The Film: 5/5
Do not pity poor Phantom of the Paradise. Though it struggled to find a wide audience when it was first released at Halloween in 1974 (not assisted at all by a confusing marketing campaign created by a major Hollywood studio that didn’t understand it one bit) the past four decades have been awfully considerate to Brian DePalma’s horror-tinged comedic rock opera. It has spawned a large cult following in countries like Canada and France and made an indelible impression on cultural figures as diverse as author Bret Easton Ellis, filmmakers Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright, and the French electronica duo Daft Punk. Unfortunately it remains an elusive obscurity in the very nation where it was conceived, filmed, and premiered; to date the independent production’s U.S. distributor 20th Century Fox has only released Phantom on VHS and Region 1 DVD with shoddy transfers and absolutely zip in the way of supplements. The French company Opening Distribution rectified this pathetic lapse in judgment by lavishing DePalma’s unclassifiable classic with extras-packed DVD and Blu-ray editions complete with amped-up transfers and some newly-produced retrospective documentaries and interviews.
For years the Opening discs remained the essential releases of Phantom available anywhere in the world, so naturally the U.K.-based Arrow Video has to come along and produce their own vastly superior Blu-ray that ports over the terrific supplements from the French editions and thankfully includes some all-new video features mostly created in conjunction with the insanely addictive Phantom fan site The Swan Archives. Thus the efforts released by Opening have been officially usurped and we have a new champion in the race to create the best home video release of Phantom of the Paradise to date. Shout! Factory’s horror and sci-fi imprint Scream Factory has their own Region A Blu-ray release planned for later this year, but needless to say even they have their work cut out for them now.
In the history of American music there is perhaps no greater name than Swan (Paul Williams), the pioneering producer whose elusive relationship with the media has not prevented him from bringing some of the world’s most influential music genres to the U.S. and abroad and creating hot new stars out of virtual nobodies. His next major project is the completion and grand opening of his grand rock palace the Paradise in New York City. But the venue’s troubles have been exacerbated by a mysterious figure dressed in black leather and a silver bird mask who seems determined to reduce Swan and his legacy to a pile of smoldering ash. This is Winslow Leach (William Finley), an unknown composer with ambitions of realizing his epic cantata based on the German legend of Faust who willingly gives his music to Swan in the hope that it will bring him wealth and acclaim. Instead the famous producer steals the cantata and claims it as his own, while Leach ends up serving a life sentence in Sing Sing on a bogus narcotics charge and having all of his teeth removed in a scientific experiment.
Enraged by his predicament Leach escapes to enact revenge on Swan and has his face horribly mangled in a record press instead. When Swan realizes the true identity of “the Phantom of the Paradise” he convinces Winslow to become his partner so that the Faust cantata can be realized as its composer intended, with the beautiful unknown vocalist Phoenix (Jessica Harper) performing it on opening night at the Paradise. Since it is in Swan’s nature to screw over his perceived inferiors in order to pad out his massive bank account both Winslow and Phoenix are betrayed and left even worse off than before. Swan chooses effeminate glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham) to perform the cantata as an extravaganza of theatrical hard rock. When Leach discovers Swan’s treachery he sets out to sabotage Beef’s performance, leaving Phoenix unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight and becoming an instant star and Swan’s latest paramour. The producer’s intentions for his newest moneymaker are about to take a very deadly turn at the conclusion of Faust the next evening, and after Winslow unearths Swan’s darkest secrets he must rescue the woman he unrequitedly loves before she ends up a casualty of the sinister music man’s nefarious ambitions.
Phantom of the Paradise may not have been a huge hit in its day, but over the four decades since its release it has proven to have mightier staying power than even its creators possibly anticipated. To me the film is the music industry equivalent of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chaysefsky’s caustic takedown of - and elegiac eulogy for - the wasted potential of the mainstream media that is the cinematic masterpiece Network. Phantom lovingly spoofed the industry’s willingness to cannibalize itself and the hopes and dreams of those foolish to venture into their dark domain while simultaneously casting a grim and endless shadow over the direction that popular music would gear itself towards without once looking back. One of the main reasons why DePalma’s raucous ode to creativity and unrequited love has aged so well is because it turned out to be surprisingly prescient about the pathetic depths music continues to sink into with each passing year. The fact that it’s also a wonderful film made with wit, imagination, and a genuine appreciation for the power of a great tune has certainly strengthened its endurance as well.
Anyone who has ever attempted to break into the cutthroat world of mass entertainment and either failed miserably or succeeded but not in the way they had always hoped could empathize with the plight of Phantom’s titular character Winslow Leach. He’s symbolic of every ambitious musician who saw their dreams crushed into dust and thrown to the wind by greedy, powerful producers and executives. Then we have Swan, who represents those very individuals who built their careers and fortunes off of the hard work and talent of people like Winslow who were extraordinarily gifted but fundamentally naïve with regards to the honest nature of the business surrounding their chosen profession. In an early draft of the script the character was named Spectre, a handle that both encompassed his otherworldly traits and the clear debt DePalma owed to that legendary whack job of a producing genius Phil Spector (who was also an inspiration for the Z-Man character in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Phoenix is every idealistic ingénue with the spirit and forte to make it as an entertainer, but also lacking in the tired cynicism that she’s destined to develop if and when she manages to find such success.
