With sharp stabs at the cutthroat entertainment industry, Brian De Palma's rock/horror extravaganza PHANTOM OF THE OPERA should've been the cult phenomenon that THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is. The film pays clever homage to "Phantom of the Opera," "Faust" and "Dorian Gray," surrounded by the colorful sights and sounds of chic 1970s glitz and nostalgic 1950s and 1960s pop. The man behind the music is renowned songwriter Paul Williams, who also plays Swan, the evil, reclusive, larger than life record tycoon who has a nasty habit of buying people's souls. Williams' lyrics are so intelligent that they'll probably go over a lot of people's heads like a souring 747, and De Palma's execution may only be appreciated by passionate genre fans, but that's just part of what makes PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE a cult classic on an intellectual basis. After getting far more respect on home video in various other countries but its own, Scream Factory finally gives PHANTOM the very special edition it deserves in its homeland.
Opening with narration by none other than Rod Serling (who passed away the following year), PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE tells the tragic tale of a talented but naive and hot-tempered composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley, EATEN ALIVE), who has composed a serious "rock cantata" based on the legend of Faust. Winslow hands over his songs to music impresario Swan (Williams, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES), but the mogul has no intention of giving him credit or involving him in the creative process. After being thrown out of Swan's office, Winslow is beaten up, framed for drug pushing and sent to Sing Sing. Upon hearing that one of his songs has been bastardized and recorded by a superficial group known as The Juicy Fruits, he storms out of prison in a fit of rage and breaks into Swan's "Death Records" plant, hoping to sabotage the pressing of the song. In the process, both his face and voice are destroyed by a record press, then he disappears in the river, presumed dead.
But Winslow is alive and well as he creeps into Swan's new rock palace – The Paradise – which is about to open showcasing his music (now credited to Swan). Winslow steals a silver bird mask and a black leather outfit from the wardrobe closet, thus becoming the Phantom and terrorizing the theater. When Swan catches wind of this, he offers Winslow a deal (which involves signing a contract in blood) to finish his cantata and let it be sung by a female singer he greatly admires, Phoenix (Jessica Harper, THE EVICTORS). But Swan just keeps double-crossing Winslow, attempting to brick him up alive and open the Paradise his way. He hires a glam rock star aptly named "Beef" (Gerrit Graham, USED CARS) and reinvents the beach-bound Juicy Fruits (who also paraded as The Beach Bums) as an outrageous KISS-like hard rock group called The Undeads. Appalled by Swan's actions, Winslow becomes more outraged and his revenge grows more vehement.
Originally shot simply as “Phantom”, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a very lively semi-comical yet dark musical fantasy that's a sheer delight. De Palma moves the larger-than-life set-ups at a brisk pace, lacing it with striking camera shots and images, and stirring in all the surefire ingredients that make a cult film a cult film. Williams' songs couldn't be better, underlying the story in a moving, sometimes romantic fashion, and he brilliantly shows how a composition can be mutated into something totally different when put into the wrong hands. Just listen how Winslow's dark, intense song about inner change, "Faust," is transformed into a meaningless surf pop tune about a guy whose whole life is his car ("Upholstery"). Brilliant! The late great William Finley (also quite frightening in De Palma's SISTERS the previous year) garnishes empathy as the anguished Winslow Leach, and his Phantom exceeds with the right amount of energetic camp. Williams' impish Swan is equally tormented (as we find out later in the film), and he brings just the right amount of smiling, conniving slyness to the character. Jessica Harper (further maintaining a following in films like SUSPIRIA and SHOCK TREATMENT) is marvelous as the angelic Phoenix, who is later ravished by the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle, and she belts out one helluva tune.
Gerrit Graham is the scene-stealing Beef, a flamboyant and pretentious rock singer who represents the height of the glam rock period. Even though his performance of "Life at Last" was voiced by Ray Kennedy, the scene is a highlight with Beef being created as a Frankenstein monster and then prancing around the stage and extending his tongue like a psychotic Mick Jagger (who by 1974 was much about androgyny and self parody). There's also the late George Memmoli (MEAN STREETS) as Philbin (a tribute to Mary Philbin of the 1925 "Phantom"), Swan's slimy talent scout, and the improvisational trio of Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Harold Oblong (aka Peter Elbling) is the chameleon-like singing group that change whenever the incoming music trend calls for it ("We'll remember you forever, Eddie..."). Also note that future CARRIE star Sissy Spacek was the set decorator, and those who follow 1970s exploitation movies will recognize Cheryl Smith (LEMORA), Jennifer Ashley (THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS), Robin Mattson (BONNIE’S KIDS), Janit Baldwin (RUBY) and Janus Blythe (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) as some of Swan’s groupies.
For a while there, it seemed like every other country was getting a PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE special edition DVD or Blu-ray except for the U.S., with the film recently issued on the latter format in both France and England. Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory arm seemed the perfect outlet to license the film from Fox for a full-blown stateside “Collector’s Edition” and the results are nothing short of spectacular. The film has been presented here in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in an excellent transfer sourced from Fox’s HD elements. The distinct and sometimes flashy colors are extremely rich and well saturated, picture detail is well defined, blacks are solid and any grain is pleasant and film-like throughout. For a transfer that only shows minor flaws when optical effects and post-production superimposing are employed, the quality is consistently pleasing throughout, giving U.S. fans of the film the visual treatment they’ve been longing for (reportedly, Arrow Films’ Blu-ray treatment is a bit on the darker side, and that’s never an issue here). The audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in both 2.0 and 5.1, with the 5.1 track being the preferable of the two having a nice robust sound and good fidelity. English subtitles are also included.
