|Jan. 22nd, 2008 @ 09:57 pm The Phantom Project: Phantom of the Paradise, directed by Brian de Palma|
Holy camptastic camp, Batman. This was a blast.
Paramore - Misery Business
Phantom of the Paradise, directed by Brian de Palma, 1974
Starring William Finley, Paul Williams, and Jessica Harper
This film is complete insanity. The key to enjoying it is to submit yourself to the insanity and appreciate all the satire; if you try to watch it as a serious derivative work, it's just going to make you angry. de Palma's insane rock opera is a journey through parody and satire as much as it is a campy horror movie, lampooning the musical acts of the fifties, sixties and seventies as well as the horror movie oeuvre itself and the world of show business as a whole. It's dated to death, of course, but entertainingly so; it's more a period piece than one left in the dust by time. The themes and points, certainly, are perfectly applicable to the same areas in today's society.
So, what is the most important thing about this film, you ask? Lay it on me, Anne, you say. If I only get one thing from this festival of insanity, what should it be? The answer, my friends, is that quite aside from all the lampooning and parodying and teasing and mocking and silly gratuitous camp, this film does one thing that the Phantom literature has not to this point: it actually separates the Phantom into two completely different persons, one representative of his gentler, more childlike and musical side, and the other of his demonic, insane and malevolent side. Representing the Phantom's gentler, more immature and trustingly romantic side is Winslow Leach (try, just try, to come up with a more chinless name than that one), the sensitive composer with a pure love for Phoenix (the "Christine" character) and a burning sense of what is just; the flip side of the coin is Swan, the amoral and obsessive record producer with a deep sexuality and intense drive. There is no Raoul character in the narrative, but that's because he isn't needed; his role is filled by Winslow, whose representation of the Phantom's gentler, weaker, more loving side neatly provides all the functions that the character of Raoul does anyway.
We'll make a slight digression here to examine the bird imagery that so permeates the film. Swan is never referred to by his first name, and the image of a beautiful, stately creature like his namesake is quite appropriate for his role as the gorgeous and respected but secretly evil side of the Phantom's personality (it is very interesting to note that, while in most versions the evil is tied directly to the Phantom's deformity, in this one it is the deformed man who is tortured and the flawless one who is evil). Paul Williams (who is also, by the way, the incredibly awesome dude who wrote pretty much all the songs for the Muppets, including "The Rainbow Connection", and was often sneaking around on the show as El Sleezo Pianist) is seldom without appropriate plumage, always with ruffles or other feather-suggestive accoutrements and dressed at least partially in white the vast majority of the time. Phoenix is another obvious example; overcoming the long string of blockades in her way on her road to stardom makes her moniker perfectly appropriate, and the name also lends her an aura of nascent innocence with its implication of recent birth (or rebirth). The Phantom's mask in this version is a metal helmet that resembles nothing so much as a hawk or other large bird of prey, symbolic of the Phantom's swift preying on those who have done him wrong or displeased him. And, of course, Swan's company, Death Records, has as its logo a dead crow, lying on its back--a very pointed clue for the viewers as to what's going to happen to all involved.
The film starts out with the musical acts that Swan promotes and manages. All of them are hysterical parodies, beginning with the Juicy Fruits, a wildly over-the-top 50's boy's crooning group, complete with ridiculous lyrics, shameless flirting with the crowd, and falling to the floor and faking suicide in moments of emotional abandon. They sound sort of like a combination of Queen and The Penguins, and look like a joyously inebriated version of Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. There's no real way to describe them that will do them justice; you really need to watch the film or find the soundtrack.
Our first glimpse of Swan is of one of the managers talking to him in a recording booth; we see only his white-gloved hands, which look very reminiscent of those worn by gentlemen at the opera in the Phantom story's original time period, and the obvious implication that he is the Phantom is somewhat disorienting to the audience once they discover that Leach is the disfigured composing genius, not Swan. The breakdown of the two characters is fascinating, and they are very obviously two parts of the whole Phantom character, rather than single entities in their own rights. Swan is the grand director, the one who runs the Paradise (the "opera house") behind the scenes, who manipulates and bullies and frightens and seduces its operatives into doing his bidding; he is beautiful outwardly but inwardly corrupt, making a fantastical living off of the music business in which he has no talent but all the power and control. He has a pathological fear of ugliness and age, and clings to his physical perfection as proof that he is worthwhile, a mirror image of the original Phantom's assurance that his physical deformity made him less than a person in the eyes of society. He has an attachment to Phoenix, but it is all sexual, a sensual and ultimately emotionless enjoyment of her body and her talent that does not extend to any particular care about her as a person. When Swan plans murders, it is either out of expediency, which highlights his amoral character, or out of showmanship; when he plans to kill Phoenix onstage at the end of the film and is questioned, he smiles unsettlingly and says (paraphrase incoming), "For the rising star to die tragically onstage as her career is blossoming? Now that's entertainment."
