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At the most superficial level, Phantom is the story of a wronged composer taking revenge against an evil record tycoon. Just barely under the surface, however, lurk some of the themes that were apparently on Brian De Palma's mind in the late '60's and early '70's, principally:
  • the corporatization of art and corresponding difficulty of a noncommercial artist to receive wide exposure without compromising his art to suit his corporate masters, and the consequences for the artist of making such a "deal with the devil";
  • the tendency of commercial exploitation to transform art into crap;
  • the growing mass fascination with public self-destruction, and the correspondingly increasing willingness of entertainers to leverage personal catastrophe into marketing opportunities, and even to destroy themselves for the sake of satisfying the public.
This is probably our favorite photo of De Palma; on the set of The Fury, he and Amy Irving appear to be having some fun switching roles.
A child of the '60's who at one point had been shot in the leg by a policeman, De Palma explores in Phantom the same distrust of "authority" and "the establishment" as permeates his other films, particularly the methods used by those in power to manipulate the masses...and the eagerness of the masses to be manipulated. "The establishment" in 1974's Phantom, personified by Swan, presciently anticipates today's entertainment megaconglomerates, with their sophisticated cross-promotion and vertical marketing. Swan appears to have virtually absolute power to sway the public's tastes in entertainment, and to tell us whom we like and don't like. (Early on, Swan's power in this regard is alluded to when he proposes to turn Annette overnight from "the biggest thing in rock" to "finished," to punish her for giving free concerts for "starving gook orphans" -- for daring to have a mind of her own.) Annette's fate foreshadows those of Winslow and Phoenix.

Mistrust of authority forms the core of De Palma's work, from his first major feature, Greetings, onwards. In Greetings and its sequel-of-sorts, Hi, Mom!, De Palma's satirical ire was (in part) directed at the US government's propaganda, with respect to the Viet Nam war and the Kennedy assassination. He made equal fun, though, of the propagandists and of the conspiracy theorists whose faith in the falsity of the propaganda was just as blind as the faith of those who bought it.
A beautiful Italian poster for Greetings from its 1979 release there.
An original Greetings American one-sheet. It seems ridiculous that this film got an "X" rating in 1969. Writer/producer Charles Hirsch is editor Paul Hirsch's brother.
That's a young Gerrit Graham there in the middle.
In later films, particularly in his more obviously personal projects, he chronicled the individual's fight against the authoritarian fascism of societal peer pressure (Carrie), patriarchal hostility towards women seeking personal power and sexual autonomy through erotic fantasy (Dressed to Kill), the military's authoritarian hierarchy (Casualties of War), government corruption (Blow Out), and so on.
This Pakistani poster for Carrie prominently features, in the black stockings, Mira Sorvino (who wasn't in the film) and describes the film as "A bizappe [sic] tale of romance, mystery and murder."
This Turkish poster puts the emphasis on stuff getting blown up. The text in the upper left corner translates to "Mothers! Have you explained everything to your daughters?"
Carrie was De Palma's first film to break into the national consciousness, sufficiently so that mainstream humorists who referenced it could be confident that everyone would get the joke.
  (He was in good company; during this same time period, Kubrick, another perennial outsider, was focused, in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket, on the damaging effects of authoritarian societal constructs upon the individual.) Even in De Palma's stories of individuals pitted against other individuals, the bad guys were inevitably authority figures taking advantage of their societally-granted positions of superiority and status, whether Michael Courtland's trusted lawyer in Obsession or lawyer Kleinfeld in Carlito's Way, the controlling Dr. Breton (who exploits his husbandly and medical authority) in Sisters, the senior spy Phelps in Mission Impossible, Dr. Elliott in Dressed to Kill, or seemingly respectable Commander Dunne in Snake Eyes.
Some of the Mexican artwork for Sisters, like that shown on this lobby card, was maybe a little over the top.
Even De Palma's seemingly most "commercial" projects, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, are in fact highly personal, and more than a little bit subversive; both films tell stories of original thinkers (Ness and Hunt) stuck working within the confines of corrupt but ostensibly "legitimate" organizations, who survive by surrounding themselves with a few trustworthy compatriots and working outside of, and even tormenting, the dysfunctional power structure (the Chicago police, in the case of The Untouchables, and the IMF, in Mission Impossible) which is supposed to govern their work. The parallels to De Palma's own travails with the studios are, whether or not intentional, clear.

