DirectorBrian De Palma
Release Date(s)1974 (August 5, 2014)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
I run hot and cold on Brian De Palma’s movies. This is not unusual in and of itself. There are plenty of filmmakers I feel that way about. But in De Palma’s case, what I like about some movies and dislike about others is often the same thing. At his best, De Palma is a flamboyant virtuoso behind the camera and a master of the craft. At worst, he’s a tone-deaf showoff who seems to have no idea how movies are supposed to work. It should be impossible to believe that the same guy who directed The Untouchables also made The Bonfire Of The Vanities. But watching them it’s very clear that they are both Brian De Palma joints.
Phantom Of The Paradise may not be De Palma’s best film but it’s certainly right up there and it may well be my personal favorite. William Finley stars as Winslow Leach, a struggling composer whose cantata based on Faust catches the ear of music superproducer Swan (Paul Williams). Swan steals the music, has Winslow framed on a narcotics charge, and even arranges to have his teeth yanked out and replaced with metal. Poor Winslow is driven over the edge and escapes from prison bent on revenge. But before he gets far, he’s horribly mutilated in a record press. Donning a birdlike helmet and cape, he becomes the Phantom of Swan’s new club, The Paradise. Swan makes a deal with the Phantom, getting him to finish Faust in time for the opening of the Paradise with the understanding that it will only be performed by the woman Winslow adores, Phoenix (Jessica Harper). But Swan has other plans, sticking Phoenix in the chorus and grooming a glam rock monster named Beef (Gerrit Graham) to be his next star. Needless to say, this does not go over well with The Phantom.
The Faust legend has always been a part of The Phantom Of The Opera. It’s the opera they’re performing in Gaston Leroux’s original novel. But Paradise is one of the few movies I’m aware of that so explicitly mashes up the two stories. This was Finley’s best role and he’s one of the top Phantoms, terrifying and grotesque but always extremely sympathetic. Williams, who also wrote the infectious music, at first seems like an odd choice to play the Devil (or, at least, the Devil’s AOR man) but he’s terrific. Harper, in her first big movie role, is extremely appealing and reveals a powerful singing voice. And Graham’s go-for-broke performance brings all the off-kilter energy that made him one of the quintessential cult character actors.
But the real stars of Phantom Of The Paradise are Brian De Palma and cinematographer Larry Pizer. The camera almost never stops moving and Pizer must set some kind of record for number of shots using a distorted lens. Combined with the dazzlingly colorful production design of Jack Fisk, it creates an extremely disorienting feeling. You could be stone cold sober and still feel like you were drunk or stoned when you watched this movie. The subject matter allows De Palma to indulge in his wildest excesses and this time it’s a perfect marriage of style and substance.
North America is just about the last place on Earth to finally get a Blu-ray release of Phantom Of The Paradise. In this case, it seems as though patience was a virtue since the Scream Factory edition is pretty spectacular. Picture quality is vibrant, clear and extremely impressive. It’s my understanding that the British Arrow Films disc is noticeably darker than this one and there is some disagreement over which version is superior. I don’t have the UK disc to make a comparison but I have no complaints with the Scream Factory transfer. Audio quality is first-rate with Williams’ wonderful music sounding better than ever. The Blu-ray comes loaded with extras including two audio commentaries (one with Jack Fisk and another with cast members Harper, Graham and The Juicy Fruits/The Beach Bums/The Undead members Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling). There’s a half-hour interview with De Palma, another half-hour interview with Williams and a brief chat with makeup effects artist Tom Burman. The disc also includes a number of alternate takes (compared split-screen style with the final film), a still gallery and 7 minutes of alternate footage demonstrating the trouble the movie ran into with the name Swan Song Enterprises.
Disc two is a DVD featuring most of the extras from the British and French editions, including the excellent 50-minute documentary Paradise Regained, an hour-plus interview with Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro, an archival interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton, and a brief bit with Finley and the action figure of his character. Unique to this release (at least as far as I can tell) are interviews with producer Edward R. Pressman, drummer Gary Mallaber, Andrea Alvin discussing the work of her late husband, poster designer John Alvin, and Gerrit Graham reading the Phantom Of The Paradise biography he wrote for the soundtrack album’s press kit. Finally, you get a number of radio and TV spots (many of which are narrated by Wolfman Jack), a couple theatrical trailers and a still gallery. The only way to make this package more complete would have been to throw in the soundtrack CD.
Phantom Of The Paradise is one of the most unusual movies in Brian De Palma’s filmography and one of the best. It’s a high-energy, psychedelic rock-and-roll horror-musical that probably got a little overshadowed by another rock-and-roll horror-musical that came out a year later called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I love Rocky but I kind of prefer the baroque weirdness of Phantom. There’s never been another movie quite like it.
- Adam Jahnke
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