Leach does not have the control over the Paradise the way Swan does (and his illustrious forebear Erik had control over the opera house), but represents the more passive and downtrodden side of the Phantom's personality. He is the sensitive songwriter (entertainingly, his first performance is a dead-on parody of Elton John that had me almost snort popcorn up my nose) with the meaningful lyrics he is convinced no one else could understand or perform properly--with the exception, of course, of Phoenix; he is deformed in an accident with a record press (which is nicely symbolic of his drive toward music branding and crippling him) and subsequently presumed dead, but he seems to have little care for his facial deformity rather than dwelling obsessively on it as Swan does. What he does care about is the loss of his voice in the same accident--to the Phantom character, of course, losing the ability to sing and create music is tantamount almost to death, or to damnation as the only positive aspect of his character is taken from him. He, too, is attached to Phoenix, but his love is devotional and pure, worshipful as the original Phantom's but without the sexuality attendant (which Swan is taking care of). He kills only because he has been wronged, and only after fair warning, in contrast to Swan.
It's a nice, and funny, touch for Leach to play the electric organ with his songs, rather than a traditional keyboard sound. After all, what is our conception of the Phantom without his organ? Please try to be proper and reserve any and all "organ" jokes until after the review... at least, if you want to continue to enjoy the same consideration from me.
Leach's organ aside (ahem), of far greater import is the music he plays on it; he has composed what he refers to as a song cycle and Swan refers to as a rock opera (again, the difference between the artist and the showman is obvious). In obvious homage to Leroux, the song cycle tells the story of Faust, a direct parallel to Gounod's opera Faust which is performed several times in Leroux's novel and which has a key role in the subtext and motivations involved. Intriguingly, de Palma's film will carry the Faust metaphor much further than Leroux's novel did; where Leroux's Phantom was damned not by his own actions but by society's rigid exclusion, Swan and Leach, the two faces of the Phantom here, both choose their "devil's pact", either through ignorance and naivete (Leach) or with purposeful malignancy (Swan).
The film, despite its very pronounced and well-handled themes and continual subtextual digs, is still a massive seventies cheesefest. When Leach is thrown out of Swan's mansion, the entire sequence is cartoonish, from the receptionist pushing a huge button to set off blaring claxons to uniformed security men bumrushing the poor guy to the sped up film used to even further caricature the entire scene. It is hysterical, and reminiscent of other contemporary humor outings, especially The Muppet Show. The hackneyed jump into a taxi and cry of "follow that car!" is used with gleeful abandon and completely unworried cliche. It's all rather endearing.
de Palma ingeniously tinkers with the audience's conceptions; if the viewer has not read Leroux's novel or seen previous films, it's entirely possible that they wouldn't have any preconceived notions as to how the plot should pan out, but de Palma throws plenty of curve balls on the off chance that his audience might already know the story. Leach is a decidedly weak weed, obviously sensitive, gentle, and more than a little bit effeminate, facts which steer a viewer "in the know" away from seeing him as the Phantom; additionally, Swan's aura of mystery and his ownership of the Paradise theatre, not to mention the way he is continually referred to as a "devil" throughout the score, encourage us to label him as the Phantom character. This initial misconception is interesting because it allows us to place ourselves into comfortable boxes of expectation, which de Palma will consequently smash into tiny pieces with his intricate dual-figure Phantom.
Note that Leach here meets Phoenix on his way in to confront Swan about the theft of his song cycle; he is immediately enchanted by her, of course, and it isn't hard to see why he'd be attracted to this enticing, principled, and undeniably talented beauty. The scene adds poignancy to his doomed feelings for her, as instead of being a victim of a disfigurement with no chance of ever being seen as less than a monster, Leach's subsequent scarring imparts to the whole situation the quality of a lost chance. She has met and liked him, but he is now irrevocably changed, and has lost that regard as a result. Leach fulfills a little bit of the traditional teaching role in this first meeting, showing her nuances in the music (after all, he wrote it, so he is uniquely qualified), and is rewarded with a warm embrace and a promise to see him again, which of course will become impossible later.