Similarly, in Casualties of War, possibly De Palma's most affecting work, the outsider Eriksson must survive in combat even as he alienates his fellow platoon members, upon whose good graces his life depends. Eriksson, like De Palma, directs much of his energy towards appearing to cooperate with the larger establishment, while secretly attempting to further his own agenda.

De Palma comes by his suspicion of authority, and "outsider" credentials, honestly: Greetings and Hi, Mom! were not mere observations of the counterculture, but products of it. They reflected the lives of De Palma and his friends at the time, and come across today, even in their relative disorganization and "looseness", as authentic journals, rather than the anthropological studies of which so many other late 60's "hippie movies" (e.g., Easy Rider) are reminiscent.
Pinback buttons were kind of a "thing" in the late '60's. People used them as roach clips. Dionysus in '69 roach clips are getting hard to find because people kept putting them down and forgetting where they...whoa, I just completely lost my train of thought, man.
Throughout his early career, De Palma steadfastly pursued the things that interested him personally, in hopes that they would find first backers, and then an audience, rather than those which had obvious "commercial" potential. As a result, he seems to have spent much of his time banging his head against the wall trying to get his films made in the face of an industry that was looking for the easily-marketed. (The parallels to Winslow's travails are obvious.) De Palma's filmed record of a performance of Dionysus in '69, for example, is a product of his own enthusiasm about the Performance Group's rendition of the play, and in particular its pioneering interplay between the performers and the audience. De Palma makes this interplay the story, by filming the performance entirely in splitscreen, with one side showing the "performers," while the other side chronicles the "audience's" reaction and participation...the two groups aren't always easily separable. Dionysus represents a monumental achievement in film editing, which has sadly gone largely unrecognized. As well, Dionysus features a spectacular lead performance by Bill Finley, who shows here that he can play a charismatic and seductive Dionysus just as well as a nerdy Winslow, or creepy Dr. Breton. Finley is completely riveting, funny, spontaneous, and commanding in this exhilarating and exhausting live performance.
Finley, during a Dionysus performance, in a shot taken by none other than Andy Warhol.
De Palma had, with cowriter Louisa Rose, crafted early scripts of both Phantom and his immediately preceding film, Sisters, by 1971; both were written at a time when De Palma was reeling from his horrible experience on Get to Know Your Rabbit, which had been his first project for a major studio (Warners), and a complete disaster for him personally.
Original one-sheet from the ill-fated Get to Know Your Rabbit. De Palma's other rabbit-featuring work, "Home Movies," is a lot more fun.
Rabbit, a vehicle for Tommy Smothers, became so mired in studio politics that De Palma stepped out of the project after filming it but before it was edited. Smothers, depressed and in the midst of a lawsuit against CBS following their cancellation of "The Smothers Brothers," convinced himself during shooting that his performance was terrible, based on the daily rushes. In addition, much of the film, shot as originally written (by Jordan Crittenden), was meandering and incohesive. After shooting, De Palma rewrote a number of the scenes for reshoots, but Smothers refused to participate. De Palma was fired from the project, and the studio had someone else edit the footage De Palma had shot. The film then sat on a shelf for two years, until finally being released with slapdash publicity. We'll never know if it might have done better with the benefit of De Palma's rewrites and reshoots, but we at the Archives would like to have seen the clever and ironic ending De Palma had devised for the film rather than the original far less interesting (and frankly nonsensical) conclusion.
Tommy Smothers explains to three politely attentive little girls, "...and just when it's nearly done, you SNATCH it out of the director's hands, throw it on the floor and take a dump on it," as Brian De Palma looks on.
Orson Welles and Brian De Palma discuss the fate of The Magnificent Ambersons as Tommy Smothers takes careful mental notes.
De Palma returned after Rabbit to making independently financed films -- Sisters, Phantom, and Obsession -- on a relative shoestring, and selling them once completed to the highest bidder. Unsurprisingly, Phantom, and Winslow in particular, seem to channel the "rage against the machine" frustration that we imagine De Palma might have been feeling at the time.
This Australian daybill for Sisters features Bill Finley prominently; as everything should.
While imitative of nothing and utterly original, Phantom makes gleeful reference to everything: from, most obviously, Faust and Phantom of the Opera, to Beauty and the Beast and The Picture of Dorian Grey. There are a few nods to Hitchcock, including of course the shower sequence that turns our Psycho-borne expectations on their head, and an assassination attempt that is inspired by both Man Who Knew Too Much and The Manchurian Candidate. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari crops up at Beef's airport unveiling and as the backdrop to The Undeads' performance of "Somebody Super Like You." Touch of Evil is one-upped for the Beach Bums' performance of "Upholstery."

