Let’s try something new. Tonight’s review goes to not one film, but to a double bill: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). A movie buff will sometimes mention both in the same sentence because of all they have in common: both are glam rock horror-musicals, both came out in the mid-70s, both traffic in a camp style, both heavily reference old movies, and both picked up an audience as “cult films”—even if Phantom remains a true cult, while Rocky Horror is now so large it may qualify as a bona fide religion. (Like any religion, some are devout, some practice only on the biggest holidays).
The immortal story of the Rocky Horror Picture Show: two straight-laced newlyweds are stranded at an Old Dark House (“we just want to use the phone”) and end up getting sucked into an only slightly logical plot involving mad scientists, monsters, aliens, greasers, dance crazes, and all the shirtless muscles that Susan Sarandon wants to touch-a-touch-a-touch. It is the very embodiment of camp, and you should always reject that notion that camp means “so bad it’s good.” In fact, looking at Rocky Horror, it strikes me that the people behind the camera didn’t screw up, but made the movie they wanted to make in their own stoned, self-pleasing way, even if the traditions it spawned were undoubtedly beyond their wildest dreams.
But the cult and legacy of Rocky Horror are unironic. Goofy, certainly. Bizarre. A vacation from narrative coherence and bourgeois taste. But there’s something sincere, even perversely lyrical, to Tim Curry’s exhortation to “don’t dream it, be it”, and to how the film recognizes the fun that can be had by taking the hilariously square heroes of cheesy 1950s monster movies and dropping them into a pansexual revolution. (Really, the only ironies are that the film’s genesis can be traced to Jesus Christ Superstar, and that the gods of cinema seem to have looked at Tim Curry in leggings and decided to put him in half a dozen 90s kids movies.)
Phantom of the Paradise is something else entirely: the work of an extremely accomplished and rigorous director. A fusion of Faust, Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and whatever else De Palma could get his cinephile hands on, it’s about a naive, somewhat hubristic composer (William Finley) who sells his work—and ultimately his soul—to a diabolical music producer (Paul Williams) who seems to have pulled the strings on every trend since rock began. De Palma is nothing if not precise and ambitious: Phantom emerges as a brutally sardonic satire of a bloated, uninspired pop music scene. Its jokes, its music, its cinematic techniques—all are incisive, sneaky rather than stoned. As filmmaking and as commentary, it’s miles ahead of anything Rocky Horror even attempts.
But then irony comes back into the equation. Brian De Palma has been accused over the years of being a cruel, smug, even misogynist impresario of horror. 99% of the time, I disagree—such moral outrage always struck me as a knee-jerk reaction to surfaces, not details. But there is a certain coldness to Phantom of the Paradise that never quite sits well with me, no matter how much I laugh. That is, it seems to take far too much pleasure in the horror its heroes are put through, without offering nearly enough empathy in return.
So for this battle of Cult Horror Musicals, it’s a wash: unashamedly loopy, warm parody vs. witty, jagged, technocratic satire. It’s totally your call which you prefer, less an aesthetic judgment than a kind of personality test. For the season, you should see them both.
The rating for both:
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.