de Palma also takes this opportunity to solidify Phoenix's purity for us; when she is propositioned and sexually assaulted by the producers/stagehands/stoolies, she struggles violently and throws away her chance at the audition rather than be subjected to their carnality. It sets the character up very nicely as a virtuous one, which will lend more weight to her choices later. In contrast, the other girls present for the audition--obviously Phoenix's fellow "chorus girls" or "ballet girls"--are sensual and sexual in the extreme, perfectly willing to use their bodies to advance their careers and positively shameless when it comes to putting themselves on display for Swan's perusal. As I'm always harping on about, the idea of chorus girls sharing their sexual favors with patrons and other opera members was accepted practice in the time period of Leroux's novel, and it is accurately (if fancifully) represented here.
Leach is again caught snooping about, and this time Swan uses his influence to have the poor guy thrown into prison at Sing-Sing (ha ha ha ha!). There he loses his teeth--a very literal "defanging" to match his complete powerlessness--and after some time his fragile, sensitive mind is unable to cope with the abuse of prison life and snaps. It is interesting that the insanity, so characteristic of the Phantom, is manifest here in his benign side rather than in the malevolent one; in most interpretations, including Leroux's, the insanity is a manifestation of evil, not a sympathetic occurrence. Nevertheless, it is Leach who goes slightly insane, staging the most incredibly unrealistic breakout in the history of Sing-Sing (but it was wildly entertaining and so silly it made me laugh constantly, so who cares, really?), and makes his way back to Swan's mansion, intending to avenge himself.
In an attempt to stop copies being made of his Faust cycle, Leach is accidentally disfigured when his head is caught in a record press. Unlike Leroux's Phantom, the scarring is his own fault rather than the act of a capricious God; however, the fact that Swan is rootly at fault mitigates the urge to blame Leach for his own misfortune. As Swan is the indirect cause of the whole situation, Leach can easily transfer the traditional feelings of resentment and anger at God over to the other man (and, in context of this film, toward himself, which is always the flip side of Leroux's Phantom's blame anyway). Swan uses his influence, again, to tell the public that Leach has died, and the terribly burned man escapes, wounded, into the bowels of the Paradise.
Leach steals a mask from the costume department to hide his disfigurement, just as the Phantom does in the earlier Lubin/Rains film (which seems to have been at least a source if not a direct inspiration for this version); but, as befits a rock theatre, it is a fanciful metal helmet with a bird-like shape and only one slit for an eye to look through, allowing him to keep his damaged right side completely hidden. The other clothes, presumably, also stolen from the costume department, include a flamboyantly silver-trimmed cape, which probably amused me far too much. The press accident also damaged Leach's throat, and he breathes with a constant, foreboding rasp eerily similar to that of Darth Vader (who won't make it to the screen for another 10 years or so, leading me to wonder if Lucas ever saw this film). (Edit: As has been pointed out to me below by a kind commenter, I am full of it [assuming "it" does not here stand for "accurate, factual information"]. Star Wars actually came out less than four years after Phantom of the Paradise did. But it is entirely possible that my unsubstantiated theorizing could be valid. Hey, you never know! I have to get things right sometimes!)
Leach's insanity becomes evident as his first act of retribution involves blowing up a prop during a dress rehearsal at the Paradise; not only is he quite aware that Swan will be nowhere near the prop in question, but the explosion results in the messy death of at least three or four chorus girls (incidentally, the constant ticking underneath the song being rehearsed is a nice ominous foreshadowing of the explosion to come, and the split screen is a neat representation of the divide between the backstage and stage worlds). The stunt is intended to annoy Swan by disrupting the workings of his theatre, and Leach evinces no compassion for the hapless chorus girls injured or killed as a result of his action; the attitude is, of course, parallel to the Phantom's terrorizing of the opera house when managers fail to do his bidding (though even the original Phantom generally confined himself to hurting those who had wronged him in some way). Again, the implication is that Leach is exonerated because the base fault lies with Swan, but we must see that the two sides of the Phantom's personality are neither of them blameless.
