Years and years ago, one of my best friends became obsessed with the film Shock Treatment, the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show that only featured two of the original characters not played by their original actors, and a bunch of new characters played by the same actors from Rocky Horror.
This is not a post about Shock Treatment, which I admittedly still have not seen. This is a post about another musical film that Jessica Harper, Shock Treatment’s Janet Weiss, was in years before.
Y’see, as my friend trolled the Rocky Music archive for all she could find about Miss Harper, she found the page about Phantom of the Paradise, a 1974 retelling of Phantom of the Opera directed by Brian De Palma and starring Harper and ‘Rainbow Connection’ songwriter Paul Williams.
She then found the film on YouTube and after a few watches, forced me to watch it. I remember being reluctant because it seemed like it was going to be cheesy and stupid. And yeah, it can be, but there’s a story in there about the dangers of the music industry and the pratfalls of fame. If you only judge it by the surface, you don’t see the wonderfully dark film that it is. Not to mention Paul Williams can write a damn good song.
Somewhere along the way of all those Saturday nights watching the film online and running a chat commentary alongside of it, Phantom of the Paradise became one of my favorite movies and Paul Williams became one of my favorite songwriters. I eventually purchased the DVD from Criminal Records, who might love the movie more than me, and was so excited to see how much it influenced Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The clear influence of Phantom of the Paradise on Wright and how the character of Gideon Graves was essentially Swan made me feel finally justified as a fan of this quirky Phantom of the Opera adaptation.
Sometime this weekend, while I was working S.T.E.A.M.Fest, I found out the horrible news that William Finley had passed away. For those unfamiliar with Phantom of the Paradise, Finley played the protagonist Winslow Leach, who later becomes the Phantom after an unfortunate accident caused by a record press machine owned by Swan disfigures his face. And this is after he’s had his music stolen by Swan. And is accused of possessing cocaine and sent to Sing Sing by Swan, where all his teeth are removed.
I pretty much stayed in denial of this fact until Edgar Wright posted an email from Finley’s wife on his own blog. Then my heart just completely shattered.
I haven’t talked much about Finley here, but his performance as Winslow and the Phantom is just heart-aching. There are moments where Winslow is a bit of a creep towards Phoenix, but you can see that he doesn’t want the same fate that befell him to happen to her. He was a man with big plans who wanted to share his art with the world who gets completely screwed over and meets a tragic end because of it. It’s a Faustian fable about the music industry that’s still fairly relevant today, and I doubt that anyone but Finley could have carried the story of Winslow Leach across the way that he did.
If you’ve never seen Phantom of the Paradise, I suggest that you do so soon. It really is a wonderful film with great performances from Finley and Williams. There might be 70s cheese, but it doesn’t completely bog down the film.
To Susan and Dashiell Finley, I extend my deepest sympathies to you during this time. I’m only a fan, but William’s performance has offered many happy times and memories to me over the past few years. He was the only Phantom for me.