The Beast Called Fame

Musical Double Feature: Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment

Whether adapted from stage or produced strictly for the big screen, musicals have been popular since the emergence of sound film technology. Choreography and music interwoven delight the imaginations of young and old alike, with lavish sets and perspectives that would be impractical in a theater. Adding in elements of kitsch and horror have given us classics like Little Shop of Horrors and Hedwig And The Angry Inch, yet one of the most common themes in musical film is a rags-to-riches tale. Set within the entertainment industry, characters of humble origins realize their dreams of making it big. Sensationalizing the notion that anybody could be discovered and revealing the grotesque addiction to reaching celetoid status.

Brian DePalma and Richard O’Brien would deliver darker takes on show business within the musical film genre. Inspired by German expressionism and classical gothic horror, Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment are satirical journeys through the shadowy side of striving to become famous. De Palma’s rock opera would lament the loss of self and exploitative hallmarks of celebrity isolation. While O’Brien’s musical would be ahead of its time, predicting round-the-clock access to the rich and elite. Both films would achieve cult status in varying degrees and ask their audiences what would they give to be adored on stage?

Phantom of the Paradise

In 1969, a young Brian De Palma had overheard a popular Beatles song turned into unbearable elevator muzak. Igniting an intense disgust within the director to hear art transformed by corporate America for a quick buck. Combined with his personal demons of pitching ideas to indifferent studio suits, De Palma created Phantom of The Paradise. A Faustian musical, taking notes from Leroux’s The Phantom of The Opera and Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey

The film begins with a grim introduction by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. Preparing the audience to meet the mysterious and Spector-esque record tycoon, Swan. Surrounded by 2-way mirrors and bodyguards, the genius producer seeks a unique sound to open his new music venue, The Paradise. 

While hundreds of acts vie for his attention, Swan takes notice of the passionate and naive composer, Winslow Leach. Having written a cantata based on the German legend of Faust, Swan steals Winslow’s music and disposes of him. Brutalized and mangled in a record press accident, he is reborn as a masked Phantom. Terrorizing performers as they rehearse bastardized versions of his songs for opening night.

But Swan casts an irresistible lure, promising the cantata will be performed by the perfect songstress, Phoenix. Winslow is compelled to bind himself through infernal contracts signed in blood, when tempted with his heart’s last desire. 

With Swan shrouded in surveillance and secrets, the cameras keep rolling. Tapes pile up in his vault, having recorded the darkest moments of Winslow and Phoenix. The Paradise’s mirrored walls shine distortions of dreams turned into obsession. Splitting from their innocence and integrity, leaving only empty reflections of fame. Winslow, now as the Phantom, rewrites his cantata as a confessional acceptance of his metamorphosis. Acknowledging his new founded villainy and the internal battle of angels and demons. Torn between the success of his masterpiece and saving the soul of Phoenix from Swan and the horrors of celebrity.

Shock Treatment

After a few unproduced ideas for a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien would release Shock Treatment in 1981. Considered an “equal” to the cult film without referencing the events of its campy predecessor. It features music adapted from previous scripts and shared themes with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Poe’s short story William Wilson

Brad and Janet Majors reside in the domestic doldrums of their hometown Denton, Texas. Now transformed into a Stepford suburbia of mindless entertainment addicts, the town is taken over by DTV. A television studio owned by fast-food tycoon, Farley Flavors. The Majors become guests on “Marriage Maze”, a game show that is quick to publicly humiliate them. To save their relationship, Brad is committed to “Denton Vale” for treatment. A psychiatric hospital that is also a reality show/soap opera. 

But perceptions are warped through multiple camera angles and walls of television screens. The neuro-specialists are actually character actors and counseling is a series of commercials. Farley Flavors and DTV slowly seduce Janet with stardom. Brainwashed by pharmaceuticals and her own ego, she becomes a self-obsessed monster. Along for the ride is the entire town of Denton. Lost within its role of audience participation and Farley’s plot of take-out therapy and world domination.

Circling the series of events befalling The Majors is Betty Hapschatt and Judge Oliver Wright, hosts of “Denton Dossier”. An investigative show that gets canceled just as Janet’s star rises. Oliver and Betty suspect a conspiracy is taking place as others vanish within their on-air personalities. Fearing for Brad and Janet’s sanity they decide to intervene as fame and “mental hygiene” spreads like a virus through Denton.

“Are you one of those that finds this emotive form of presentation is overly manipulative?”

There is a rigid dichotomy between the mysticism of Phantom of The Paradise and the science of Shock Treatment. Yet both offer villains with good publicity that hook us with a litany of false pretenses. The only real power they have over us is what we give them when tempted with our dreams coming true. Both musicals expose the power of desire and how weak human morality can actually be. The soundtracks to DePalma’s and O’Brien’s musicals become allegorical representations of abandoning humanity for excess and fame. The track listing offers ballads of sacrifice and catchy commercial jingles foreshadowing the dirges to come. 

What stands out most is the eerie prediction of reality television in all of its extremes. In the climactic scene of Phantom, Swan plans to marry Phoenix and assassinate her on live television. While in Shock Treatment, Farley Flavors is content to package and sell a fad fixation on mental health by exploiting the private lives of the audience to push products and ratings. 