Swan almost immediately catches up to Leach and confronts him, again reinforcing his status as the ruler of the Paradise; until this point, the audience has seen the Phantom only indirectly, either watching his movements from his first person perspective or catching reflected glimpses of him in mirrors. Swan's arrival changes that, clearly signaling that he is in control of the situation, and of the other, weaker man. The removal of the mask is done here by Swan rather than by Phoenix, but it is powerful nonetheless; Leach is helpless without the mask, immediately reduced to a broken, childlike hulk trying desperately to cover his face, symbolic of his status as less than a person to the rest of the world. Conversely, Swan is powerful and in control, forcing Leach to face his disfigurement and laying the blame squarely on him. It is an extremely poignant moment; far more than merely a man exercising authority over another, the Phantom is facing himself, finding his own disgust in his disfigurement and in the weakness of his gentler side, and succumbing to the seductive blandishments of his more ruthless, dangerous half.
We learn here that where Leach's face has been half destroyed, his voice is completely destroyed, allowing him only to make guttural grunts and groans. It is a doubly tragic occurrence; in Leroux's novel as in most versions, music and the voice are equated with transcendence and with the only escape the Phantom has from his wretched shell of a body. Denied that escape, mute, Leach is completely powerless, a doomed soul. In recompense, Swan carefully makes him an electronic gadget that translates his unsettling growls and grunts into speech--bland, frightening computer speech, but recognizable nonetheless. This is not enough for Leach, of course, but Swan goes one better; in the studio, he encourages Leach to play and sing his Faust cycle. The initial sounds Leach makes are truly hideous, unsettling even for the audience, but Swan uses sophisticated mixing technology to filter Leach's voice and isolate different aspects of it, until it is his original singing voice. It might not be what I would call beautiful, but regaining that lost ability is unparalleled in elation for Leach. Swan's ability to filter the voice out of the chaos surrounding it echoes the Phantom's ability to create beautiful music in the midst of his madness, a beautifully inserted microcosm of the insane composer's mad genius.
Swan makes a deal with Leach, immediately echoing the pact with the Devil that Faust makes in the opera and song cycle, placing Swan in the role of Devil and Leach in the role of soul intentionally choosing damnation. Swan encourages the disfigured composer to finish his song cycle, and to write it for Phoenix, whom he promises will perform it (and a concession that must be made, as Leach will allow no one else to perform it). Treated for the first time with kindness, Leach becomes a broken, credulous child, and the tension is cringeworthy as the audience knows Swan will betray his trust, but also knows that he won't wise up in time. I found myself shouting "My GOD, you're an idiot," at the screen several times, particularly when Swan produced a contract out of nowhere--a full-size, book-length bound in leather contract--and instructed Leach to sign it, telling him that "it says exactly what I told you, so you don't need to read it." Leach does, because as a representation of the Phantom's naive, gentle side, he can hardly do otherwise. He also raises an eyebrow at Swan's insistence that he sign in blood, but despite the obvious red flags (ha ha!) there, he does it anyway. Swan's chilling smile and statement that, "Now we're in business together forever," don't seem to faze him nearly as much as they do the viewer.
As the powerful, mysterious side of the Phantom personality, it is Swan who is forever disappearing into mirrors and hidden doors, master of his domain; and it is also Swan who appears to have a video feed of every single occurrence in the entire Paradise, a modern update to the Phantom's uncanny ability to eavesdrop no matter what great lengths people go to to avoid him. Swan seems almost exclusively concerned with watching his own movements and actions, however, which behavior is a source of considerable curiosity and confusion for the audience until it is cleared up near the end of the film. In this case, he pauses to watch a replay of his offer of the contract to Leach, and the metaphor is especially powerful as the images flicker past: the Phantom locking his compassionate, gentle side away, allowing it free rein only to do his bidding and create music, while his amoral, evil side runs the show. It is another microcosm, this time of the Phantom's character as a whole, and while the allegory is carried throughout the film it is especially poignant here.
Leach remains sequestered to write and rewrite his Faust cycle; some of the music (all written by Williams, of course) plays in the background for us, and the lyrics mirror the constant struggles of his character, crying "...angels and devils come together in me," and "...good guys and bad guys, I've been both..." Other parts echo the power the Phantom (usually Swan, but increasingly either character) holds over the Paradise and the minds of those within it, with lines such as, "...a man who stands as a symbol," and, "...king of all who see and hear, with his perfect pitch..." The parts he writes for Phoenix are wistful and innocent, frequently playing on a theme of appearances being sufficient and acceptance of things as they are, a clear nod to his own wish to be accepted and loved on his own merits, for his own work and despite his scars.
