Why 17 days? Because 17 is my favorite number.
While serving time in Sing Sing, Winslow hears his music on the radio being credited to Swan. He breaks out of prison and attempts to vandalize the factory where the vinyl albums are manufactured. Unfortunately, he gets his head stuck in a record press and becomes horribly disfigured. Weeks later, he reemerges as The Phantom, donning black leather, a billowing cape, and a creepy owl-shaped helmet as he sets out to exact his revenge on The Paradise.
I saw the print ad for Phantom of the Paradise in the El Dorado Times in the summer of 1975. By that time, the film was almost a year old, having made most of its theatrical rounds. It was a critical and financial failure despite Paul Williams’ infectious score being nominated for an Academy Award. Nevertheless, as a junior horror geek I had to see it. The word “phantom” in the title held sufficient appeal, but there was also that cool poster art: aforementioned Phantom under his shimmery helmet, ravaged flesh of his cheek puckering out under the rim, and a terrified lass with heaving cleavage shrinking from his clutches. As if that weren’t enough, the movie was rated PG, which meant I could weasel permission to see it from my parents.
When I watched Phantom at the El Dorado Theater, it was difficult at first to tell if it was really a horror movie. Most of the initial half-hour is devoted to poor Winslow and his efforts to break into Swan’s inner circle. Along the way, Winslow falls in love with the beautiful and talented Phoenix (Jessica Harper), an aspiring singer who at first seems destined to be exploited by Swan just as Winslow is. Nowhere in all of this did I see the cool monster on the film’s poster. Rather, the movie seemed to be a surreal exploration of the music industry, and I feared that the Phantom would merely be a metaphor, like the titular Octopus of Frank Norris’s novel (damn, was I disappointed when I tried to read that book in grade school!).
Thankfully, The Phantom is real, and because the film is almost feverishly paced, I was never bored that first half-hour. Everything splashes with color and light, and the music is at turns haunting and explosive. When Winslow becomes a monster and starts picking off The Paradise’s rival acts, we know we’ve wandered into some pretty dark waters. Given the sad fate of Winslow, Phantom of the Paradise could have been depressing, but something about the film’s almost volcanic energy blasts us through the narrative like flies in a box fan. The malformed genius of young De Palma is present in every frame, and his passion for the project is almost intoxicating. When I stumbled my 12-year-old self out of the theater, it felt as if I had been on a 90-minute theme park ride.
So is this is a Halloween movie? It has a Phantom, doesn’t it? Plus an illicit contract with the Devil and a couple of scenes lifted right out of the pages of Edgar Allan Poe (not to mention the Hitchcock references). Phantom may be a carnival at times, but it has moments that are plenty scary. The record press scene gave me nightmares as a kid, and I was really unnerved by a later attempt to bury The Phantom alive.
Still, I fell in love with Phantom of the Paradise that August afternoon. As much as I wanted to see it again, this would be my first and only viewing for many years. The film left town that night. I did find the soundtrack on vinyl, which I would play to death on my mono-track turntable, but it would take over 15 years for it to be released on VHS.
In the late 1980s, while I was poking around in college, I was finally able to see Phantom for a second time. The movie had not aged well, and its acid-induced finale gave me a headache, but the overall experience is still so much fun that its a wonder its cult following never reached Rocky Horror proportions. Now that it is on DVD, it is a title I revisit frequently, a blast from the past that elicits great joy on each viewing.
Perhaps joy is not the best emotion to strive for on Halloween, but what the hell? It’s technically still a horror movie, isn’t it?
Previous Days of Halloween:
Day 1 - Baby's Breath