The Phantom of the Opera, or, in it’s original French, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, originated as a serial by Gaston Leroux, appearing in Le Gaulois starting in September of 1909. Since then, it has been collected as a novel, translated, and adapted in many ways, including the 1925 silent film with Lon Chaney, the 1943 film with Claude Rains, the 1962 Hammer horror film with Herbert Lom*, the 1986 Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the 1974 rock opera horror comedy, Phantom of the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise didn’t just adapt The Phantom of the Opera. Writer and director Brian De Palma was inspired by hearing a Muzak cover of a Beatles song in an elevator and wondered what it was like for the original artist. From there, he went to the German legend of Faust, a story that has also been adapted often since Christpher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus in the very early 1600s. Let’s sum up both stories.
Faust is the classic story about making a deal with the devil. Unhappy with his life despite being a successful scholar, Faust calls upon the Devil to make a trade. For knowledge and magic powers to let himself discover the pleasures of the world, Faust is willing to sell his soul. Mephistopheles, representing the Devil, agrees but with one condition; Faust has only so much time, the amount varying by telling of the legend, and when time’s up, his soul is forfeit. Mephistopheles performs the magic Faust wants and, time does run out. Depending on the version of the legend, Faust is sometimes saved by striving to be a better man despite the deal with the devil. Most versions, though, see the scholar damned to Hell for eternity, thus showing the lesson of what happens when one sells one’s soul.
The Phantom of the Opera is less about selling one’s soul and more about obsessive love. The Paris Opera House is home to the story about the dangers of obsession and show business. Lurking within the bowels of the Opera House is the near-urban legend Phantom. The Phantom, very much real, hears a singer, Christine Daaé, and falls in love** with her. Christine, though, loves another, Raoul. The Opera House next production is a operatic version of Faust. Christine, however, does not get the lead role. Instead, La Carlotta, a prima donna in both senses of the term, gets the part, upsetting the Phantom, who has taught Christine how to sing. The Phantom insists that Christine marry him, for no one else may have her. Christine tells Raoul about the Phantiom, but the scoundrel overhears and kidnaps Raoul and threatens to destroy the Opera House. It is only through Christine’s pity and empathy for the Phantom that she and Raoul are able to escape and prevent the explosion of the theatre.
Phantom of the Paradise takes both tales. The opening of the movie has a good summary of what it’s about; “This film is the story of that search, of that sound, of the man who made it, the girl who sang it, and the monster who stole it.” The three main characters are Swan, played by Paul Williams, Winslow Leach/the Phantom, played by William Finley, and Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper. Williams also wrote the music for the movie. Winslow is a budding young songwriter hoping for his big break by following the band, the Juicy Fruits. Swan, owner of Death Records, is looking for a new act to christen his soon-to-open cathedral to rock, the Paradise and hears Winslow’s work, “Faust”. Swan, though, wants an ingenue, someone he can guide personally, not a songwriter who does his own work.
Swan isn’t one to have terms dictated to; he does the dictating. Winslow’s “Faust” is exactly what he needs for the Paradise, so Swan acquires the song without letting Winslow know. Winslow susses out that something’s up and goes to Swan’s mansion, where there is a line up of women who want to be Swan’s next big hit. One, Phoenix, is singing “Faust”. Winslow is impressed, and is willing to allow her and just her to sing his work. Still, “Faust” is his, not Swan’s, so he tries to get in to see the elusive artist. Swan, though, arranges for Winslow to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to get him out of the way.
In prison, Winslow is volunteered for experiments, thanks to Swan, and has his teeth replaced. Winslow escapes, but in a freak record press accident, has half his face disfigured and his vocal chords destroyed. He’s reported dead, but Winslow escapes into a theatre. Unseen, he reaches the costume department and takes a costume, including a large bird mask that hides his disfigurement. When the Paradise opens, the Phantom is there to sabotage the Beach Bums, formerly the Juicy Fruits. Swan works out who the Phantom is, though, and makes an offer. In return for re-writing “Faust”, Swan will have Phoenix in the lead. Winslow agrees, and signs in blood. Swan bring Winslow to the recording room and provides a voice box. It works best when Winslow is plugged into the recording equipment at the studio, but gives him an electronic voice otherwise. Winslow works hard to rewrite “Faust”.
Swan breaks the deal soon enough. He replaces Phoenix with his newest act, Beef, played by Garrit Graham. Beef. a glam rocker, doesn’t have the range Phoenix does. The Phantom discovers the duplicity as Swan’s people brick up Winslow’s recording studio. Winslow breaks out, his desire for vengeance. Beef is the first to discover the Phantom on the loose. He hears the Phantom’s anguish. Worse, the Phantom shows up while Beef is taking a shower and threatens him, Swan, and the Paradise if Phoenix is not given “Faust”. Beeef tries to flee, but is forced to stay.