Unfortunately for Leach, Swan has no intention of honoring his promises, and moves Phoenix from center stage to backup singer (the "chorus", naturally). The second Leach finishes the score, Swan purloins it and has the composer literally bricked into his room so that he will no longer be able to interfere, ostensibly planning to leave him there to rot. Leach's scream when he realizes that he has been betrayed is truly epic, and gave me literal chills down my spine. Meanwhile, Swan plans to have the Faust cycle sung by Beef, a rock god with a near-unintelligible Guns 'N' Roses style.
Beef is so, so, so, so, so gay. From his pretty pretty lipstick to his sparkly pants to his silvery platform heels to his pouty lisp to his feathery robe to his curly frosted hair to his limp-wristed slouch to his wee little shower cap, he is a potpurri of homosexual stereotyping. As far as I can tell, this is intended to heighten the humor, both in the irony factor of such a flamingly gay man cultivating such a hard rocker monster persona, and just in general silliness quotient. I would suggest modern viewers not take it too seriously; the seventies weren't quite as PC about these sorts of things, and I doubt any real offense is intended. I, personally, found the character hysterical; the actor really threw himself into things in a way that was incredibly entertaining even if you were sort of shocked by the obvious fun-poking going on. Additionally, he is about as far in character type from Phoenix as it is possible to get, which gives Swan's handing over of the song to him the added indignity for Leach of completely ruining both its performance and its intent. Additionally, if we choose to view Beef's homosexuality as femininity, he can be said to be thus characterized as a character analogue for Leroux's Carlotta.
I am slightly unclear as to how, exactly, Leach gets out of his prison. I think he busts through the bricks somehow, which is rather impressive for such a skinny, weak-kneed little thing. But, hey, it's not like THIS IS THE THING THAT BREAKS THE REALISM. No. Might as well lie back and enjoy it. In a scene stolen directly from Hitchcock's Psycho, Leach stalks Beef in the shower, and in fine comedic form nails him in the mouth with a plunger rather than killing him as the viewer fully expects him to do. de Palma's direction there is genius; I laughed out loud in surprise and delight. Leach threatens him with calamity and death, etc. if he ever performs the Faust cycle again, and Beef attempts to bail out a few hours before the big premiere, only to be caught by Swan's chief toady (sort of a Buquet analogue, though really, he doesn't have to correlate to anyone) and pep talked into taking some speed and getting back into the dressing room after all. Leach is not amused.
The opening band for the grand premiere concert is an unabashed parody of KISS called The Undeads, complete with crazy black and white face paint, screaming and tongue wagging, and guitars shaped like axes that they use to lop the limbs off crowd members (who don't seem to mind too much). There isn't much to say about them, really, except that they're hysterical and that de Palma gives them plenty of time to milk the screen before giving Beef his grand entrance. Beef's grand entrance involves a lot of glitter and a very, very penis-like guitar held jutting out of his crotch. I choked on something I was eating, I think.
Leach, still unamused, hurls a neon lightning-bolt decoration from the ceiling and fries Beef with it, an obvious substitution for the opera house chandelier the original Phantom dropped when the managers substituted Carlotta for his intended performer. Swan, not being an idiot, immediately orders Phoenix to go on and proceeds to milk the crowd (as he says, "What better publicity for a rock concert is there than a performer being electrocuted onstage?") until she finally gets to sing her solo song. Leach promptly strangles the spot operator so he can take over, following her and lighting her (in her not-so-coincidentally virginally white dress) to her best advantage; his constant opposition to any and all forces once again drives home that he is not the master of this theatre domain, but an interloper in Swan's territory (much as his compassion and conscience are interlopers in Swan's cold, amoral way of doing things).
Phoenix is giddily delighted by her triumphant success (the crowd goes wild) and turns to Swan to thank as her benefactor; much to poor Leach's chagrin, she offers herself to Swan as his lover in gratitude and infatuation. The implication that in show business success is equivalent to whoredom is less than subtle, but the real tragedy is in the conflict between the two Phantom characters: Leach loves Phoenix, but as the gentle, undemanding personality cannot enjoy her with the seductive carnality that Swan possesses. By his very nature, Leach is unable to have the woman, while Swan can certainly have her but is completely unable to love her, and the dichotomy is another basic part of the original Phantom's personality laid bare for the audience. Leach attempts to stop her, kidnapping her for a moment and ordering her not to sing (a change from the Phantom's usual exhortations for her to do just the opposite), but she does not believe that he is who he says he is since he will not remove the mask, and leaves with Swan, still flush with her victory and her innocent, misguided infatuation with the man.