While De Palma is often accused, generally by morons, of being a "copyist," particularly with respect to Hitchcock, this is ridiculous; it's not fair to jump up and down and yell "Rear Window" every time one character observes another through a pane of glass; "that looks familiar to me" is a criticism favored by the lazy.
Some of De Palma's intertextual references were so obscure, we have to assume they were in-jokes for the benefit of particular friends, or perhaps just for his own personal amusement. Take, for example, his use of dialogue from Nathanael West's 1934 satirical novel, A Cool Million, in which Lem Pitkin, the nave hero (who, like Winslow, suffers a neverending series of humiliations, including beatings, false arrest, and commercial exploitation), is told by the prison warden, "Teeth are a source of infection, and it pays to be on the safe side"! (Like Winslow, Lem responds, "I am innocent.") The removal of Winslow's teeth in Phantom seems so random, and to have such tangential bearing on the plot (other than as yet one more (completely redundant and unnecessary) signifier of Winslow's loss of control and humiliation) that we have to assume that the teethectomy's true function in the film was to serve as an excuse to quote from the novel -- even though it seems unlikely that De Palma could possibly have expected that more than a handful of viewers would smile with recognition. This is just one reason (of many) that Phantom is so very different from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to which it is so frequently (and in our opinion inappropriately) compared. Rocky is (apparently) inspired in large part by Richard O'Brien's own filmgoing experiences. The films referenced in Rocky are ones he -- and virtually everyone else of his approximate vintage -- would have seen in the normal course, as a filmgoer and on television. Because they were shown endlessly on late-night creepshows (remember Creature Features?), the horror movies and '50s sci-fi films to which Rocky refers were very much a part of popular culture in the '70s. In contrast, Phantom's references, by and large, were accessible only to filmschool geeks and cineastes: they're the only ones who, in 1974, a time when there weren't yet VCRs and DVDs, had actually seen Caligari, Nosferatu, Touch of Evil, etc. At that time, the people who had seen many of the films De Palma was referencing were those who had screened them in film courses at college, or who otherwise had gone out of their way to find them. It's not like Caligari was playing on Channel 2, and you couldn't just go out and rent it. De Palma's jokes were for the benefit of fellow film nuts, while O'Brien's were for the benefit of anyone who stayed up watching late night television, as he himself presumably did. In this sense, the references in Rocky Horror only seem like "in jokes". They play to, and reward, the same people who feel sophisticated, self-satisfied and special because they "get" a Star Wars reference. Rocky, for all its supposed irreverence, was designed to have broad appeal, and to make everyone feel in on the joke, while Phantom was more of a valentine to other geeks, made by a guy who knew full well that the vast majority of viewers would be excluded from many of the references he was making. Today, with these films far more available, and more widely seen, these originally-semi-private jokes have become accessible to a much wider swath of the audience, which may account to some extent for Phantom's latter-day reevaluation and surge in popularity.
