We all have a movie that we consider to be “ours.” Whether it be the one that our family showed us as kids, the one we saw on a dark stormy night at a sleepover, or one we just discovered on TV, everyone eventually finds a movie that is as much a part of them as their own vital organs. This seems especially true if that beloved movie of yours maybe isn’t exactly loved by everyone else in the world.

This is where the term of “cult” comes into play. By definition, a “cult following” signifies a group of individuals with an incredible amount of passion for a specific aspect of culture. And with so many books, TV series, Broadway shows and movies that never really got the kind of respect their fandom thinks they deserved, the amount of titles that fall into “cult” category is becoming more and more frequent these days. The internet has only helped build cult followings all the faster.

How do we fall in love with a movie like this? Does the cult film choose us or was it destined for us in the stars long ago? Does it involve how our parents raised us and what fundamentally makes us the individuals we become?  I will now ask you to take a deep breath and travel with me to a slightly embarrassing time and place, the time when I (covered in raccoon eye liner) discovered the movie that changed me: Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.

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Where It All Began

When most kids walk through the halls of their middle/high school, they tend to worry about the important things: drama within their social group, the high tensions of the end of the year dance, and where the heck to change into your gym shorts without turning all the shades of red. But for this particular writer, my concerns within my adolescence tended to be a bit more specific and related to the life-altering decision of whether or not I should become part of a majestic tribe: The Rocky Horror kids.

In my group of my friends, everyone had their quirks. Some of us were in love with Japanese animation and others were enchanted by the tales of J.R.R Tolkien, but the majority directed their passions towards the theater in some way or another. For me, I fell into a bit of each of these categories (along with my passion for film history), and even if I didn’t quite get everyone’s obsession with Sweeney Todd at the time, I still appreciated them no matter what they were into.

During many a sleepover, my merry group of friends would take me on a cinematic journey. We would travel to a mysterious residence, and meet Tim Curry and the gang. My friends would sing their hearts out, looking at these larger than life characters, as if they were possessed by some musical demon. This is where I came to experience my first true cult movie.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a rich and bizarre history. It tells the story of a young couple whose car breaks down near a mysterious castle. Once they enter said building, a mad doctor and other wacky characters get them involved in some insane musical and sexual shenanigans – and then it gets really weird. When it was originally released in 1975, it was a box office flop, but with eventual midnight screenings, shadow casts, and a future embrace from misfits of all ages, it gained the kind of fandom and infamy that many movies can only dream of.

Even with this knowledg,e I’d look at the fun my friends where having and feel like Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was the square peg attempting to fit into the black sequined hole that was this movie. In fact, watching Rocky Horror (at the time) felt much like seeing those girls who would buy Ramones or Sex Pistol shirts from Forever 21 – just so they could appear rebellious and “dangerous” among their peer group. But who was the teenage punk poser in this scenario? I only gained such an answer when I turned 14, and accidentally flipped to FX at five in the morning.


The Discovery

When someone discovers a movie, it’s very much like the cliché phrase of a light bulb being switched on for the first time. There’s initial intrigue, maybe even a bit of confusion, and a bond that never wants to let go. That’s how it felt when I finally discovered The Phantom of the Paradise. There was Paul Williams, his incredible (and sometimes ridiculous) songs, jokes that kept me thinking, and odd characters that held onto the little corners of my heart –  all the while wrapped in a stylish package that only director Brian De Palma could provide.

The film tells the story of a composer named Winslow Leach (William Finley) who has his music stolen by a mysterious head of a record label, known only as Swan (played by Paul Williams). After multiple attempts to get his music back, and eventually getting himself disfigured by way of a record-pressing machine, Winslow takes on the persona of the Phantom – a figure seeking revenge within the walls of Swan’s new rock palace, The Paradise. Mix this all in with a beautiful young singer, a crazy glam rock star, and the devil, and you got yourself quite the story.

I think at the age of 14, the film junkie in me was on an epic quest to find that cinematic equivalent to a personal holy grail. It had to have spectacular visuals that could inspire all that watched it. It had to tell a story that strayed far beyond the familiar template. And you won’t find something more beyond the template than this.

From De Palma’s obvious nods to Hitchcock (Psycho being the easiest to spot) to elements from Faust, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Touch of Evil – you name it, Phantom of the Paradise has it. The script takes on classic fairy tale plot points and perfectly casts the right players to portray these simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar characters, all the while covered in glitter and fur jackets. And with the added ingredient of Paul Williams’ haunting melodies, full of imagery even grander than what ends up on the screen, this film leaves your mind spinning.

Yet even with such splendor, Phantom was a bigger financial bomb than Rocky Horror ever was. It did, however, gain some success in specifically Paris, France and Winnipeg, Canada – but those two markets couldn’t save this movie. If anything was ripe to be discovered and embraced by a niche, it was this.

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