I’ve never had the kind of affection for A-List actresses like I have had for those of genre films. Not to say they aren’t extremely talented, it’s just that I have never found myself driven to go see the new JULIA ROBERTS or MERYL STREEP film just because they star in it (I do however love it when A-listers “slum it” and appear in low budget / genre projects). These days the line is blurry with A-List projects and so called genre pictures. 30 years ago, superhero movies and horror films didn’t have the grip of the box office as they do today, and today’s genre films are made for millions of dollars and draw A-List talent. Some actors and directors remained comfortable in their “b-movie” families, almost forming their own actor “repertories” where you were almost guaranteed to see the graces of actors like Dick Miller, Bruce Dern, Paul Bartel, David Carradine, Linnea Quigley in films that played in drive-ins and grindhouses theaters. But out of all the performers from those b-movies and genre films, one has always fascinated me more than all the others, as she’s starred in some of my favorite films of all time yet shamefully isn’t as recognized in the industry as she should be. I’m talking about Jessica Harper- Genre Goddess.
Born in Chicago in 1949, she started her career on the Broadway stage in the classic rock opera “HAIR”. Her theatrical talents would serve her well in classics like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, SUSPIRIA, SHOCK TREATMENT, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and MY FAVORITE YEAR. Her cult icon was secured right from the start in one of her first starring roles, that being the role of “Phoenix” in Brian De Palma’s cult classic musical/horror film, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.
This film is like nothing you’ve ever seen. A twisted adaptation of FAUST, where lonely song writer Winslow Leach (Willam Finley, a staple of early De Palma films) makes a deal with a devilish music producer named Swan (played by Paul Williams) that ends up with Williams stealing his music and framing him for drug trafficking. After a terrible accident leaves Leach disfigured, he takes refuge in the bowels of The Paradise, the music venue run by Williams. Donning a hideous mask and leather bondage suit, Leach becomes “The Phantom” and starts taking his revenge on Swan. However, the two strike a deal where Leach will continue to write songs for Swan as long as they are sung by the up and coming singer named Phoenix (Harper). She really shines in this early role, her delivery being naive and sarcastic with a touch of shyness, but when she’s on stage performing, she becomes an electrifying diva. In a film that’s truly bizarre and other worldly, her grounded performance brings credibility to the story and makes the tragedy of the story even more heart breaking. It’s no wonder that her performance in this would help land her next big role…
SUSPIRIA is considered one of the scariest films ever made. Dario Argento’s beautifully shot and relentlessly sinister film about a ballet school that is run by a coven of witches has been touted as masterpiece of cinematic violence and visual artistry. Argento was so impressed by Harper’s performance in PHANTOM, as well as the film she made afterwards called INSERTS (about a film director in the 30’s who starts making silent porn films in his mansion), that he cast her in the role of Suzy Bannion, an American who has come to the German Ballet Academy to study dance, only to be introduced to the horrors within. The grizzly violence of the film is what got the most attention, but Harper’s performance is that of someone truly terrified, her fear becomes your fear and is more effective than any other performances in a horror film.
Lastly, my favorite performance of hers is in a film that has been both maligned and forgotten. Not a lot of people even know that it even exists, let alone that is the sequel to the most recognized cult film ever made. I’m speaking of course of the enigma that is SHOCK TREATMENT.
The sequel that shouldn’t exist. Understand that the Rocky Horror Picture Show was a total bomb when it arrived in theaters in 1975. It wasn’t until a couple years after it’s release that it started gaining a cult following…but only at midnight…on the weekends. That’s not the way to earn your budget back. However enough noise was made that Richard O’brien began working on a sequel that was eventually greenlit and went into production in 1980 with Rocky Horror’s original director Jim Sharman. The story was to be that of Brad and Janet, now married and experiencing problems with their relationship. They live in the town of Denton, USA, where everyday the residents of the town enter a large television studio to watch a variety of shows being shot for a network owned by a media and fast food mogul named Farley Flavors. While there, Brad is volunteered to be “re-programmed” to be a better husband and less of a wuss. Janet however is beginning to peak with her confidence and sexuality. She becomes a big time celebrity on the network and lets the fame get to her head. Meanwhile Brad is undergoing shock treatment and extreme psychotherapy from Dr. Cosmo Mckinley (Richard O’brien) and his sister Nurse Nation (Patricia Quinn.) Will Brad and Janet survive this ordeal?
The big issue was that by the time the sequel was ready to film, the original Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) were big stars, so they passed on the project. Who would replace them? Well, they went with Harper as Janet and Cliff DeYoung as Brad, and I’m telling you, they are just perfect for this film. I can’t picture Sarandon and Bostwick working with this material. It’s just too weird. Harper and DeYoung however are just imperfect enough to seem totally believable in the roles, and Harper especially thanks to some truly great songs and set pieces. Her musical numbers LITTLE BLACK DRESS and IN MY OWN WAY are showstoppers, worthy of a standing ovation if it were a stage play.
Sadly, the film was even less of a hit than its predecessor and was doomed to video store oblivion. It still hasn’t gotten it’s just rewards. Hopefully soon, thanks to the internet and bloggers like me, it will get a resurrection and become the cult hit it was meant to be.
As for Harper, she still gets steady work and is currently on the television series SEE with Jason Momoa. Regardless of what she has made in the recent past, she will forever be a part of cinema history, thanks to her roles in Suspiria, Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment.
Until next time!