In a scene extremely reminiscent of Erik as the Red Death watching Raoul and Christine on the roof of the opera house during the masquerade ball, Leach sits on Swan's roof and watches Phoenix and his arch enemy making out (and, presumably, getting it on) through the skylight. The love song he wrote for her plays softly in the background for the entire scene, highlighting his tragic love for her even now that she has embraced his destruction; in anguish, Leach stabs himself through the heart, committing suicide. Unfortunately for the hapless composer, Swan arrives (he continues to have electronic eyes everywhere) and informs him that he cannot die until the terms of his contract have been fulfilled or Swan himself dies--a truly Faustian bargain. Enraged, Leach turns the knife on Swan and stabs him with it, and one of the most powerfully horrifying moments of the movie comes as he calmly pulls the knife from his chest, hands it back to Leach, and says with terrifying satisfaction, "I'm under contract, too." The atmospheric effects and camera work are stunningly creepy, bringing the movie with all its campy ridiculousness a touch of very real demonic terror. The scene also made me (after I was done being all freaked out about it) bounce with glee, as I had made a note way back when Leach signed his contract that Swan looked as though he might be remembering something similar from his own past. I love it when I'm right.
It is ironic that Swan chooses to end the Faust cycle with a wedding rather than with Faust being dragged off to Hell, though not inappropriate as he is very much a Faust figure. His plan to wed Phoenix onstage and immediately kill her is the most obvious example of insanity in Swan's character, whose lack of mores and pitiless machinations often seem cruel and indefensible, but not outright insane; the plan, whose motivation is nothing more than to sacrifice Phoenix for a burst of publicity and amusement (and, possibly, because he is aware of how deeply it would affect his counterpart), is a clear indication that Swan is unhinged, even if it is in a much more cool and reasonable-seeming way than Leach.
Leach finally discovers archival footage in Swan's video room of Swan's original pact, which seems to be with the (or a) Devil himself; the Devil appears as Swan's own reflection in the mirror, speaking to him, a very pointed comment on the Devil being an intrinsic part of Swan, and even of all men. Swan worships youth and beauty and signs the contract in order to preserve them in himself, a very obvious projection of the original Phantom's hatred for his hideousness and his helplessness to do anything about it. Additionally, Swan's original plan to commit suicide (and Leach's recent attempt at it) is given another layer here as he chooses between suicide and a pact with the Devil; he does not consider simply continuing to live his life as intended, and thus cements his position as a character who has actively chosen damnation rather than been forced and tricked into it, like Leach, or innocently drawn into it like Phoenix (in an aside film reel, we learn that Swan has drugged Phoenix up and had her sign an identical contract ceding her life over to him, much like Marguerite of the original Faust legend).
Leach is unable to destroy himself, but he is finally able to destroy Swan by taking advantage of the loophole in his pact; while he will still die, as neither Leach nor Swan can exist without one another at this point, he will at least die free, and in killing Swan has by proxy achieved his own suicide after all. Swan is finally unmasked when the terms of his pact are disrupted; his "mask" of youth and beauty is removed, revealing him as aged and monstrously hideous, just as disfigured (in fact, more so) as Leach before he dies. Leach is unmasked by Swan as well (a telling moment, as the Phantom's two personalities unmask one another, do not like what they see, and promptly fall over dead), and of course begins to bleed from his self-inflicted wound (another outward representation of the original Phantom's self-destructive behavior, which rebounded upon himself) and dies, still attempting to crawl to Phoenix.
It should be noted that diving into the fray and saving Phoenix is the first truly selfless act that Leach performs; while all his other actions may have been more or less justified, they have all still been geared toward helping or avenging himself and his goals.
The final scene is de Palma's not-so-subtle critique of the entertainment business again; the priest onstage is shot in the head, Swan suddenly transforms into a howling burn victim and falls dead, and an injured, bleeding man drags himself across the stage before dying miserably... and the crowd, mostly high, only laughs and cheers, a veritable orgy surrounding the melodrama and death. The death is viewed as just another entertainment; Phoenix is the only person weeping as the crowd laughs, many of them following Leach in his painful progress across the floor, laughing and cheering and making bets as to how far he'll get. The message is clear: the corruption of the sensationalist entertainment industry has destroyed true art.
All in all, the film is not only more fun than those little bikes the Shriners ride, but is also thoughtful and has a lot of depth squirreled away behind those ridiculous costumes and overwrought rock vocals. This is another one that can be enjoyed by anybody, even if you're not particularly into the whole Phantom mythos thing.
Also. Beef. Wowee.
(Cross-posted from The Phantom Project.)