The Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974) – Of all of Brian De Palma’s most bonkers genre movie experiments, The Phantom of the Paradise just might be the best. If nothing else, it’s the one movie that combines everything the misunderstood movie brat does well into one place. It’s got the goofy Godard-ian cinematic in-joke charm of his earliest efforts and the film-referencing-as-storytelling style of his later career, all wrapped up in the spectacularly executed visual style that De Palma is known and loved for. Toss in the single greatest split screen sequence that he ever conceived and an astonishing soundtrack/central performance by Paul Williams and you have the very definition of a cult film. Phantom of the Paradise was a horror/rock opera/comedy made before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but only earned a cult in France and Winnipeg (true story) at the time of release. Over the years the film’s reputation has thankfully grown and only now does the Phantom cult seem to be catching on worldwide. If anything could help more people discover this pure cinematic joy it’s a special edition Blu-Ray release that the film always deserved. In fact, it just might be the finest and fullest disc that Shout Factory ever released.
The plot of the film is a pastiche of Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and Dorian Gray, all combined to tell a bitter little rock industry satire. De Palma’s early muse William Finley stars as a struggling musical genius whose music is stolen by an evil record producer (Williams) that will also send him to prison. From there, Finley breaks out and tries to get revenge, only to end up with his face scarred in a record press mishap. So Finely becomes the Phantom of Williams’ rock club and plants a bomb to ruin William’s sell out plan for the music. Then they strike a deal that will allow Finley’s lost love (Jessica Harper) to sing the songs as intended.
That only covers about an hour of the film, there’s still soul selling, an onstage murder, and tragedy to come, plus I haven’t even covered the music. De Palma’s film is a cavalcade of references, jokes, set pieces, and songs. It’s both a parody of classic horror tropes and a brilliant update of them for 70s audiences. As a musical, De Palma gave genius song writer Williams (he of “The Rainbow Connection” fame) the chance to mimic and satirize virtually all forms of 20th century pop music while also playing a deliciously unconventional villain. The soundtrack is a work of art in and of itself and De Palma manags to create a movie that could live up to every track.
De Palma crafts it all like a master, without a single sequence passing that wasn’t carefully designed to be a show-stopping set piece. Almost any sequence in the movie would be the highlight of most films, yet De Palma just piles one climax onto the next with the explosive creativity of a filmmaker granted the financial resources to fully achieve his cinematic ambitions for the first time. In particular, the director stages one split screen bombing that’s such an astounding use of technique, timing, style, and effect that it’s almost impossible to let it only play once when viewing the film. It’s a cockeyed masterpiece from a young filmmaker bursting with ideas. Every scene leaps off the screen in a flurry of sensory entertainment and somehow all of the competing tones, styles, songs, and effects and up to a whole that’s better than the parts. It’s not a shock that the movie wasn’t a huge hit on release given how singularly bizarre it is and how much pop culture knowledge is required to understand everything that the writer/director is trying to accomplish.
The technical presentation that Shout whipped up is damn impressive yet imperfect. The 5.1 master sound mix is flawlessly reconstructed and presents Williams’ score in a quality fans had previously only dreamed of. The video transfer is more often than not just as impressive, offering a boost in vibrancy, color, and detail unlike any previous Blu-ray import. Unfortunately, a few scenes are poorly handled with wildly out of control contrast. It’s only a few moments in an otherwise gorgeous transfer, but one is the legendary split-screen sequence and that’s definitely a problem. However, such issues are merely nit-pickery. It’s still a gorgeous disc and serves up a vast array of special features.
First up, everything from the French and British Blu-Ray releases has been ported over. You’ll get a wonderful hour long documentary serving up interviews with everyone you could imagine, an almost 80-minute chat between Guillermo Del Toro and Paul Williams that’s even better than it sounds, a collection of alternative takes (including footage that had to be removed following a lawsuit by Led Zeppelin), and a stack of trailers.
If Shout had merely cherry picked all of those features from previous releases and left it there, they would have delivered a damn fine Blu-ray. What takes the set to another level is the cavalcade of new content. The notoriously prickly Brian De Palma sits down for a 30-minute interview about the film that he’s clearly fond of and Paul Williams sits in for another 30-minute chat (which is a bit repetitive after the lengthier Del Toro piece, but still a nice addition). Producer Edward Pressman, costume designer Rosanna Norton, drummer Gary Malaber, and special effects supervisor Tom Burman also get their own short interviews providing additional details from more obscure parts of the production. Shout is getting very good and finding special material about aspects of filmmaking that no other company would touch and these brief interviews serve up some fascinating details (as does a short piece on the original poster design). Finally, we’re treated to a pair of audio commentary tracks, one from production designer Jack Fisk getting into the nuts and bolts of the physical production and a second from Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and the three lovable numbskulls who played the Juicy Fruits which is a far more lively and often silly account of making a lively and often silly film. That’s almost 8 hours worth of special features about The Phantom of the Paradise with surprisingly little overlap. (Phil Brown)