Monday, April 23, 2012
In 1974, as a teenager, I walked into a movie theater, sat down and saw Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise for the first time. At the end of that screening, I wasn't sure what to think about what I'd just seen--it was so odd, so full of strange imagery, almost like an underground comic book come to life. Part horror movie, part super hero film--a rock musical, a comedy, a tragedy, a love story--almost too much to process. I wasn't even sure if I liked it or not.
I saw it again.
All in all, I saw it fourteen times on that first release--catching showings in the Quad Cities as well as in my home town of Muscatine, Iowa. I saw it again in Iowa City and even in West Liberty's delightfully vintage New Strand theater. By then it had become my favorite movie--and it remains so today. With viewings on cable TV, video cassette and DVD, I've lost track of the number of times I've seen it--but I can say I've watched it more than any other film in my long list of favorites.
This mash up of Phantom of the Opera and Faust grabbed me on any number of levels, and never let go. I loved the music (written by Paul Williams, who also plays the Faustian music producer, Swan), the look of the film, the humor, the horror--and I had a major crush on the female lead, Jessica Harper (also in Dario Argento's Suspiria and the highly underrated Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment). I got over the crush, but still love everything about the film.
I collected all I could on PotP--posters, soundtrack album, lobby cards, pressbook, sheet music, novelization--even the radio and TV spots (45 rpm record and 16 mm film). But that's about all there was to collect--unless one went after actual movie props, autographs, etc. Replicas of the Phantom's helmet were out there to be had, but I never did pull the trigger on that purchase. Decades after the film's release, Medicom produced two variant Phantom of the Paradise 12 inch action figures--one with knife--one with plunger (see the film, I won't spoil the joke here). Despite the hefty "instant collector's item" price, I popped for both.
A few years ago, I heard about a Phantom themed convention being held in Canada. It seems the movie, which pretty much flopped elsewhere, had been a huge hit in Winnipeg--and the fans there organized something called Phantompalooza -- and arranged for all the stars of the film to be guests. I heard about this a few days before it was being held -- and, unfortunately, it was far too late to arrange for me to make the trip. I still shake my head over missing that particular party. There is a DVD with highlights of the event--I have it of course, and it's nice--but I wish I could have been there.
So it hit me pretty hard when I heard the news last week that the movie's star, William Finley had passed away. Finley's film credits are pretty sparse -- only 20 titles listed on the imdb, and that inlcudes several TV appearances. Most of his film work was for his friend Brian DePalma. Along with playing the tortured songwriter Winslow Leech, who becomes the titlular Phantom, he was Emil Breton in the horror/suspense Hitchcock homage, Sisters--Raymond Dunwoodie in The Fury--and the (uncredited) voice of Bobbi in Dressed to Kill. His collaborations with DePalma span from the short film Woton's Wake in 1962 through the feature film The Black Dahlia in 2006.
A friend got me his autograph a while back--and that's a nice thing to have--but I regret I'll never be able to shake the man's hand and tell him how much his performance and the film mean to me. So, so long Winslow/Phantom/William. "Rest in peace--and dream--dream it never ends..."
William Finley and Jessica Harper as Winslow and Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise.
William Finley as Emil Breton in Sisters.
Original release movie poster.
Alternate poster -- this graphic was the cover art for the soundtrack LP.
Alternate poster -- with art by Neal Adams and Richard Corben!
Phantom drawing by me -- a "Phan" commission