Silver Masquerade
by on November 18, 2023
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Hey everypony! My name is SIlver Masquerade. Back in the prime of this site, I was a very active member known for my movie reviews and commentary. I only just found out today that this site came back! I'm hoping I can contribute to it, even if not at the full capacity I used to. I don't care about clout, this is just for my own enjoyment. So I figured I would start with a review of what is perhaps my most favorite movie of all time, Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise.

Phantom of the Paradise is a film that has since grown in reputation and recognition, but this was not the case when I first saw it. It’s a film people know more because of what and who it influenced than due to the film itself. This is such a shame because it is one of the most wildly unique and inventive films of the 1970s. Phantom of the Paradise obviously borrows from Phantom of the Opera, but it also draws on the legend of Faust and (as expected from Brian de Palma), The Picture of Dorian Grey, the German Expressionist horror films of F.W. Murnau, and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.

There is not a single weak link in the cast. Even minor characters who do not even speak are more recognizable than anyone from most films I’ve seen. So many iconic looks and lines no matter how minor (“LOOKS LIKE SMACK, JACK!”). It makes the main characters some of the most iconic and memorable in any film, possibly the most for me. Winslow Leach is played to perfection by Bill Finley, a de Palma regular from this era. He strikes the perfect middle ground of pathetic and sympathetic initially. Then when he dons the costume, it’s a whole different beast. He sells the feelings of anguish, rage, and passion so perfectly. The Phantom’s look is one of the most iconic of all time for me. It’s a perfect evolution of the classic Phantom design with a unique spin that has made it arguably more iconic than the original. Its influence on media is wide and well known, inspiring the likes of Griffith from Berserk, Purple Haze from JoJo, several Digimon, Daft Punk, and even partially Darth Vader (fun fact, Paul Hirsch edited both this and Star Wars

The ever beautiful Jessica Harper has one of if not the greatest film debut of all time as the female lead Phoenix. She demonstrates such a striking level of naivety and longing that takes a sour turn once she falls into the clutches of the film’s villain. Harper is really performing her songs and her voice is fantastic. It has this raw huskiness that you don’t expect from someone with her youthful look and energy. And who can forget her adorable and awkward dancing? If you can’t tell, I am a big fan of hers. There are many other great smaller roles including Gerrit Graham as the flamboyant prima donna glam rock star Beef, character actor and Scorsese regular George Memmoli as Swan’s heavy Philbin, and Rod Serling’s final role as the film’s narrator!

However, even more so than any of these, there is one who shines above. That is Paul Williams as the one and only Swan. People can keep their Thanos, their Darth Vader, even their Agent Smith’s. For me, Swan is the greatest and most iconic movie villain of ALL time. It helps that there is SO much of him. It might be the greatest performance in any film I have ever seen. Every face, every line of dialogue, every gesture is so iconic in its own right. I can recall practically everything he does in this film. He does not look like your typical villain but he fits his role like a glove. The idea of a media manager who has a secret demonic pact that he signs other creative artists into is such a genius piece of satire and it compliments the film flawlessly. Swan stands as an ultimate archetypal evil of greed and its corruptive nature. He is terrifying because he is real. We all can think of manipulative masterminds who squash the little guy and either siphon their works for themselves or arguably worse, assimilate them into the beast. It’s a satire that sadly only grows more relatable with age. 

So much of this film runs through my head every day and in so many forms. The characters, writing, direction, story, and most of all the MUSIC! Paul Williams is a mastermind and this film is by far his finest work. There is no weak link here. Every song has such a specific purpose and appropriate sound. There are many formats of songs used here, from Beach Boys esque pop, glam rock, doom, ballads galore, and greaser 50s bops. All of it is presented with so much authenticity. Some tracks that particularly stand out to me include The Hell of It, Beauty and the Beast, Faust, Somebody Super Like You, and in my opinion (and Paul Williams’!) the best in the film, Old Souls. Even small musical bits that last a few seconds land and serve their purpose masterfully. 

There is as much variety in the production design by the GOAT himself, Jack Fisk. Sissy Spacek, whom Fisk would marry later on and herself would star in de Palma’s Carrie, serves as the set dresser! This is a film that aims for the bleachers despite its small budget and it succeeds. There are so many small details and worldbuilding aspects that will surely go over heads, so the film benefits from multiple rewatches. Unfortunately, this film got gimped in editing due to some tragic circumstances and coincidences. In this film, a rock star is electrocuted on stage and de Palma came up with the name “Swan Song” for the evil record label. Coincidentally, Peter Grant trademarked Swan Song for his record label, and one of his stars was tragically electrocuted on stage in 1972. Grant took personal offense to Phantom of the Paradise because he believed the film was parodying that, when really not only the electrocution, but even the Swan Song name existed in older drafts of the script. There were threats of a lawsuit if the name “Swan Song” was kept for the film. Any lawyer could tell you that de Palma would have easily won the case, but 20th Century Fox had little faith in the film so rather than spend money to go to court in defense of the film’s artistic integrity, they made de Palma and co. butcher the film by cutting out seconds of film where “Swan Song” was clearly present and poorly editing black boxes over some “Swan Song” labels with the new much worse title “Death Records.” This leads to awkward black bars and some scenes where the editing feels a bit jarring because seconds were cut before and after the scene proper, including some great establishing shots. 

In the film’s final act is when it goes bananas mode. The pacing and camerawork is next level breakneck stuff here. Everything explodes in an overwhelming feast of sound and visuals as things fall apart and the viewer is helpless to observe it all from a distance. There is a disturbing resonance between the viewer being the one experiencing this in all of its manic detail and the crowds on screen being completely ignorant of it. The film ends with a powerful zoom out as we as the audience fixate at the tragedy that just unfolded while everyone filling the frame around continues on.

Listen everypony, in case you can't tell, this film is special to me. My review may sound hyperbolic, but I really do mean everything I say in it. To me, this is an incredibly powerful and poignant film where everything is at the peak operating level of cinema. From the characters, design of everything, direction, story, themes, and above all else the music, Phantom of the Paradise stands to me as the pinnacle of a cinematic experience. It's a film I will recommend to everyone and hope with all of my heart that anyone can get even a fraction of what I take away from it. A huge thank you to everyone involved in crafting this absolute masterpiece.

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