Phantom of the Paradise: Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by Brian De Palma
1974, Region A, 92 minutes, Rated PG
Blu-ray released on August 5th, 2014
Paul Williams as Swan
William Finley as Winslow / The Phantom
Jessica Harper as Phoenix
Gerrit Graham as Beef
George Memmoli as Philbin
Legendary music tycoon Swan is looking for his next big success. His current group, The Juicy Fruits, caters to the 1950s nostalgia audiences crave, but he is about to open the prestigious Paradise Theatre and needs a new sound. Enter Winslow Leach, a gifted songwriter currently composing a cantata based on the story of Faust. This is the music Swan has long sought and has the composer sent to prison on trumped up charges so he can steal the work for himself. Winslow escapes and is determined to confront those that have wronged him, but suffers an accident that leaves him disfigured in a most insulting manner. Now, having lost his voice, his looks, his credibility and even his teeth, Winslow haunts the Paradise as The Phantom, and begins a campaign of terror to strike back at Swan, but is immediately confronted by his nemesis and offered a deal.
Swan agrees to restore Winslow's voice and arranges for the music to be performed by the beautiful Phoenix, the artist of his affection, in exchange for Winslow's soul. Swan of course double-crosses everyone he comes in contact with and does the same here, only The Phantom is in the unique position of being able to pose an actual challenge to the music impresario. As the Paradise readies for opening night, Phoenix is initially relegated to backup singer status to make way for Swan's new discovery Beef, a glam-rock nightmare of testosterone that reignites the Phantom's rage. What follows is an operatic tale of loss and betrayal, of love and vengeance, of good vs. evil. All of the events are set to a wide-ranging soundtrack that fills the picture with music, but The Phantom of the Paradise is not a traditional musical.
Written and directed by Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Carrie, Dressed to Kill), this rock opera mixes elements from such literary classics as The Phantom of the Opera, Faust and Frankenstein, including nods to their cinematic counterparts and even tossing in a fun variation on the shower scene of Hitchcock's Psycho. De Palma is clearly having fun here and the film really benefits from the art direction of Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood), who delivers a gorgeous picture from start to finish. The dynamic cinematography of Larry Pizer (Timerider) introduces many techniques that return throughout the director's illustrious career. The split-screen time bomb sequence is a marvel of blocking and choreography, and the elaborate hand-held POV shots throughout the main locations are still impressive forty years on.
De Palma's script revels in the many digs at the music industry specifically, but also contains a few glancing blows at the corporate system that can be applied to most artistic fields. There are several quotable lines and lots of clever in-jokes and even simple puns (like sending a musician to prison at Sing Sing or arranging for Phoenix to rise to stardom from the ashes of another character), but the underlying themes of artistic integrity and the possibility of true love conquering evil reveal a delicate center to the raging storm that surrounds these characters.
There is a lot to be said about the casting here, from the brilliant choice of Paul Williams (Smokey and the Bandit) as the devilish Swan, to the discovery of the awesome Jessica Harper (Suspiria) as the inspirational Phoenix. The late, great William Finley (The Funhouse) is both sympathetic as Winslow and mesmerizing as The Phantom, in a performance in which the majority of his face is obscured. Finley has terrific chemistry with both Harper and Williams and it is fun to watch his comic timing during scenes like the prison escape balanced with the quiet sensitivity in his moments with Phoenix. Gerrit Graham (TerrorVision) has terrific stage presence as Beef, the front man for the glam rock band The Undeads, the cinematic precursor to KISS. Swan's unsavory accomplice Philbin is portrayed with an uncomfortable sincerity by George Memmoli (Mean Streets), who actually comes off likeable when he isn't pushing pills or molesting new talent.
Paul Williams' musical contributions complement De Palma's visual style and enhance the energy of the film with one memorable song after another. He delivers across multiple styles from the '50s doowop of The Juicy Fruits and a riff on The Beach Boys (with the band The Beach Bums) to the more sincere ballads for Finley and Harper (especially the song “Old Souls” that remains a favorite) before moving on to the glam rock theatrics of The Undeads. At the same time Phantom was being filmed, The Rocky Horror Show debuted in England, and while this film was released a year before the cinematic counterpart of the other, it is fun to see that Jessica Harper appeared as the lead in the Rocky sequel, Shock Treatment (1981). Another clever bit of casting involves the use of the same actors (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling) performing in the roles of all three of Swan's musical groups.
