulec

In Brian De Palma’s entire career, his 1974 musical horror film Phantom of the Paradise is perhaps the one work of art most difficult to categorize in any drawers, a film piece so puzzling, chaotic and uncanny it’s literally impossible to be forgotten. It may well be true that, upon its release, De Palma’s sixth feature film got butchered by the critics (with a few honorable exceptions, like that of Pauline Kael, who praised the director’s “original comic temperament, visual exaggeration and sophisticated slapstick comedy”), and it’s a simple fact it failed to meet 20th Century Fox’s box office expectations: Phantom of the Paradise was successful practically only in Paris and Winnipeg. The unorthodox mixture of genres, more or less obvious subtlety in the delivery of the material and the inability of the distributor to adequately and efficiently promote the picture due to its impossibility to wear a simple label of a horror or a musical proved simply too much for the audience in 1974. However, De Palma’s unwanted baby slowly started to attract and nurture a cult following, people usually cringing at the sight of films like The Towering Inferno, one of the greatest hits of late 1974. In the following years Phantom of the Paradise started receiving far more positive reviews, helping build the dominant opinion that the film’s contemporary audience and critics were unfair and somewhat blind to all the delights hiding in De Palma’s probably weirdest film to date. To what degree people loved the movie can be easily seen in the fact that, in 2005, the fans organized a festival called Phantompalooza, which still continues to occur every year or so. The fantastic Paul Williams, a renowned composer who not only created the Academy Award-nominated music for the movie but also starred in one of its two most important roles, watched its reputation grow with pride. When you love something that the rest of the world ignores, Williams stated, you become impassioned. Some people probably adored the film in all its mysterious glory as soon as they caught it in theaters. Others listened to their recommendation and helped spread the word. De Palma’s movie is now considered a cult favorite, with millions of devoted fans, with its own festival, with more than a few important cultural icons advocating its importance and brilliance. Guillermo del Toro, for instance, considers this “deranged, romantic, unique film with a perfect soundtrack” one of his “most beloved films ever.” The film was rejected and trashed, only to rise like a phoenix and cement its place in the collective minds of film lovers around the world.

In the narrative sense, Phantom of the Paradise’s story should sound familiar to all of you with the experience of reading Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray.’ A talented composer eager to produce beautiful music for his muse signs a contract with a highly successful but satanic record producer who builds and crushes careers as he pleases. It’s a romantic story of love and devotion, of artistic brilliance thwarted by an unscrupulous impresario whose influence on the music industry cannot be overstated. De Palma allegedly conceived the story upon hearing the Beatles song ‘A Day in the Life’ played in an elevator. Horrified and saddened by what he saw as the industry’s power to commercialize and thus mutilate such art for financial gain, De Palma connected this disappointment with his personal experience in the film business, where he continuously got rejected by studio heads when he approached them with his original ideas. The filmmaker first sold his script to producer Marty Ransohoff at Filmways, after which Ray Stark acquired it. De Palma then bought back the script with the help of producer Ed Pressman. A part of the financial construction of Phantom of the Paradise was covered by De Palma’s pay for Get to Know Your Rabbit, while real estate developer Gustave Berne aided with an additional $750,000. The film was ultimately sold to 20th Century Fox at the end of a bidding war, setting the record for an independent film with a two million dollar advance.

Shot during ten weeks of the 1973/1974 winter, Phantom of the Paradise met its box office demise, but still managed not only to acquire some hardcore fans who would go on to help develop its fan base, but also impress the critics with Paul Williams’ music, earning an unexpected Academy Awards nomination coupled with the same honor at the Golden Globes. With a genius cast comprised of Williams, De Palma’s long-time companion William Finley and Jessica Harper, with Williams’ fantastic music and great cinematography by Larry Pizer, edited by the masterful Paul Hirsch (Star Wars, Mission: Impossible, Carrie, Blow Out), written and directed by one of the best filmmakers of our lifetimes, Phantom of the Paradise is a picnic for our senses and solid proof of De Palma’s passion, range and versatility, a film that got its second chance to shine. “Don’t ever write something off as a failure too quickly,” said Williams. “You never know what is going to happen down the line.”

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Brian De Palma’s screenplay for Phantom of the Paradise [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Shout! Factory and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“It bombed everywhere but Paris and Winnipeg. It’s hard to say what was worse, the reviews or the grosses. Christ, it didn’t even matter that it opened on Halloween night, 40 years ago today. And, if you think about it, you can understand why. In 1974, rock movies just didn’t combine the Faust legend with horror, humor, action, and pathos. They also didn’t reference more films than a caffeinated Quentin Tarantino on a talk show. Still, though most papers bashed it with brickbats and people stayed away in droves, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is celebrating its anniversary in classic style. This past summer it had a spectacular sold-out showing at the theater where it debuted, and it was recently released and were inspired by it (and plucked Williams) for their Grammy-winning last album, Random Access Memories. This celluloid story of an immortal impresario, the deformed freak whose music he stole, and the girl both of them wanted, has undergone a strange metamorphosis. Phantom, which was never actually popular, has become legendary.” —Forty years later, how Phantom of the Paradise became legendary by Peter Gerstenzang



The Swan Archives is a division of the Swan Foundation, the nonprofit wing of Swan Song Enterprises. Feel encouraged to check out what else they have in their store regarding this film: production notes, casting info, filming schedules, and so on.

The Projection Booth’s Mike White & “Mondo” Justin Bozung are joined by Ari the Principal Archivist at The Swan Archives as they dissect Brian De Palma’s rock and roll musical, Phantom of the Paradise.

Bonus interview with Gerrit Graham.

For a certain group of rock musical fans, few films are MORE loved than Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. How could anyone not love a film this daring, this odd, and this memorable? For the 12th edition of his phenomenal video series, “The Unloved,” Scout Tafoya checks into the Paradise, arguing that even this film’s cult classic status doesn’t give it the credit it deserved.



Legendary songwriter Paul Williams discusses his role as a Satanic record producer in the 1974 cult film Phantom of the Paradise, which inspired the electro-house duo to wear robot masks in the first place.

Open YouTube video

Brian De Palma discusses his process on visualizing the scene prior to shooting them, and how that process was especially true in Phantom of the Pardise.

Phantom of the Paradise 40th Anniversary panel was moderated by Edgar Wright, Phantom fan and director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. The panel consisted of Paul Williams (Swan), Jessica Harper (Phoenix), Gerrit Graham (Beef), Peter Elbling (Harold Oblong), Jeffrey Comanor, and Film Editor Paul Hirsch.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. The source of the photos: The Swan Archives. Photographed by Randy Black, Paul Hirsch. All original photographs are copyright to their respective owners. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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