Phantom Of The Paradise Review
If Brian De Palma is one of the greatest cinematic talents of the last thirty years, and I think he is, then Phantom Of The Paradise is his second fully achieved work, after Sisters. 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 consistently enjoyable, witty and beautifully achieved pastiche of the classic horror story "Phantom Of The Opera". There are still some rough edges and rather too many scattershot parodies to make the film cohere in the manner of De Palma's later masterpieces, but it's still far better than anything else from the seventies even vaguely answering to the description of "Rock Opera".
The "Phantom" of the title is failed songwriter Winslow Leach (Finlay) whose hanuting 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 genuinely 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.
The pastiches are varied in their effectiveness, probably depending on how familiar you are with the sources. There are some nice cracks at the mid-seventies nostalgia boom which led in Britain to the horrors of Mud and The Rubettes, and a razor-sharp take on the Beach Boys. The story is not particularly close to "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 most notably The Mystery Of The Wax Museum and Psycho. The latter parody features inventive use of a plunger and is the first De Palma shower scene to play inventively with the great moment of Hitchcockian suspense. People call De Palma a rip-off merchant and, to some extent, he is. But it seems to me that it's not what you start with, it's what you do with it and there is not one time in his best work (basically excluding Mission To Mars)that De Palma steals from another director without doing something personal and original with the source material. It's the style that is all his own, not the material, and in De Palma's films the style is the vital component and along with the homages, there are many scenes in his work which are entirely original and unlike anything by any other filmmaker. So, for example, here he takes the Psycho shower scene, turns the black comedy into outright slapstick and produces something which is effective both as affectionate tribute and a way of advancing the plot. This is a theme I will be returning to in the four De Palma reviews I will be writing in the next few weeks, particularly in reference to his best film, Dressed To Kill.
My major reservation about the film is the casting. William Finlay made a fine villainous weirdo in Sisters but he hasn't got the presence to hold the centre of the film together, particularly not one as cluttered as this. It's also hard to credit him as a songwriting visionary, although his lack of a credible singing voice is somewhat atoned for by his posture at the piano which is pure Elton John. His resemblance to Marilyn Manson is distracting as well, but that's just me. Paul Williams is fun as Swan, but again he lacks the sort of charisma which would allow the part to make sense. Swan is more like a giggling seven year old than an evil rock mastermind and Williams underplays the early bits while grossly overplaying in the last half hour, so there's no consistency to the character. This wouldn't matter so much if the film were just a jokey slapstick rock musical, but the emotional depth De Palma wants to bring to the film needs stronger actors at the centre. Jessica Harper fares a little better but hasn't the vocal resources that the part of Phoenix requires and is a little anodyne to be a putative goddess. The last half hour does see some genuine emotion coming into the performances of Harper and Finlay which means the ending is more touching than it threatens to be. The one bit of acting which really does live up to expectations is that of Gerrit Graham as the self-styled super-rocker Beef. It's not remotely subtle but it is very funny and Graham has fun exploiting the more extreme side of the glam rockers (not to mention a certain Mr Jagger).
What is not in doubt however is that De 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 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. There are lots of show-off trademark De Palma effects; crane shots, lengthy takes, screens within screens and some student film silliness that goes back to his early comedies with Robert De Niro. 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, which is not to say that it works all that well on its own. The songs tend to be 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, along the lines of "Sugar Baby Love", but Winslow's self-indulgent compositions are dull enough to make you long for the cheerful feel-good optimism of Leonard Cohen. That is, however, ideal for the context.
A trivia note, by the way. One of the set dressers is a certain young lady called Sissy Spacek, wife of the production designer and, three years later, a major reason why Carrie was such a success.
In many ways, this seems like apprentice work for De Palma. His next film, Obsession, demonstrates considerably more maturity in its treatment of character and situation. But Phantom Of The Paradise is still very good apprentice work and, for this viewer at least, it has aged a lot better than the superficially similar but less emotionally affecting Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's the sense that De Palma genuinely cares for his Phantom that makes this more than a nostalgia binge and points towards his triumphs with Carrie and Dressed To Kill and his sheer passion for filmmaking lifts this well above the camp level of other rock musicals of the period. It's not essential Brian De Palma, but fans are very unlikely to be disappointed.
This disc is slightly disappointing compared to the sublime MGM special editions of Carrie and Dressed to Kill which I have been slavering over for the past couple of days, but it's not all that bad. Fox haven't put as much effort into it as MGM did on the other films but the new transfer is more than acceptable for the time being.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is generally good with one or two flaws. Colours are particularly striking - this is the sort of film which demands excellence in this area - and there is a high level of detail evident throughout. There is quite a bit of grain but this is partly due to the low budget of the production as much as any weakness in the transfer. I did find some artifacting in the blacks which was a little distracting but not a severe problem. Otherwise, this is as good as the film has looked for home viewing.
The soundtrack is not so impressive. Although the film was recorded in Mono, Fox have provided a straightforward 2 track Stereo mix for the DVD. This is a mixed blessing. For one thing, the sound information remains stubbornly monophonic for much of the time, notably the dialogue, and the music separations are thin and sound artificial. One or two moments work well - the opening number and the frenzy of the climax - but I would personally have preffered a straight transfer of the original Mono mix.
The only extra related to the film is the original trailer, which gives away far too much of the plot as do most trailers of this period. There are also trailers for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Legend Of Hell House, Bedazzled, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Big Trouble In Little China. A documentary would have been most welcome or, ideally, an audio commentary from Uncle Brian himself.
I wouldn't claim any great things for Phantom Of The Paradise, especially compared to the other De Palma films I've been watching this week, but it is entertaining, well paced and beautifully put-together. Highly recommended for fans of Rocky Horror and essential viewing for fans of Brian De Palma's later films. The disc offers good picture quality and not much else, but if you can get hold of it cheaply it is not a bad purchase.