DePalma cast the film brilliantly. William Finley had previously worked with the director on his 1962 short Woton’s Wake and the indie features Murder a la Mod, The Wedding Party, and Dionysus. But it was his unnerving turn as the creepy Dr. Emil Breton in DePalma’s 1973 horror classic Sisters that solidified Finley’s endearing image as a capable portrayer of quietly unhinged loners, many of which would appear in the future films of the director whose works he became the most synonymous with as an actor. Finley was the perfect performer to give soul to Winslow Leach; in his early scenes the character comes across as a prickly, antisocial misfit prone to violent outbursts at the very idea of seeing his life’s work commercialized into peppy pop radio fluff. He’s also quite whiny and horrendous to be around, but then again some of our greatest musical prodigies could often be unpleasant, volatile people socially for understandable reasons. Just ask anyone who has ever grown somewhat close to Brian Wilson or Daniel Johnston. Finley’s performance truly comes alive when he dons the mask and cape of his Phantom persona, allowing the actor to express great emotion with just his bulging eyes. He can convey delight and pain in equal measure with seemingly little effort. The sequence where he confronts Phoenix on the rooftop of the Paradise following her star-making performance and tries to convince her of his true identity is one of the film’s most honestly heartbreaking moments, because even though the character’s voice has to be electronically altered as a result of his injury Finley finds a way to make his robotic tones crack at the strain of trying to reach his one true flesh and blood love. The actor died in April 2012 at the age of 71 doing what he loved right up until the end of his life, but he was never again afforded the opportunity to play a character as memorable as Winslow Leach. But both the character and performance have become cinematic icons, so at least Finley’s legacy will live forever.
For his achievements as a singer and songwriter Paul Williams was obviously the biggest star in Phantom of the Paradise. He had only acted in four films prior to Phantom, chief among them the Terry Southern-scripted The Loved One and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the last sequel in the original franchise), but Williams knew his limitations as an actor and was wise to not overplay scenes unless it was called for. Swan is a great character for a performer with an innate knowledge of the music industry who is equally adept at acting, and Williams really digs deep into this diminutive demon’s perverse soul and scabrous wit to bring Swan into being as a charismatic monster you might just love to loathe. He speaks almost every line of his dialogue with a low, serpentine register that would suggest a man who takes great personal pleasure in screwing the helpless young artists out of their dreams. Thanks to Williams’ performance Swan is one of filmdom’s most remarkable and undeniably amusing villains. Phoenix becomes the aching, loving heart of Phantom of the Paradise due in part to Jessica Harper’s haunting show of elegance and vulnerability. Her singing voice is like that of an angel and the future star of Suspiria makes the character into something much greater and more substantial to the story than just the beautiful prize in Winslow and Swan’s battle of wills.
The supporting cast is as solid as the leads, with the late George Memmoli (Mean Streets, Blue Collar) a particular stand-out as Swan’s vile, greasy right hand man Philbin. Gerrit Graham (Used Cars) is a glittery hoot playing the mincing glam rocker Beef with just the right amount of rational fear and phony macho strut. His boisterous singing voice was provided by musician and songwriter Ray Kennedy, who sadly passed away on February 16th of this year, another great loss for Phantom’s dedicated “phans”. Honorable mention must also go to the three actors who play Swan’s multi-genre throwback pet project that begins as the 1950’s-aping Juicy Fruits, spends one brilliantly-executed scene as the Beach Bums, and then ends as Beef’s neo-Alice Cooper backing band the Undead: Archie Hahn, the comedic actor who played the Beef-lite room service waiter in This is Spinal Tap and appeared in several of Joe Dante’s films, among others; songwriter Jeffrey Comanor; and film and television bit player Peter Ebling (credited as Harold Oblong). The one and only Rod Serling provides the moody opening narration and fans of cult cinema might recognize Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith (Caged Heat, The Incredible Melting Man), Robin Mattson (Candy Stripe Nurses), Janus Blythe (The Hills Have Eyes), and Jennifer Ashley (Guyana: Cult of the Damned) among a collective of Swan’s swooning groupies.