Phantom of the Paradise was plagued by the threat of multiple lawsuits before its initial release, one concerning the similarities to The Phantom of the Opera and another for using the name of an existing record label as the outlet for the devil character in the film. The picture was not an initial success, as audiences were not ready for the genre-bending mash-up of this horror-comedy-musical-satire. Over the next four decades, the film has become a crowd-pleasing experience that continues to influence filmmakers today. The combined talents of Brian De Palma and Paul Williams alone make this a movie worth checking out and fans are in for a treat as Scream Factory delivers a special edition that would make even The Phantom himself smile.
Video and Audio:
The Phantom of the Paradise is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has never looked better in any previous release, foreign or domestic. Colors are quite strong, black levels are solid and flesh tones remain natural. There is plenty of small object detail in hair and wardrobe patterns that make objects pop with clarity.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track offers a solid presentation that preserves the original stereo mix, but is completely eclipsed by the vastly superior DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. The musical numbers (and the entire film by extension) really benefit from the use of the surrounds and is particularly impressive during the split-screen sequences where audiences will not have any trouble following the audio from either side as the scenario plays out. English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
Scream Factory has gone all out here and included just about every supplement available from earlier releases, including those from England and France. In addition to the returning content, some impressive new material has been created specifically for this release. Special features are spread across two discs and fans should be completely satisfied; in fact, I am only giving this section five stars because I cannot give more.
Starting things off are a pair of new audio commentaries that are both highly entertaining. The first features cast members Jessica Harper and Gerrit Graham joined by The Juicy Fruits (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling). The track is well-paced and informative with little room for awkward pauses. I found Harper and Graham's comments the most interesting. The second track is with Production Designer Jack Fisk, who offers a more technical discussion on his involvement with the film.
Next is a new interview with De Palma titled Backstage at the Paradise (33 minutes) in which the director shares the history of the project from the original script to the surprise lawsuits along the way to a less-than-stellar release. His comments are quite candid and it is nice to hear his thoughts on this film four decades later.
Paul Williams is the center of Soul Inspiration (35 minutes), an instantly entertaining interview with the composer, who is quick to share his fond memories of the project. The man is a legend in the industry and knows how to tell a good story.
Behind the Mask with Tom Burman (4 minutes) is a brief visit with the make-up artist who designed the birdlike helmet worn by The Phantom. Although the segment is short, Burman packs in the information.
A collection of alternate takes (running an impressive 26 minutes) offers a split-screen comparison of finished production footage with earlier unused variations on about a dozen scenes. This is likely more appealing to editors, as it provides a glimpse of the choices offered for post-production.
Swan Song (outtake footage, 7 minutes) is an interesting look at how one of the previously mentioned lawsuits was resolved. Due to a dispute with the band Led Zeppelin, the name of Swan's record label was changed from Swan Song (which the band had recently started) to Death Records, and the filmmakers were forced to optically remove all images of that name, which, naturally, appears throughout the movie.
Rounding out the Blu-ray supplements is a gallery of production stills and marketing ads for the film.
Moving on to the DVD, I am surprised and pleased to find an even more impressive selection of goodies.
Paradise Regained (50 minutes) is a fantastic documentary ported from the European releases that delves into all aspects of the production. The piece scores interviews with a wide range of talent from both sides of the camera and the inclusion of the doc here is especially welcome, as some of these faces are no longer with us.
Another carry-over from an earlier release is the highly entertaining conversation between Paul Williams and Guillermo del Toro, who is clearly enjoying the opportunity to talk with Williams. The visit runs a surprising 72 minutes, but covers such a thorough number of topics that the time flies by.
Costume Designer Rosanna Norton discusses her work on the film in this technically-challenged interview that would have benefited from a better camera operator. (9 minutes)
Producer Edward R. Pressman appears gracious and passionate when discussing Phantom in this 19-minute segment that covers a lot of ground, including the use of his family's toy factory as a couple of locations for the film. Pressman is clearly proud of the film and his work with De Palma. Definitely worth checking out.
Gary Malaber talks about his time as Paul Williams' drummer and how the band became featured in the film behind the many incarnations of The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums and The Undead. Like everything else included, this interview is also a fun watch (17 minutes).
Alvin's Art and Technique (12 minutes) provides a look at the neon poster design by artist John Alvin, hosted by his widow.
Phantom of the Paradise Biography (9 minutes) is the original piece written (and read here) by Gerrit Graham for the original press kit.
William Finley and Toy (30 seconds) is a self-explanatory clip of the actor showing off his character's action figure.
Finishing things off is a collection of marketing materials including the original trailer, radio spots, TV ads and another collection of promotional photographs.