Phantom of the Paradise was a staple of Saturday afternoon UHF movie matinees when I was a kid. The film terrified me.
Unlike the embodied horrors represented by the titular arachnid in Earth vs. The Spider or the giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea, pilule the nightmare quotient of Phantom of the Paradise was entirely atmospheric in nature. The theatrical and stylistic artifices Brian De Palma used to craft his (and Paul Williams’, to give credit where it is due) glam rock musical-horror epic imbued it with dreamlike qualities which were difficult for a “sensitive” (i.e. scaredy-cat) six year old to get a handle on.
By the time I had the presence of mind to sit through the entire thing, the world had moved into an era where such examples of 1970s decadence were viewed with a jaundiced eye. The ascension of the Great God Gipper was marked by the desire to extirpate all traces of the Me Decade’s messy brand of self-indulgence, and I was not immune to that will toward disco damnation memoriae. (Ironic, considering how much the 1970s have come to figure in both my popcult studies and in the continuing evolution of popcult as a whole.)
Even when I gravitated into the realm of offbeat cinema fandom during the early 1990s, Phantom was held by many as the embarrassing bastard sibling of Rocky Horror and the event-driven cult fandom which had accured around it over the years. It also didn’t help that De Palma had acquired a something of a negative rep among cult film circles, even though it was mostly a case of “once uttered in ‘zine, then frequently parroted by a host of self-appointed experts.” For me, however, it was more of a lack of interest. There were too many things to watch, not enough time, and Phantom didn’t rate high that high a priority when dozens of Japanese horror and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll flicks kept begging for attention.
It was Maura, of all people, who led me to rethink my attitude toward Phantom of the Paradise. I’m still not sure how the film got its hooks into her when she stumbled across it while surfing late night cable TV offerings. She’s not a fan of glam rock or Brian De Palma’s work, but I suspect that it was the film’s dreamlike aspects — filtered through a lens of childhood nostalgia — that caught her attention. When being “very much a product of its era” was no longer a liability, the brilliance of the film and the soundtrack became easier to appreciate.
It has since become part of our spooking season movie marathon. We moved into the House on the Hillside on October 31, 2004. We spent the first evening giving out candy to trick-or-treaters and watching Phantom of the Paradise on a 12″ placeholder TV set up on a rickety placeholder card table. A most perfect Halloween.
For a more in-depth look at Phantom of the Paradise, the multi-talented Matt Maxwell has been serving up a gallery of screenshots and insightful commentary on his tumblr blog, which I highly recommend checking out. I’d also suggest checking out some of Matt’s other projects, including his excellent “nopocalypse” novel Blue Highway.
(No, Matt, I’m not just saying that to make up for swiping one of your screenshots for this post’s header image.)
Recommended listening: Beef – Life at Last (from the Phantom Of The Paradise OST, 1974)[audio:131018ll.mp3]
It almost excuses Williams’ hand in composing “Evergreen.”