The warden's line about teeth being a source of infection, which Phantom lifted from A Cool Million, is in turn lifted from Phantom itself in Issue #2 of a comic book series called Super Indian, by Arigon Starr. Ms. Starr informs us that there will be further Phantom references in future adventures of Super Indian. Find out more about Super Indian, and buy your own copies at
True to her word, Ms. Starr has followed up, in the latest installment of Super Indian, "The Curse of Blud Kwan’Tum, Part 2," wiith another Phantom reference, as shown here. We particularly like the native American version of Mary Margaret Amato! The story so far is that a mysterious vampire (Blud Kwan’Tum) has come to the Leaning Oak Reservation to become a full-blood Indian — by biting OTHER full-blood Indians. It’s up to Super Indian and an emerging super heroine, Laguna Woman, to save the reservation. General Bear (who’s filling in for Philbin), has been tasked to keep order among local Natives who are waiting in line to visit Blud’s mysterious motorhome. Find out more at
In Howard the Duck issue #2, which came out in 1975, shortly after Phantom's release, a character named Arthur Winslow (hmmmm....) sells his soul to a turnip from outer space in exchange for the turnip's promise that Arthur would become "a hero, a scourge of evil, a defender of the common man..." Things don't turn out exactly as Winslow planned but, as shown above, he does get to don some strangely familiar looking headwear.
Certainly, it's easy to see that Hitchcock was a tremendous influence, and that De Palma shares Hitchcock's sensibility for absurdity in the midst of violence and danger. As well, De Palma's films often share overarching themes and plot devices with Hitchcock's, and are in some cases inspired by Hitchcock's work: Obsession, like Vertigo, is a story of a man obsessed with a woman he had loved in the past, and Body Double revisits Rear Window's peeping Tom-turned rescuer. In Dressed to Kill and Sisters, as in Psycho, a major character "starring role" is dispatched much earlier in the film than audiences would expect. De Palma, like Hitchcock, frequently tells stories -- in Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double -- of witnesses to crimes who feel compelled to take a role in solving them, typically hampered by indifferent or incompetent policemen or other "professional investigators." De Palma, like Hitchcock, explores the connection between witnessing something you're not supposed to see (perhaps because you're looking through someone else's window), and being implicated in it, and, by tricking audiences into feeling guilty about their own lustful impulses, forces viewers to identify with such voyeuristic characters as Sisters' Grace Collier, Body Double's Jake Scully, and Femme Fatale's Nicolas Bardo.
This insanely rare Sisters poster is from Thailand.
Even Greetings uses Gerrit Graham's maniacal Kennedy assassination theorist to show that, in the age of televised assassinations, everyone -- even those of us watching the movie -- can be an amateur investigator/voyeur.

