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

Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?

I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the late 90s when a middle school friend let me
borrow an edited for tv version, recorded on VHS. It was the beginning of an obsession that has
lasted over 20 years, daring me to dream beyond the walls of my reality at a tender age. The cult
film and its fanfare have always spread a positive message of unity among the strange, where
freaks and Franks could have a sense of community. 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of Rocky
though few have had an opportunity to celebrate in the last six months.
Chicago’s shadow cast, Midnight Madness, have been acting parallel to the movie screen for
over 35 years and the Music Box Theater has been their home base. Averaging one to two
Midnight screenings of Rocky Horror a month until the theater closed March 17th due to
Covid19. Not only was the scheduled performance on the 21st canceled, so were all other shows
until further notice, leaving Midnight Madness in limbo.
For the Halloween season, the Music Box partnered with ChiTown Movies drive-in theater to
bring patrons a safe experience during their more popular October events. Previously, the Music
Box of Horrors was a 24-hour marathon but this year it mutated into 31 Nights of Terror at the
Drive-In. Nightly late film screenings, trivia, special appearances, and double features on the
weekends. Midnight Madness approached the Music Box and expressed interest in continuing
the tradition of their Halloween performances by working something out with the drive-in.
Opening night was cold and rainy, making me unsure of how the cast was going to pull this off. I
was nervous to go to Rocky Horror as if it were my first time with a big V marked on my face in
lipstick. Most of my adult life in Chicago I attended regularly. Each screening and performance
were unique, no matter how many times I had sat through the film. From break-ups to first dates,
hazing of friends and family, or just looking for an excuse to be publicly intoxicated in my
underwear. Though never a cast member myself, some of my oldest and dearest friends have
been part of Midnight Madness, making tonight somewhat emotional for me.
The shows were earlier in the evening than most are used to, but tickets disappeared just as
quickly as they would any other Halloween season. There was no opening virgin ceremony or a
dance party to warm the crowd up this time. Broadcasting live from inside ChiTown Futbol, the
Midnight Madness cast was presented picture in picture, shadowing in face masks and a little
further apart. Audience participation had also changed; throwing props was prohibited out of
respect to the drive-in and there was no roar of jokes being shouted over one another. This
offered patrons the ability to come up with their own call back lines, though one could hear some
classics shouted down the rows of cars if you had your windows open. Historically honking your
horns or flashing headlights was heavily frowned upon at drive-in theaters, but at Rocky Horror
it is the face of modern fan participation. To cast and audience the differences were undoubtedly
awkward at first, but all were quick to adapt. The discomfort faded as we picked up steam
because despite everything, it was happening.
My friends and I sang along as loudly in the car as we would have in the theater. I noted several
other attendees also dressed up in spicy lingerie or as favorite characters. We disrobed briefly to
get out of our cars and do the “Time Warp” before rushing back to warm backseats, giggling red
cheeked and lipstick smeared from facemasks. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its entire
following is where the punks and weirdos could come together and wave their freak flags. The
tenacity of Midnight Madness to bring that message to the drive-in was a victory in the darkness
of these troubled times.

Originally published in Haunted Emporium Magazine October 2020