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Review: Phantom of the Paradise

[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]



Like many of its contemporaries (including Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Phantom of the Paradise is an exercise in excess and audacity—a campy, kitschy, absurdist glam-rock opera that nimbly navigates the razor-thin boundary between horror and comedy.


It’s also a biting satire—a scathing condemnation of the exploitative nature of the entertainment industry. The central villain, Swan, is a shrewd, manipulative media mogul that reduces art to a mere commodity, with little regard for its creators; he treats the singers, songwriters, and musicians in his employ as utterly disposable—fueling them up with booze and drugs to keep them productive and pliable, wringing out every ounce of creativity, and ultimately discarding them like so much scrap paper. Indeed, one of his Faustian contracts deprives our protagonist—meek, mild-mannered composer Winslow Leach—of his voice, his face, and (in a supernatural twist) even his mortality, trapping him in eternal servitude… an eerily prescient plot point that resonates with SAG-AFTRA’s ongoing battle against digital doppelgängers, artificial intelligence, and “in perpetuity” likeness licensing agreements.



Director Brian De Palma does not, however, restrict his social commentary exclusively to corrupt corporate executives; the audience, he argues, is equally complicit in the desecration of self-expression. Swan’s adoring public enables his devious machinations, ravenously devouring every bland, soulless, sanitized pop hit that he churns out and demanding more, more, more! This “subtextual” conflict is at its most blatant and unsubtle during the film’s blood-soaked grand finale: as the performers are literally butchered onstage, the boisterous crowd continues to dance and cheer without a care in the world, either oblivious or indifferent to the suffering of the characters that they ostensibly idolize (neither scenario is particularly encouraging).


Thus, consumerism, commercialism, and celebrity worship are Phantom of the Paradise’s true antagonists—and the fact that these themes remain so relevant nearly half a century after the movie’s initial release is absolutely chilling.

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