De Palma's approach is not to copy, however, but to seize upon the best available exemplars of film grammar -- the way the story is told -- and to personalize them, adding his own angles. Since many of those best examples come from Hitchcock, and since De Palma, like Hitchcock, favors constructing stories, and even entire films, around a series of visually-interesting and precisely constructed set pieces, it's unsurprising that comparisons between the two are easily and often made. In reality, though, the two are very different. Where Hitchcock's style is often droll and understated, De Palma's flamboyantly calls attention to itself. Where Hitchcock's sexuality is for the most part buried in subtext, eroticism is De Palma's stock in trade. Most importantly, though, where Hitchcock excelled in showing the audience exactly what they needed to know, so that even the most filmically illiterate could follow the sometimes labyrinthine plots and understand the characters' motivations, De Palma seems far more interested in leaving gaps, counting on his cinema-literate audience to fill them in based on years of experience watching other, more clichéd films...and then, once the audience has decided which way things are going, confounding expectations.

Nor is Phantom a "parody" or "satire" of Phantom of the Opera, Dorian Grey, or of Faust, as it doesn't hold these stories up to ridicule; it is, on the contrary, an earnest retelling, or updating. It's no more a parody of the underlying material than West Side Story is a "parody" of Romeo and Juliet. (Or, for that matter, any more than Phantom of the Opera is a parody of Beauty and the Beast.) What it does satirize is 70's entertainment culture.
Just as De Palma's treatment of his film's source material is affectionate rather than critical, Phantom has in turn inspired other artists to create loving tributes. Our favorite of these is Tegan & Sara's video for their song I Hear Noises, which you can watch here (by clicking the thumbnail above). Tegan & Sara are Canadian identical-twin purveyors of tuneful alt-rock, whom The Archives has had a massive crush on tremendously respected ever since seeing them open for Ryan Adams in San Francisco a few years back. We showed this video to the Juicy Fruits at two in the morning in a hotel room in Canada, and they loved will too.
Far and away our favorite cover of a song from the Phantom soundtrack is Brillig's hauntingly lovely take on Phantom's Theme. Brillig is an absolutely genius combo, the best thing to come out of Australia since Oceanic 815. Phantom is one of their all time favorite films, and we think it took a lot of nerve to, as they put it, "do a cover version when the original is already perfect." They've done a beautiful job, though; listen to their version by clicking their portrait above. For more Brillig, you'll need to go to their Myspace (I know, right?) page here.
At the other end of the spectrum, there's Faith and the Muse's dreary cover of Old Souls from their 1999 album, Evidence of Heaven, which you can hear, if you really want to, by clicking the artwork above. FatM have taken one of Paul Williams's prettiest and most evocative songs and, by removing all traces of Jessica Harper's lilting syncopation from the vocal, obliterating all melodic interest, phrasing and dynamics, taking out the nice Db/Fm/Gb/Ab modulated bit, and accompanying it all with a monotonous synth-and-piano track and really bad splicing (at the 1:27 mark, for example), have presented it as mind-numbing, lifeless gothy garbage. Bleh.
Somewhere in between, there's The Lemonheads' cover of Special to Me, which they released only as the B side to I Just Can't Take it Anymore, a limited pressing 7" vinyl EP in the UK in 1999. You can hear it by clicking on the artwork above. We like this well enough; the organ sound is a nice homage to the original, and the cop of the guitar riff from Blondie's One Way or Another sounds good here and really moves the song forward.
This song by the Cuban Boys, called Fluorescent Dream Beam (click icon above for MP3), was the B-side to their hit single, Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia, which reached number 4 on the UK charts in 1999. It's full of audio samples from Phantom, because the band "always adored" the film.
This one, Never Come Back (click icon above for MP3), is by a band called Kas Product, and is also full of Phantom sound-bytes. And no, we have no idea what's wrong with these people.
Here's the music video for French DJ/Producer/Remixer Bob Sinclar's "I Feel For You," which got to number 9 on the UK charts in 2000. This thing is full of Phantom references, inexplicably.
The Phantom graced the cover of "Film Fantastic 5," the fifth volume of a seven volume Japanese set of luxuriously illustrated paperbacks, with each issue covering film and tv from a particular chronological period, written by Shinji Nakako and published by Koudansya. Volume 5 spanned 1970-1974. He also made the cover of Volume 79 of "The Movie," a British film encyclopedia of sorts that was issued in 158 weekly installments by Orbis Publishing from 1979 to 1983.
The Phantom also beautified the cover of this little French book about cult films. Those crazy French. Deliverance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are both among the supposed "cult" films featured.
The major themes of the piece are set out in the first song, "Goodbye Eddie," about a singer who commits suicide in hopes of making his debut album a posthumous hit. As the song reaches its end, Juicy Fruit Archie Hahn pantomimes Eddie's suicide, playfully pretending to slice his wrist open with his own microphone, and then writhing in pain on the floor as his bandmates seemingly obliviously continue to perform around him. Encapsulated in this song and in Hahn's performance are the concepts that people will do anything, even killing themselves, in exchange for the chance for success; that the public eats this up, making Eddie's "memorial" album a hit; and that the Juicy Fruits' own audience is thrilled to see a simulated suicide -- even one performed for laughs -- onstage.