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, both films make use of mirrors and themes of character-splitting that beg the audience to look at themselves. Reflect on our indifference to commodifying the human experience and the rate at which we consume celebrity culture. To recognize our own faces in the screaming crowds at The Paradise or among the spectators of DTV Studios and consider the normalcy of unreality in the name of entertainment. 

Further Reading

Unproduced Rocky Horror Sequel Scripts

Swan Archives: Phantom of the Paradise fansite

Originally Published October 2021

With These Hands: A History of Mad Love

The 1930s were peak in Hollywood’s Golden Age of horror. Universal led the way with its legendary monster movies and Paramount added sophisticated suspense to the genre. In 1935, MGM decided to release the horror-thriller Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre in his American debut. Lorre, a highly publicized talent, harnessed a dark glamor with his emotive acting. Bringing an amalgamation of repulsiveness and vulnerability into each role that the audience sympathizes with against their will.

His Love Was a Pitiful…Hopeless Madness

The famous surgeon, Dr. Gogol sits in private box at the “Théatre des Horreurs”, just as he has for the last 47 nights. Blissfully gazing upon Madame Yvonne Orlac as she is tortured on stage as the Duchess. Having sent flowers and notes to her dressing room for each performance, he finally approaches her dressing room on closing night. Yet he is crushed to learn she is married to concert pianist, Stephen Orlac. As he wraps up a tour, Yvonne retires from the stage to join him at last. The dejected Gogol comforts himself by purchasing the theater’s promotional wax figure of Yvonne from the lobby. Having it delivered to his private chambers to do with as he pleases, without fear of rejection.

While enroute to meet with his wife, Stephen is mangled in a terrible train wreck. Crushing his hands which must be amputated to save his life. Yvonne is desperate to preserve her husband’s livelihood and begs Dr. Gogol for a miracle. His surgical genius is struck with divine inspiration and Stephen is given a hand transplant. The donor of which being a recently executed knife thrower from the circus. The surgery is a success, but Stephen is repulsed by his transplants that require long and expensive treatments. They don’t take to playing the piano as they once did but now seem to have a talent for knives. The Orlacs are forced to sell all their valuables as the bills pile up, straining their marriage much to Gogol’s delight. With murder hanging in the balance, Stephen descends into madness. Luring Yvonne to Dr. Gogol for answers, like a fly to a carnivorous plant.

I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Mad Love was the first of many remakes of Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac). An Austrian silent horror film directed by expressionist veteran, Robert Wiene. This version focused more on the unraveling of Stephen as the protagonist. Rejecting his evil willed appendages and featuring a con man as the villain. Wiene’s film itself was inspired by a 1920 French fantasy/horror novel, Les Mains d’Orlac. Written by Maurice Renard, it is cited as one of the earliest appearances of body horror.

Mad Love is less faithful to Renard’s novel than Frankenstein or Dracula are to their origins in gothic literature. Which comes as no surprise that the script writer, John L. Balderston, had previously written on those film adaptations along with The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein. Balderston expanded on an otherwise minor character by combining the novel’s benign doctor with ‘Spectropheles’. A grotesque figure clad in white that haunts Stephen Orlac’s wife throughout Renard’s version. Regarded as the ghost of the train accident in the book and on screen as Dr. Gogol, a ghoul in white surgical scrubs. Both personal devils of Mrs. Orlac that must be faced before all is lost.

Balderstone had composed the film’s dialog with Lorre in mind, at points calling for the actor to deploy his “M look”. Referring to Lorre’s breakthrough role as Hans Beckert, a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M. A Weimar Republic-era movie that would type cast the actor for the rest of his career. The tortured Stephen Orlac is played by, Colin Clive. No stranger to horror as the memorable Dr. Henry in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Keye Luke appears as Gogol’s assisting surgeon, Dr. Wong. Best known for his role as Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan films and appearing with Peter Lorre in 1938 film Mr. Moto’s Gamble. Edward Brophy plays Rollo the knife thrower, on his way to the guillotine. Brophy had also played a knife throwing circus performer named Rollo in the 1935 movie Freaks. Possibly setting the cult film within the same cinematic universe as Mad Love.

Other film adaptations include The Hands of Orlac (1960) directed by Edmond Grevilleand Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold. The premise of a killer transplant inspired a number of other films such as The Crawling Hand (1963), The Hand (1981), and Les Mains de Roxana (2012). On television it had influenced a segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the Doctor Who serial, “The Hand of Fear”. A variant of the theme was used in an unproduced project of Alfred Hitchcock, The Blind Man and parodied in The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror IX”. It has even been suggested that Mad Love directly inspired the visual style of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

 “Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves”

Though upon initial release Mad Love was a commercial failure, it has grown a devout following through the years. Amassing an audience that appreciates Freund and Balderston weaving as many horror tropes within their movie as they could. From set designs to borrowed lines, the film pays tribute to its expressionistic roots and other heavy hitters in the genre.

The film title Mad Love is more obviously in reference to the sadistic obsession Gogol has for the actress and the skin-crawling scenes of his entitled wooing. Perhaps it also regards Yvonne’s devotion to her husband, Stephen. Resorting to desperate measures to care for the wreck-mauled pianist. Including reaching out to a repugnant stage-door johnny and admittedly trading on his unrequited feelings. Unknowingly evoking a madness in their lives that can only come from “love”.