Williams composed both the playful, brooding score and an astounding line-up of original songs that cover various classic genres of popular music. The songs knowingly send up the era from which they were birthed while sounding completely authentic. Phantom of the Paradise is one film I wouldn’t mind seeing adapted as a lavish musical for the Broadway stage. Cinematographer Larry Pizer - who would ironically go on to shoot both Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare concert film and a 1983 made-for-TV adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera - captures the New York exterior locations and the extravagant sets of the Paradise where the bulk of the action takes place with lurid colors and an attention to the smallest details in the handsome production design of Jack Fisk (Darktown Strutters, There Will Be Blood), whose wife Sissy Spacek worked behind the scenes as a set dresser. John Chambers, the movie make-up effects giant best known for his groundbreaking work on the Planet of the Apes series, contributes some genuinely horrific prosthetic illusions that are glimpsed in the final film just long enough to stick in the mind for a long time. The film’s frenetic energy is contained and streamlined by the precision editing of future Star Wars cutter Paul Hirsch, whose credits include nine other DePalma collaborations. Speaking of DePalma, Phantom was the film that bridged his earlier go-for-broke underground comedies with the grandiose and gruesome thrillers of his later career. This was probably the last time he made a wild and exquisitely hilarious comedy that hurtles forward from the opening strains of the 20th Century Fox fanfare while rarely pausing for a breath. DePalma’s direction is both calm and confident even as Pizer’s camera threatens to become caught up in the dizzying set pieces, and a sequence where Winslow makes his presence in the Paradise known during a Beach Bums rehearsal utilizes both his fondness for long, uninterrupted takes and split-screen that he would explore with a range of interesting results in his undisputed classics Carrie and Blow Out among others.
The transfer of Phantom included on this disc was remastered by Fox in 1080p high-definition and presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. I don’t know how it compares to the transfer used for the French Blu-ray, but Arrow’s is the best I have ever seen this film look on home video. Most of the fine picture grain has been removed and details and colors have been bolstered and sharpened to wondrous clarity, though it doesn’t suffer from an excess of digital noise reduction. The film was originally recorded in 4-track stereo and Arrow’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 audio reproduces its immersive, sprawling sound design with terrific effect. The occasionally overlapping dialogue and Williams’ score and soundtrack are represented with crystalline perfection and no audible distortion in the overall mix. The company has also provided an uncompressed 2.0 PCM stereo for viewers without elaborate home theater set-ups and an isolated music and effects track also in 2.0. English subtitles are included.
From the Opening Distribution French DVD and 2010 Region B Blu-ray Arrow has included the 50-minute retrospective documentary Paradise Regained, a ten-minute interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton, a 35-second faux advertisement for a limited edition Phantom action figure with Finley, and two theatrical trailers representing both the studio’s misguided marketing campaign and producer Pressman’s self-financed campaign that helped reverse the film’s fortunes. Regained brings back most of the surviving principal players in the making of Phantom (including DePalma, Williams, Finley, Harper, Graham, Pressman, editor Paul Hirsch, and many others) to recount the film’s making and its resurrection as an internationally beloved cult classic. These extras are all in English.
The centerpiece of Arrow’s new supplements is a 72-minute interview with Williams conducted by filmmaker (and Phantom super-fan) Guillermo Del Toro. The director’s infectious passion for the film and admiration for Williams’s contributions can be felt in every second of their lengthy conversation. Williams makes for a fascinating and candid interview subject and the two of them converse like a pair of old friends taking a trip down Memory Lane. Essential viewing for any fan of Williams and Phantom of the Paradise.
The Swan Song Fiasco (11 minutes) is an original video essay with narration that uses outtakes and trims from the original cut of Phantom to illuminate the multiple post-production changes made to cover up or remove as many references to Swan’s record company Swan Song (renamed Death Records in the final film) as possible after being threatened with a lawsuit by Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant. As this feature points out, some fleeting glimpses of the original name and logo remain in the released version. The superimpositions of the Death Records name and logo have always been my only complain regarding Phantom because they are obvious editorial changes, but given what the low-budget production was facing in a court of law at the time they are highly understandable. The lost silent footage used in this feature can also be seen at the Swan Archives website, www.swanarchives.org.
Paradise Lost and Found (14 minutes) is a generous assembly of deleted and alternate scenes from Phantom. They are presented without sound (the elements must have been lost or destroyed) and are mainly extensions or unused takes of previously existing scenes, including the rare footage of Winslow’s mangled face after emerging from the record press that was removed from the final film for fear that it might disturb the PG audience but managed to find its way into a U.S. re-release trailer that can be found on this Blu-ray.
A small gallery of black &white behind-the-scenes still photos and four promotional radio spots (the first three of which were narrated by Wolfman Jack) round out the disc-based supplements. Arrow has also included a reversible cover art sleeve featuring new art by the Red Dress on one side and an original re-release poster image drawn by the great Richard Corben on the other and a collector’s booklet containing two essays about the film: a general critical overview by BFI London Film Festival programmer Michael Blyth and a detailed history of its advertising campaigns by Ari Kahan, the principal archivist at the Swan Archives website.
Arrow Video’s Phantom of the Paradise Blu-ray gets high marks from me due to their inclusion of the film’s most devoted longtime fans in the creation of new bonus features, making this disc a genuine labor of love. Coupled with a top-flight transfer and a rockin’ audio upgrade Brian DePalma’s timeless satirical genre mutant finally has the home video release it richly deserves. This one’s definitely going on my best Blu-rays of 2014 list. Absolutely, positively recommended.