Welcome once again to the Culture of Cult Movies, the only running series on Cracked where I have mentioned once witnessing a man eating cat poop and will soon mention the Muppets. 

Assuming you didn’t wash your eyes out with citric acid after reading the parade of nightmares that was yesterday’s column on Pink Flamingos, congratulations! Today we’ll be talking about something much less upsetting: the story of a man who is horrifically disfigured so he goes on a murder spree after making a deal with Satan. That’s right, it’s 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise!

Poster for Phantom of the Paradise

20th Century Fox

The most famous of rock n’ roll instruments is the synthesizer, just ahead of the French horn and the glockenspiel.

What’s This Movie About?

Of all the entries in this series, Phantom of the Paradise is almost certainly the one with the most coherent plot. It centers around the villainous record producer and music magnate Swan, who looks like if cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch got really into coke. 

Anyway, Swan is looking for the perfect band to play the opening night at the Paradise, the music venue he’s creating as the be-all end-all rock concert venue. You’d think the man’s never heard of an abandoned parking garage that your one friend with a pick-up truck drove a bunch of car batteries into. Swan hears a man named Winslow Leach playing a song that he thinks is perfect to open the Paradise. Swan offers to produce Winslow’s music, but it’s actually an elaborate ploy to steal his music. An evil record producer? In a movie? This is unheard of! What’s next, a dog who’s secretly good at basketball? A Steven Seagal who’s secretly good at eating an entire rotisserie chicken without using his hands? 

Winslow comes to Swan’s mansion where he sees a young woman named Phoenix auditioning to sing his song, whom he thinks is perfect for the role. When he goes to talk to Swan, however, he gets called a slur, beaten up, thrown out, and framed for dealing drugs – or as we call it in America, standard operating procedure for law enforcement! Am I right, folks? Realizing what Swan’s up to, Winslow tries to escape prison and is moderately successful except for the part where he gets his face caught in a record press, making his face look like a microwaved hotdog and frying his vocal cords. 

Winslow terrorizes the now-opened Paradise, where Swan is trying to perfect Winlsow’s music for opening night. When Winslow confronts Swan, Swan offers to let him finish writing the music and makes him sign a contract in blood. Did I mention the song Winslow’s been writing is called “Faust?” Because Brian De Palma is about as subtle as a brick to the teeth. Swan restores Winslow’s vocal cords, but shock of shocks, is planning to betray Winslow again because Winslow is insisting that Phoenix sing the lead in “Faust.” 

Winslow tries to murder Swan and learns that he’s immortal, because he is also under contract with the devil. Or is the devil? Or like… became the devil at some point in the past? It’s not super clear. A bunch of crazy stuff happens and the film ends with a huge rock concert where Swan tries to marry Phoenix but also assassinate her, but Winslow manages to save Phoenix and kill Swan by burning the old recordings he stored his soul in, killing himself in the process. Yes, it’s Faust meets The Picture of Dorian Gray meets Trilby meets Phantom of the Opera, a crossover so hamfisted it’s usually only seen in embarrassing internet fanfic and Marvel movies. 

What Makes it a Cult Movie?

It’s a kickass movie, first of all, with awesome set design and costumes and a story that would make the Théâtre du Grand Guignol think they should tone it down a little. The movie shares DNA with several cult films, which kind of puts it in that orbit by default. For example, Jessica Harper, the actress who plays Phoenix, also plays Janet Weiss in a kinda-sorta sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show called Shock Treatment. It also doesn’t hurt that movie is a musical with music that honestly rips ass. “Rips ass?” Is that what the kids are saying? Or, wait, is that farting?

The point is the music is legitimately good, thanks in no small part to Paul Williams. Williams plays Swan, but he also wrote and sang most of the film’s music. You might know Williams from his extensive work with the Muppets, or if you’re dealing with new and exciting forms of back pain like I am you may know him from his cameo on Dexter’s Laboratory:

There’s something inherently funny and fascinating about seeing a man responsible for writing some of the most important music of our childhoods – playing the literal devil and being a huge horny sleazebag on screen. It’s awesome. 

Phantom of the Paradise is also a cult film because it’s one of those movies that was never commercially or critically successful but had a huge influence on later artists. When director Guillermo Del Toro (or as US audiences know him, “Billy the Bull”) was a teenager in Mexico City, he waited in line for Paul Williams to sign his copy of the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack. Many years later, he’d ask Williams to write the lyrics to the stage adaptation of Pan’s Labyrinth. Edgar Wright also cites it as a huge influence. Daft Punk claim to have seen the movie together more than twenty times – and when you remember that the hero of a story is a man in a black suit with a metal helmet obscuring his face that sings in a mechanical cadence of another man over songs he composes on a synthesizer, you start to wonder if perhaps Phantom of the Paradise is more responsible for the birth of electronic music than readily-available MDMA and a music industry looking for an ever-cheaper production model

Finally, the movie is of note to big music nerds like me for one very particular reason. I’ve mentioned several times that Winslow writes his music on “a synthesizer,” but it would perhaps be more accurate to say he composes his music on “the synthesizer:” 

20th Century Fox

We should bring back room-size computers, we’d all be much happier. 

The gigantic instrument he’s sitting inside of is TONTO. No, not the Native American character Johnny Depp racistly portrayed in – holy crap, 2013? Didn’t we know better by then? No, this TONTO is an acronym for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, and if you don’t know the name you’ve definitely heard the sound. Stevie Wonder utilized it on many of his most famous songs, including the iconic riff in “Superstition” that’s so damn funky it’ll make you want to start wearing a vest with no shirt in daily life. It shows up in a huge range of hits from the 70s and beyond. 

TONTO is to rock what Snoop Dogg is to hip hop: any song you listen, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hear it. In terms of influence, it’s probably not too outrageous to say that TONTO is probably one of the most important instruments ever made, just behind Critofori’s first pianoforte and the orgasmophone (an instrument of my own invention which, nevertheless, I believe will one day revolutionize both the fields of music and wearing-a-condom-in-daily-life). 

What’s the Cult Culture?

For a movie that Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert’s lesser parasitic twin, gave two out of four stars, screenings of PotP are still pretty common – and surprisingly difficult to get tickets to. The New Beverly Theater shows it nearly every October (in fact, they show a print donated to them by Guillermo Del Toro himself), and goddammit I still haven’t ever been able to score tickets to it. What the hell, Tarantino? This personal affront against me is easily the worst thing you’ve done since propagating the survivor’s bias myth that if a script is good enough it will be produced, or maybe that Japanese talking dog commercial you were in for some reason. 

But aside from pretty popular showings, PotP has other cult cachet going for it. There have been PotP live band karaoke where the band members perform in costume, and several times there has been a convention known as Phantompalooza, which has seen several of the original cast members performing the songs live on stage. Phantompalooza has always been held in Winnipeg, where the film is inexplicably popular, as there’s nothing particularly Canadian about the film.

Ultimately, Phantom of the Paradise is a film with incredible staying power and far-reaching influence. Once you’ve seen it, you can detect subtle nods and references to it in things being made even today. If that doesn’t qualify it as a cult movie, I don’t know what does. Now if I could just get tickets to see it at the New Beverly …

William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on twitter.

Top image: 20th Century Fox

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