As the film progresses, the onstage carnage (and the audience's reactions to it) become more and more serious, mimicking (and anticipating) the real-world one-upsmanship of performers who commit ever more outrageous acts in an effort to outdo themselves and their competitors for the public's attention, with the ultimate attention-getter being complete self-destruction. We make our way from Hahn's innocent goofing with the knife/microphone to the simulated spearing of mannequin audience members, to Beef's impromptu electrocution, to a premeditated "assassination live on television coast to coast," as Swan has his henchman take aim at his bride during their televised wedding, and finally to Swan's and Winslow's onstage deaths, which the crowd assumes to be just part of the show. (We at The Swan Archives have never understood exactly how Phoenix's assassination was supposed to work: how could Swan have imagined that Phoenix, who was under a contract with a "til death do us part" clause, could possibly die before he himself did? Several people have written to the Archives to suggest that perhaps Swan never intended Phoenix to die. Rather, they propose, his intention was that she would be merely stunned, as Winslow was when he attempted to stab himself, so that Swan could "resurrect" her later, before the adoring crowd. While this theory is interesting, we don't believe it; rather, we believe Swan's ruthless willingness to sacrifice his bride on the altar of entertainment was genuine, and an example of the dedication to his craft that made Swan the master showman of his age.)

In parallel with the increasing carnage, audience identification shifts, from Swan to Winslow. Early on, we are encouraged to see the world from Swan's privileged point of view, particularly as Philbin entreaties Swan, whose vantage point we share, to destroy Annette. Winslow is presented as a dorky geek, who deserves our scorn, and is practically asking to be ripped off. We laugh at his expense as he sings passionately for an empty hall, trustingly hands his music over to Philbin, falls instantly and ridiculously head over heels for Phoenix, dresses in drag to gain access to Swanage, faces the prospect of having his teeth pulled, and, finally, as he gets his own song indelibly stamped into the side of his head.

As soon as Winslow returns as the monster, however, he has our sympathy. We see from his perspective as he approaches the Paradise and remakes himself as the Phantom. As he places the mask over our collective head, we become him, and we're suddenly rooting for him, and against Swan, as he attempts to blow up the innocent but despicable Juicy Fruits.

Ultimately, Swan (a bird), Phoenix (another bird), and the Phantom (who wears a birdlike mask) are all destroyed by their own ambition, as the audience at the Paradise takes it in with glee. (Death Records' dead songbird logo is a metaphor for Swan, Phoenix and Winslow, all of whom are doomed by their ambition. Birds, and particularly ravens, crows, and vultures, have traditionally symbolized death -- see, for example, Psycho -- but of course this goes back much further than that. It's worth keeping in mind that one of De Palma's earliest short films was called Icarus, a reference to the Greek myth in which Icarus, using wings made of wax and feathers built for him by his father, flies too high, against his father's advice, only to have his wings melted by the sun's heat...the overly ambitious Icarus plummets to his death in the sea.)

Phantom's melding of "the show" and "the real", perhaps inspired by Altamont and the resulting 1970 Gimme Shelter documentary, anticipated today's "reality" shows, the success of which proves that there's a hunger that mere "fictional" tragedy no longer satisfies. As De Palma predicted with Phantom, the culture demands entertainment that is more and more visceral, with the most desensitized among us insisting upon manipulated "reality" as entertainment, and snuff films the inevitable end result; people are willing to watch video of New York's twin towers tumble hundreds of times, and entire websites have been dedicated to photographs of unfortunates jumping out of the skyscrapers to escape the heat. Of course, in order for "death as entertainment" to flourish, there must be a culture that is sufficiently interested to watch it, while being sufficiently apathetic to do nothing about it; and Phantom is as much an observation of that culture as it is an indictment of the media machine that happily provides that culture with what it wants.

There's nothing new about a culture of "death as entertainment" of course; it's been around at least since the Romans came up with throwing Christians to the lions. But it's something we like to think we have risen above; Phantom reminds us that we haven't.
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