My First Midnight Movie: ‘Phantom of the Paradise’

On a regular basis, yours truly will discuss many of the movie "firsts" that have occurred in his life over the last half century. Let's start with Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise.

I was 13, and a budding cinephile. The Marquette Mall Theater in Michigan City, Indiana had become a second home, a relatively short bike ride away from the Gibron “estate” and a holder of hundreds of motion picture mysteries. None of them were more potent than the weekend Midnight Movie.

Even as a introductory teenager, the notion of staying up that late was still a tad ‘foreign’. On those rare occasions when we were traveling out of, or into, town at said hour, I would always crane my neck to see the crowds lining up at the box office. I wanted to know who was still awake enough to watch a movie, what manner of human had it in them to, at that late hour, keep alert enough to enjoy any entertainment whatsoever.

My parents certainly had their opinions. “Degenerates and hippies,” my no-nonsense Dad would grumble. My mother had a differing if similar suggestion. “It doesn’t matter,” she would admonish, “Nothing good happens after midnight.” Remember, this was 1974, the counterculture was crumbling and a new era of Watergate inspired suspicion was all around.

My family had lived through the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and my typically liberal parents were strong Conservatives when it came to National politics. So in their mind, whoever was staying up past their bedtime to do anything, especially see some silly movie, had to be up to no good.

Still, I wanted to see what was going on. I felt left out of the process, even as I realized my parents might have a point. I would frequently defy them; from sneaking into R-rated movies (like The Exorcist) to staying out past my curfew… well, just a little past. But I would never think of doing something as flagrant as going to a midnight movie. Luckily, I had a friend who was gung-ho to try anything. His name was Tom Kill, and while many in school knew him for his unbridled love of Gone with the Wind (it seemed weird, especially for a guy in his teens), I knew him as someone who thought way outside the box. Way outside.

Tom once suggested we take a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Orlando and spend a week camping at Disney World (back when such a plan seemed fiscally possible). He also wanted to travel Route 66, even though we couldn’t drive. He built elaborate model train sets in his basement and added oddball touches like actual waterfalls and real dirt to the dioramas. He often stated his desire to make enough money to buy a house that was a replica of Tara, or if not, make even more cash so he could buy a piece of property and build his own version of the famed movie plantation.

Perhaps most importantly, Tom obsessed on the same things that I did. Even better, his father worked at the Marquette Mall, and could attest to the clientele who attended the midnight movies.

Once Tom suggested a sleepover and a trip to see the latest witching hour epic — something called Phantom of the Paradise — we put a plan into action. I told my parents outright what we wanted to do. Naturally, they said, “(Various Expletives) No!” Then Tom’s mom stepped up. She was our Home Ec teacher and well respected. Over the course of a nail-biting conversation, she convinced my Mom, who then convinced my Dad, that there were no “troublemakers” at these movies, and that Tom and I would be fine. There was still some question about the whole endeavor, but after two of my college age cousins told my father he was being silly for preventing his oldest from going to a midnight movie, we were in.

After careful plotting, a pre-dinner nap (after a mandatory viewing of the after school programming of UHF fave WFLD), and more adrenaline than all the characters in Point Break (and they were at 100 percent, remember?), Mrs. Kill put us in her station wagon and drove us to the theater. She let us out, we got in line behind numerous long-haired post adolescents, and then she did something I’m sure my parents would have hated. She drove off. She didn’t stay behind to see if we were okay, or if we even got in (the line was long, but the rating was PG). Eventually, we got to the front of the line, paid for our tickets and quickly took our seats.

The place was packed. A low haze hung over the seats, a smell I recognized (and relished) instantly, while Tom spent a good ten minutes trying to figure it out. Even in such a laid back ensemble, I was wired. I couldn’t wait. I knew nothing of the movie except for the ads I had seen on TV and they made it look like a rock ‘n’ roll romp ripping off the standard Phantom of the Opera ideas. As the smoke grew thicker and the crowd more vocal, Tom and I starred at each other with the same, “can you believe we are getting away with this?” look on our face. The lights finally dimmed and it was time to see what this whole midnight movie thing was all about.

Now, if you’ve never seen Phantom of the Paradise (and now is a time to catch up with this bizarro world De Palma offering, considering that Scream Factory has just released an excellent Blu-ray of the movie), the story is quite simple. A songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley) is exploited by celebrated record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and, in the course of attempting revenge, is horribly disfigured.

The evil executive, meanwhile, has his sights set on comely chanteuse Phoenix (Jessica Harper). During a massive concert broadcast live on TV, Winslow — now a deformed madman known as “The Phantom” — systematically undermines Swan’s efforts. When the ‘monster’ learns that the high powered music man is actually in league with the Devil, he decides to expose him for everyone in the audience to see.

Now, when you consider that this was De Palma’s first film after Sisters, and before he would go on a record run that would producer Carrie, The Fury, Obsession, Blow Out, and Dressed to Kill, before he turned mainstream with Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible, it’s hard not to look at Phantom of the Paradise as what it appears to be: a pure De Palma fluke.

Sure, there’s some blood, and a bit of over the top directorial flare, but for the most part, this fascinating musical is more complicated than it is conventional. It deviates wildly in tone, going for the broadest of comedy strokes (thanks to Gerrit Graham’ sexually ambiguous glam rocker, Beef) to the most diabolical of satanic substance. When Williams’ Swan is finally exposed, the make-up effects are unsettling. In fact, the whole film has a sadistic undercurrent that is easily recognizable now.

Back in 1974, however, Tom and I were dumbstruck. We were both terrified and oddly intrigued. This was like nothing we had ever seen before, and even then, a legitimate frame of reference probably wouldn’t have helped. I remember being taken in by Winslow’s opening number, a sweeping piano piece that, even today, gives me goosebumps.

I didn’t get the reference in the title, “Faust”, but I could see how it fit in the film. I didn’t remember any other music (except for Beef’s final performance where he picked up members of the crowd and threw them like ragdolls back into the throng before being electrocuted by the Phantom with neon lightning bolts). Today, the film plays like a lost gem. Back them, Tom and I were convinced we had lost our minds.

Maybe it was a bit of a contact high. Perhaps we were just too young to appreciate the whole midnight movie experience. By the time we walked out of the theater it was clear that both Tom and I were deep in our own little world. Dazed, we almost passed his mother, car idling, her hair in a mess of curlers and wearing a sheepish housecoat. It was close to 2AM. We never stayed up that before.

Even after we were at Tom’s house and settled in to his basement train set-up/bedroom area, we were electric. We talked and talked. We puzzled and questioned. We tried to make sense of what we saw. For at least two weeks afterwards, we spent countless hours in conversation with our mutual friends just trying to figure out what the heck happened, and when we could experience something similar again.

Almost immediately, with several new members to our tempting fate tribe obtained, we set out to see another midnight movie. Sadly, after Phantom of the Paradise, there was nothing we could actually attend. They all were rated “R” and my parents wouldn’t let me see such a film without their (or a handpicked individual’s) supervision. Eventually, I would get a chance to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a midnight showing before moving to Florida and discovering a little something called The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Yet, even with all its flaws, I remain fascinated by my first experience with Phantom of the Paradise. As both a movie, and an after midnight experience, it was more than memorable.