Phantom of the Paradise Review
Phantom of The Paradise is one of Brian De Palma’s most energetic works. The comic energy which exploded all over the place in Greetings, Hi Mom! and the little seen Get To Know Your Rabbit is focused here into a witty and wildly entertaining pastiche of classic horror and rock music As with his previous film Sisters, there are some obvious rough edges, and to this fan of the director the film contains rather too many scattershot parodies to make the film cohere in the manner of his later masterpieces. But it's still one of the few cult movies of the 1970s which has survived to repay close attention as a real film as opposed to a curiosity.
The "Phantom" of the title is failed songwriter Winslow Leach (Finlay) whose haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics have been stolen by Swan (Williams), a Satanic record producer who reputedly "brought the Blues to Britain and brought Liverpool to America". Swan needs Leach's music as the novelty sound to open The Paradise, his Xanadu-esque rock venue but he does not want to have Leach singing it. So he frames the songwriter for a drugs rap, gets him sent to prison and hopes to triumph on his stolen music. But Winslow is not easily discouraged and, following a daring escape from Sing-Sing, and an unfortunate mutilation in one of Swan's record presses, he returns to haunt the Paradise in the guise of the masked Phantom. After the Phantom establishes his presence with a destructive explosion, Swan decides to negotiate a fiendish contract with him that will ensure Winslow's music will become famous while keeping the disfigured composer well away from the limelight. Appropriately enough, the music is a cantata of songs based on the story of Faust. Throw into the equation a beautiful young singer - Phoenix (Harper) - and you have a romantic tragedy just waiting to happen.
Indeed, what surprises me most about the film, after several viewings over the years, is how straight it plays the romantic angle. In the midst of the parodies and visual fireworks, Winslow's love for Phoenix is poignant and effective, leading to a conclusion which is startlingly moving and featuring a particularly fine crane shot which is repeated several times in De Palma's later films. Against this, it could be said that the love affair is too briefly sketched in to be convincing, but given that much of the desire is one-sided that is quite appropriate. Winslow's affection for Phoenix is based on what he thinks she is rather than the real woman and this is emphasised by the fact that they only meet twice in the film. Much like Deborah Shelton in Body Double, the love object is idealised through the obsession of the viewer.
The story is clearly based on a combination of Faust and The Phantom Of The Opera, but De Palma delights in broadening the parody to classic Hollywood horror movies in general. There are wonderful homages here to a variety of classic horror movies including The Mystery Of The Wax Museum and, inevitably the film which has proved to be an endlessly fertile source for the filmmaker, Psycho. The latter parody features particularly inventive use of a plunger and is the first De Palma shower scene to play inventively with that great moment of Hitchcockian suspense. Some harsh critics call De Palma a rip-off merchant and it’s clear that he’s having a whale of a time taking from whomever and wherever he chooses. But it’s not what you take, it’s what you do with it and I don’t think there’s a single time that De Palma takes from Hitchcock in particular without doing something interesting with the homage. In other words, whenever we enter a shower in a De Palma film, the reminder of Psycho is entirely intentional and usually intended to be affectionate and blackly comic. It's the style that is all his own, not the material.
I do have a certain reservation about the casting of Phantom of the Paradise and it’s to do with William Finlay. My view has changed over the years and the more I watch the film, the more I like what he does with those big, pleading eyes and his endearingly shambling presence. He is equally unlikely as a hero or as a monster and that’s perhaps why this strange, cartoonish film works so well – it wrong-foots us. Just when we dismiss Winslow/ The Phantom as a pathetic schmuck, he becomes a tragic hero and it is exactly in the manner of his demise that he becomes truly romantic. I also like his body language at the piano which is pure early Elton John. Paul Williams is great as Swan, a baby-faced psychopath with a killer collection of sound technology. There’s a strange comedy in Williams playing an evil rock mastermind as a giggling seven year old. Jessica Harper has a tougher time since the character of Phoenix exists almost entirely in Winslow’s head but she gets by through the benefits of immense beauty and a good singing voice. Bringing an edge of crazy and surreal comedy to the film is Gerrit Graham as the self-styled super-rocker Beef. It's not a remotely subtle turn but it is very funny and Graham has fun exploiting the more extreme side of the glam rockers.
