A musical may not the obvious choice for Halloween viewing, but of course there are several exceptions to the rule. Pre-dating some of the more popular rock operas out there, Brian De Palma's take on the masked avenger combines the music - and screen persona - of Paul Williams, as well as his own cinematic style to bring new life to the Paris Opera tale. Opting to move the action to the present day allows for a scathing fantasy version of the music industry, and we are treated to voice modulators, deaths by neon lighting fixtures and a twist on the material which merges the original novel's Faust performance with the plot itself.
If we consider the 1940s Claude Rains adaptation as a starting point, that versions stolen music storyline takes on fresh meaning as they spin a tale of disposable pop stars who are chewed up and spat out by diabolic pop moguls as soon as the next big thing arrives. The classic mask bears some resemblance to the new visage with a silver browed look, but it's merged with a sci-fi bike helmet style visor. Because why not. Composer Winslow Leach finds himself framed for drug dealing after a run in with double crossing record label owner Swan, and is soon subject to prison medical experiments that replace his teeth with metal implants. Adding insult to injury, he escapes only to be burned by the machinery pressing the LPs of his work. Of course it completes the monstrous look they need for him to become the phantom.
This whole set up is just great and all the themes and visual elements come together before it takes some familiar, and some unexpected turns. William Finley as the title character is almost unrecognisable from his creepy turn in Sisters, adding layers of sympathy and boiling rage that make it all work. Originally Paul Williams was to play Winslow - to be the musician on and off screen. Instead he gets to do a mixture of the devil and the damned as the producer who steals the souls of creative minds, but is in a Dorian Gray style predicament of his own. Rounding out the principle cast Jessica Harper brings charisma to the new talent they both want to see rise to fame.
The opening narration tells us how it's going to end. Told from a perspective favourable to Swan, it's all you need to see where this is going. Singers are treated like whores at his palace and the brand imagery of his company is everywhere (even if threats from the real life Swan Song owner mean much has been edited out). For him anything goes when it comes to selling the product. Even after starting out to settle the score Winslow finds himself in the clutches of the corporation with promises that the star of his choice Phoenix will perform his songs. All he has to do is sign a sinister tome of a contract... in blood of course. It's a sly omen that after his accident the electronic voice box he must use starts to become the voice of Paul Williams.... while Swan's own voice seems rather more scratchy when played back.
Soon Phoenix is replaced by glam rock diva Beef (an absurd performance from Gerrit Graham) and so the revenge plan resurfaces. Visually there are plenty of signature De Palma choices that appeared in Sisters and would continue with Carrie into the future. Cartoonish electrocution effects are combined with gory stab wounds and flaming corpses. It's always a feast for the eyes whether scenes are inside the sinister Death Records offices or the recording booth cell. The Phantom running through long hallways with his cloak flowing behind him is particularly memorable.
The grand finale tops this as a suspense sequence and a televised wedding party merge into one; the grisly fate of certain characters is treated as part of the show by the dancing swathes of oblivious viewers. I guess a live assassination does make great entertainment, as Swan so dryly puts it. This is a cult favourite and it's inevitable the '70s soundtrack won't be for everyone. But for the amount of flare involved this is certainly up there amongst the greats and deserves to be at the top when considering Brian De Palma's body of work.