“Faust” debuts, with the Undeads, the former Beach Bums, backing up Beef. The Undeads are in make-up similar to that used by Kiss*** while Beef struts around like a glam Frankenstein****. The Phantom, though, is ready. He throws a neon lightning bolt at Beef, electrocuting the singer. Swan’s assistant, Philbin, pushes Phoenix on stage to keep the crowd from tearing the Paradise apart. Phoenix is a hit.
As Phoenix leaves the stage, the Phantom kidnaps her. He reveals himself as Winston and implores her to leave before Swan can get his hooks into her. Phoenix doesn’t believe him and runs away to Swan. Swan seduces her, where he notices Winslow watching. Winslow tries to kill himself, but, despite the deep stab, still lives. Swan later explains that while he lives, Winslow will live, but once he’s dead, the wound will bleed as it should. Winslow, seeing the loophole, tries stabbing Swan, but Swan has his own contract.
Swan announces, through the cover of Rolling Stone, his upcoming wedding to Phoenix. Winslow, trying to make use of the loophole Swan revealed, goes digging through Swan’s collection of film. One reel gets the Phantom’s interest. On playing the film, Winslow discovers the Swan once tried to commit suicide twenty years before, so that he wouldn’t age. Before he could slice his wrists open, his mirror image talks to him, promising eternal youth for as long the film is safe. On another monitor, Winslow discovers Swan is planning on becoming an early widow, with Phoenix being killed just after the ceremony is complete. The reason? As Swan puts it, “An assassination live on television coast to coast – that’s entertainment.”
The Phantom destroys Swan’s collection of film, including the one that keeps him young, in a fire, then rushes down to stop the sniper from killing Phoenix. The wedding turns into chaos. As Swan’s film succumbs to the flames, Swan ages twenty years in mere moments before dying. Winslow has his masked knocked off, and the self-inflicted wound bleeds out.
As mentioned earlier, Paul Williams wrote the music for the movie. To give an idea of the range of styles involved, the Juicy Fruits were a greaser band, the Beach Bums were in the style of the Beach Boys, and the Undeads were proto-death metal with a goth element mixed with glam. Williams has cited “Our Souls” as his favourite piece of all that he’s written.
Phantom of the Paradise opened to decent numbers in Los Angeles, but flopped everywhere else except Winnipeg, Manitoba. The film remained in theatres in Winnipeg for four months straight, then made regular returns for over a year. The soundtrack went double gold in Winnipeg alone; a gold record in Canada at the time represented 10 000 sales. Winnipeg’s population in 1976 was over 560 000. In 2005, the fan-organized Phantompalooza was held in the theatre where the movie first opened, getting Gerrit Graham (Beef) and William Finley (the Phantom) out for it. The following year, Phantompalooza had as many suriving cast members inviited as the organizers could find and had Paul Williams in for a concert.
Despite being a flop outside Winnipeg, the movie was still influential. Without Phantom, there would be no Daft Punk. The two men who would become Daft Punk met at a showing of Phantom when they were 12 and 13. Their costumes were inspired by the Phantom’s. Guillermo del Toro was also inspired by the movie and would have named a daughter Phoenix if his wife hadn’t vetoed the suggestion.
The movie was ambitious. De Palma used both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera as inspirations, and borrowed from other literary works including Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey. During the wedding scene, De Palma had cameras in the crowd just to capture the action happening to make the scene feel more chaotic. Swan’s office and home are filled with mirrors, all the better for him to see the one he loves most. Likewise, the voice Swan gives to Winslow through the voice box is Swan’s own, the perfect voice. The movie reached high, and even with the stumbles, succeeds more than it fails.
For what is now known as a cult film, the movie has a pedigree of award nominations. It was nominated for an Oscar, Best Music Scoring, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation for Paul Williams, who lost to Nelson Riddle and his score for The Great Gatsby. There was a Golden Globe nomination, Best Original Score, which was won that year by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their work on The Little Prince. The movie was nominated for Best Horror Film for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, losing to Young Frankenstein. Phantom and Brian De Palma lost to the same movie and its writers – Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, and Mary Shelley – for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. The film also got a nomination for the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, losing to Blazing Saddles. Not bad for a film popular only in Winnipeg.
Phantom took a huge risk, adapting both the legend of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera and turning them into a rock opera. As an adaptation, it melds both well. It’s a matter of taste on whether the movie is successful. It’s biggest drawback is that it is not clearly of any one genre. At the start, I called the movie a rock opera horror comedy, the sort of movie that leads to becoming a cult hit. The result, an ambitious, very 70s film that treats its origins and inspirations with respect underneath the outrageous costumes.
Next week, the history of adaptations continues with the 50s.
* The Hammer film used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, creating a trope for that piece of music.
** Love, lust, it’s blurry from the Phantom’s view. Not so much from Christine’s.
*** Kiss revealed their make-up first in 1973, but Phantom had been filming since 1972. It looks like parallel development happened, where both the movie crew and Kiss came up with the idea independently.
**** I’d compare Beef to Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter or his creation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but Phantom came out a year prior.