I Love Jessica Harper

Jessica Harper

Jessica Harper has starred in 3 of my favourite cult movies : ‘Phantom of the Paradise’, ‘Suspiria’, and ‘Shock Treatment’.

‘Phantom of the Paradise’ was an ironic pop-rock version of the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ mixed with ‘Faust’. Jessica plays Phoenix, the hot new singer that the Phantom (composer Winslow) falls in love with, but who is cruelly stolen from him by his Satanic record producer Swan. It all ends tragically. Swan is played by Paul Williams, a very small singer/songwriter whose charisma makes his stature irrelevant. His music was huge in the 70s – he wrote great hits for The Carpenters like ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ – so huge it became almost imperceptible, unanchored in any movement (glam, disco, punk) he’s been sadly neglected by pop historians. The end track ‘The Hell of It’ is a mean-black comedy masterpiece; the chorus goes :

Good for nothin’ bad in bed
Nobody likes you and you’re better off dead
Goodbye – We’ve all come to say goodbye
Born defeated died in vain
Super destructive you were hooked on pain
And though your music lingers on
All of us are glad you’re gone

A fairly radical critique of rock’n’rollers for a 1974 still trying to pretend that the youth culture was as vibrant and revolutionary as it was in the 1950s. The film flopped badly at the box office – probably because no one was ready to hear it’s cheerfully cynical and nihilistic message ; teen idols were frauds and all the kids were going to get old. Jessica, however, is a bright shiny-eyed joy. She makes hedonism innocent and death a price worth paying for one of her smiles. She was relaxed and natural with a deep expressive blues voice. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t become a rock star.

In 'Phantom of the Paradise'

‘Suspiria’ is a 1977 Italian horror movie directed by Gallo superstar Dario Argento. Jessica plays an innocent young ballet-dancer sent to a girls’ school in Germany that turns out to be run by a coven of witches. The plot doesn’t really matter it’s the heavy atmosphere that makes the film a classic. The relentless demonic, hissing, heckling prog-rock soundtrack by ‘Goblin’; the intense visuals of flashing mirrors, glinting blades, blood-red rooms; the gory uncanny deaths; the whispering; the old hags up to no good. Jessica doesn’t do much but run, look scared and seem frailly dubbed – but that’s all the film needs. She’s tiny and adorable, the perfect 70s Alice in Wonderland.

In 'Suspiria'

‘Shock Treatment’ is the 1982 follow-up to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ set in Brad and Janet’s home town of Denton. The entire town of Denton is located inside a T.V. studio and takes part in live broadcasts. Like ‘Big Brother’ crossed with ‘This Morning’ or ‘The View’. Jessica plays Janet, married to Brad (who ends up in the station’s in-house nut-house Dentonvale) who becomes a pop star because Brad’s long-lost twin brother is the chief executive of the company, and he’s in love with her. It’s a bizarre dream-like plot that makes more sense now – in the era of Reality T.V. – than it did when it was made. It’s perfect for re-discovery, with some sharp things to say about our consumer dependency and rampant aspiration. Jessica gets several brilliant songs to sing. In ‘Bitchin’ In the Kitchen’ she laments :

Everything used to be OK
But I’ve been had
And Brad, I’m glad to say, is on his way
Micro-digital awaker, why are we always sooner or later
Bitchin’ in the kitchen or crying in the bedroom all night

Shower curtain
Oh won’t you help me to be certain
Oh, toothpaste
Don’t you put the squeeze on me
Depilitator, why are we always sooner or later
Bitchin’ in the kitchen or crying in the bedroom all night

Tell me spectator, why are always sooner or later
Bitchin’ in the kitchen or crying in the bedroom all night!

In 'Shock Treatment'

And in ‘Me of Me’ she sings :

There’s just the two of me
Alone at last together
We’ve got the luck so far
We are my lucky star (Star star star star star star star star…)

Deep in the heart of me
I love every part of me
All I can see in me
Is danger and ecstasy
One thing there couldn’t be
Is any more me in me

This is the me of me
Me me me

Me me
Me me me
Me me me (I’ve just come to tell you how fabulous I am)

I am my destiny
Je croie en toujour en moi, ha ha
I’d never lie to me
I’d be willing to die for moi
I’ll pray every day to me
And here’s what I’d say to me

This is the me of me
Me me me

Lyrics that still sum up the mainstream Western value system. Jessica goes from sweet and innocent to as glamorous as any bad girl star of ‘Dynasty’ or ‘Dallas’. The film also contains Sinitta in a pink tutu and Rik Mayall so IS Britain in the 80s.

These days Jessica still acts (she was Ann Lively in ‘Minority Report’) and has written eleven children’s books and a cook book for people who hate to cook. But she deserves to be better known for her vital contribution to cult cinema. It wouldn’t be the same without her.

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