Whether adapted from stage or produced strictly for the big screen, musicals have been popular entertainment across many generations. Choreography and music interwoven into the narrative delight the imaginations of young and old alike. Musical movies boast lavish sets and perspectives that would be impractical in a theater. Captivating audiences since the advent of sound film technology. But what happens when horror musical movies are introduced to this unique genre?
One of the most common themes in musical film are rags-to-riches tales within the entertainment industry, and introducing horror to the fold makes for an interesting mix. Favorites like Hairspray, Singing in the Rain, or The Producers are prime traditional examples. From romance to comedy, characters of humble origins realize their dreams of making it big in entertainment, sensationalizing the notion that anybody could be discovered and given one shot at stardom. It in turn keeps that secret wish alive of reaching celluloid status.
Horror Musicals: Movies that Depict a Dark Side to Entertainment
Brian DePalma and Richard O’Brien would bring musical films a different perspective on fame and show business. Taking notes from classical gothic horror, Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment are satirical journeys through the darker side of entertainment.
De Palma’s rock opera would lament the loss of self and exploitative hallmarks of celebrity isolation. O’Brien’s movie, a comedy horror musical, would be ahead of its time, predicting the round-the-clock access to the rich and famous. Both would achieve cult status in varying degrees and ask their audiences, “what would you 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. This ignited an intense sadness within the director. To hear a beautiful work of art transformed by corporate America for a quick buck. Combined with personal failures of pitching ideas to indifferent studio executives set into motion the creation of Phantom of The Paradise, a comedy horror musical movie inspired by 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. It prepares 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 at The Paradise. 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.
After a few unproduced ideas for a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien would release Shock Treatment in 1981, which is often considered an “equal” to the cult horror musical movie 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 domestic discord in their hometown of Denton, Texas. Now transformed into a Stepford suburbia of mindless entertainment addicts, 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 “Dentonvale” for treatment. A psychiatric hospital that is also a reality show/soap opera. But reality is 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, previously witnessing others vanishing within their on-air personalities. Fearing for Brad and Janet’s sanity they decide to intervene as fame spreads like a virus to Janet’s parents. Perhaps the only good sense among DTV’s sudden obsession with mental hygiene.
“Are you one of those that finds this emotive form of presentation 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 comedy horror musical movies expose the power of desire and how weak human morality can actually be.
What stands out most is the eerie prediction of reality television in all of its extremes. In the climactic scene of Phantom of the Paradise, Swan plans to marry Phoenix and have her assassinated on live television. While in Shock Treatment, Farley Flavors is content to package and sell routine brain washing all in the name of a fad fixation on mental health. Exploiting human weakness to push products and ratings.
The soundtracks to DePalma’s and O’Brien’s horror musical movies become allegorical representations of abandoning humanity for excess and fame. The track listing offers ballads of sacrifice and shadows. Catchy commercial jingles foreshadowing the dirges to come.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, both comedy horror musical movies make use of mirrors and themes of character-splitting that beg the audience to look at themselves. As reflections of the screaming crowds at The Paradise or the spectators of DTV Studios, consuming celebrity culture at a rate that normalizes dissociation from reality. Making us indifferent to moral delinquency as long as it is entertaining.
Last Updated on November 21, 2021.