Working with DP Larry Pizer, for the only time apart from on the music video for Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark, Palma's cinematic flair is fully in evidence here. Building on the visual dynamism of Sisters, he revels in the opportunity to work on a large canvas and play about with numerous directoral techniques. The use of split-screen is especially effective here, largely because it is limited to one sequence. The gaudy and somewhat exteme use of colour is exactly right for the subject matter - like the rest of the film, it isn't subtle nor is it intended to be. It’s pure comic book. It’s probably not coincidental that Larry Pizer’s next project was Alice Cooper’s concert film Welcome to My Nightmare. There are lots of show-off trademark De Palma effects; crane shots, lengthy takes, screens within screens and some student film slapstick silliness that goes back to his early comedies like Greetings. This tends to give the impression of a scatter-bomb approach to filmmaking - there isn't the elegant stylisation of Sisters - but that's not such a problem with this material. The script is generally funny and often cutting in its attitude towards the music business. Paul Williams's music score is exactly right for the film. The songs are parodies of various rock genres and some of them are better than others - the opener "Goodbye Eddie Goodbye" is a great bit of nostalgia rock in itself and there are terrific parodies of glam-rock and The Beach Boys. But it also has to be said that Winslow's self-indulgent dirges a sharp dig at the excesses of the 1970s singer-songwriter fad. The technical credits are beyond criticism throughout and there are lots of familiar names in there – John Chambers, Jack Fisk, Paul Hirsch and a certain young set dresser called Sissy Spacek.
I love watching Phantom but it doesn’t quite get to me in the way that some of De Palm’s other films do. It certainly doesn’t possess and obsess me in the manner of Dressed to Kill or Blow Out. In some ways, this is still apprentice work. His next film, Obsession, while more derivative, demonstrates an obvious development in its treatment of character and situation. But Phantom Of The Paradise is still often brilliant what makes it work is the emotional punch. De Palma genuinely cares for his Phantom and that makes this more than the nostalgia binge which this could have been and his sheer passion for filmmaking lifts this well above the camp level of other rock musicals of the period.
There has been much debate about the transfer on this Region B locked Arrow disc and there’s no doubt that it looks a lot different to how it has done on previous home viewing incarnations. The main change is that the image is a lot darker than we’ve seen previously and this tends to make the heavily saturated colours seem even more extreme. This is apparently characteristic of the master produced by Fox and the decision making process still seems to be something of a mystery. So ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. I was so impressed by the beautifully accurate colours that I can happily accept the darker look. Despite some early fears, the transfer certainly isn’t too green or notably “tealised” -the watchword of the moment. Certainly, in every other respect the transfer is above criticism. There is no damage, plenty of fine detail and a very attractive level of fine grain. It’s correctly framed at 1.85:1. In comparison, the French Region B disc looks washed out and shabby.
Whatever you think of the visual transfer, there can be few complaints about the audio side of things. There are three choices, one of which is a very welcome isolated music and effects track which has already done good service to me as a musical background. There is also a lossless 2.0 stereo track which has excellent fidelity. However, the most welcome addition is a DTS-HD MA 4.0 track which replicates the original four-track mix which was heard in major cinemas on the film’s first release. It sounds quite sensational, spreading out beautifully around the surrounds and doing full justice to the rich range of musical styles and pithy dialogue.
Where this new disc really scores is in the wide range of bonus material that has been included, all of it in HD. Carried over from the French disc is an excellent fifty minute making-of piece called Paradise Regained which contains comments from De Palma, Paul Williams, producer Edward Pressman and some cast members including William Findley who has since died. It’s largely in English although Gerrit Graham occasionally speaks in French and is accompanied by English subtitles.
All new on this release, however, is a seventy-two minute interview between Paul Williams and Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican director is a huge fan of the film and the music score so their chat is wide-ranging, interesting and relaxed. At the start, Williams seems to be intent on speaking in fractured Spanish but this is thankfully a joke. He discusses his early life, his addiction to alcohol and the ups and downs of his career. He also discusses material from films such as Ishtar and The Muppet Christmas Carol. There is certainly some mutual ego massaging but both men are intelligent and insightful and the result is something quite special, especially when they start singing to each other. Also new is a featurette called The Swan Song Fiasco which explains the changes made to the film in post-production for legal reasons. Paradise Lost and Found is a selection of bloopers and deleted scenes which runs about thirteen minutes and doesn't contain anything of special interest, although it's interesting to see the extended record factory scene and an affecting alternative take of the Old Souls scene. There's also an alternate take of Phoenix's audition which shows how the finished version showcases the actress so much more effectively.
Also present is an archive interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton, filmed in 2004, and a brief piece on the Phantom doll with William Finley. Filling out the disc are two trailers, some radio spots and a stills gallery.
The package also contains a booklet containing new writing but it wasn't made available for this review.
Phantom of the Paradise is splendidly satisfying entertainment. Although the new transfer on this Arrow disc might not be to everyone's taste, there's no doubt that the excellent sound quality and the wide range of extra material make it an essential purchase.