Extras on the Blu-ray portion include “Brian De Palma Backstage at the Paradise” (33:07), a detailed new interview with the director discussing what he wanted to convey story-wise and in a visual sense, and he talks about everything including the cast, the shooting process, the music and the various locations where they shot the film. “Paul Williams Soul Inspiration” (34:54) is another great interview piece where Williams discusses how he felt the songs he wrote helped tell the story and that he actually felt he was an odd choice for the job (having written hits for such mainstream acts as The Carpenters and Three Dog Night). Williams dissects his songs for the movie and describes his approach to the recording of them, as well as scoring the climatic segment (George Tipton did the soundtrack score). Williams also talks about his performance and his great collaboration with De Palma. “Behind the Mask with Tom Burman” (4:09) has make-up man Burman revealing that John Chambers didn’t actually work on the film and was bought out, even though he got screen credit (since he won an Oscar for PLANET OF THE APES). He talks about designing the mask and that he wasn’t on the set (Rolf Miller did the rest of the film's make-up). A section of “Alternate Takes” (26:21) includes the original title card (as “Phantom”) and shows different camera angles for various scenes compared to how they were shown in the final film (there’s a 1080p multi/split screen process to visually present this). "Swan Song Outtake Footage" (7:27): as the film was originally shot, Swan’s conglomerate was known as “Swan Song Enterprises” and variations on this moniker were seen all through film. Swan Song Records, the record label owned by Led Zeppelin and manager Peter Grant, legally had them change things around, and so it became Death Records. The final film uses “traveling mattes” and other optical effects to make the changes (some of them painfully obvious), but here you can finally see these parts without the forced post-production tampering.
An audio commentary is included with Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Harold Oblong (together, who also introduce the film on camera when you play the film through this audio option) and on separate recordings, Jessica Harper and Gerrit Graham. Collectively, the participants share a ton of information about their personal experiences on the film and share some great anecdotes, and all are still very proud to be associated with it (the comments of Harper and Graham overlap around the 1:11 mark, but it only lasts a mere seconds). A second commentary is with production designer Jack Fisk who describes having a lot of freedom but limited money to build and design his sets, and that he was very specific about the look and color schemes he was trying to achieve. He also addresses Sissy Spacek’s involvement working side by side with him (credited as “set dresser”, Spacek would marry Fisk shortly after the film was completed). A hefty still gallery pertaining to the U.S. theatrical campaigns (posters, lobby cards, black & white stills, pressbook images and program images) rounds out the extras on the Blu-ray portion.
The second disc in this collection (a standard DVD) is also loaded with extras. “Paradise Regained: Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise” (50:10) is a terrific 2005 documentary about the making of PHANTOM (originally produced for a French DVD release) and has interviews with Brian DePalma, Gerrit Graham, Paul Hirsch (editor), producer Ed Pressman, Jessica Harper, Larry Pizer (director of photographer), William Finley, Harold Oblong (who was also the choreographer on the film), Archie Hahn and Paul Williams. You’ll hear that De Palma got the idea for the story from hearing a Beatles tune turned to muzak, that Pressman imagined Mick Jagger or David Bowie to play Beef (and Sha Na Na for the singing group) and that Swan was modeled after Phil Spector. Williams was happy to satirize the kind of music he loved and Finley states he came up with the idea of what the Phantom should look like. There’s lots of other great tidbits and revelations about the production, the characters, the lawsuit threats, the impact the film had over the years (and the fans to prove it) and the statements (especially about the industry and sensationalism in the media) that the film was trying to get across. A recent (2013) interview with Paul Williams (1:12:16) is conducted by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, a huge PHANTOM fan, as well as an admirer of Williams’ music. Williams discusses his early days and his want to be an actor, the ups and downs of his career (and his now 20+ years of sobriety) and he was adamant about not playing Winslow in PHANTOM, very much wanting to play Swan. This is a great one-on-one conversation that primarily focuses on PHANTOM, and Williams is obviously proud about his work on the film (Williams now seems to have doubts about using Ray Kennedy to sing “Life at Last”, as it seems if he was given the chance to do it over, he would have kept Graham’s voice on the track). “Ed Pressman: Phantom Producer” (17:05) has Pressman talking about how very much he loved the PHANTOM script, and what it took to get the finances together (and that part of it was shot in the toy factory owned by his father). He talks about selling the film to Fox, its initial box failure and re-release, the advertising campaigns and the changes that had to be made by demand of Led Zeppelin’s record company (Universal also sued, claiming that the film was too close to “The Phantom of the Opera” which they still held rights to at the time).
The interview with "Costume Designer Rosanna Norton" (9:34) is a piece shot on a home video camera in 2004, as she discusses her designing of the Phantom’s costume and she tells a funny story about Beef’s antler belt (which was actually Graham’s idea) and how the Venice Beach drag queens she witnessed at the time inspired some of the glam fashions. “In The Studio with Drummer Gary Mallaber” (17:05) has the musician talking about working in Williams’ band and getting the part of the house percussionist in PHANTOM, and details the recording of the tracks for the film in the studio. “John Alvin: Neon Tribute” (11:36) is an interview with Andrea Alvin, widow of prolific movie poster designer John Alvin. She explains how Fox chose Alvin to do the poster art for PHANTOM after designing one for BLAZING SADDLES, and describes his style and how he would create his poster concepts. “Phantom of the Paradise Biography” (9:32) has Gerrit Graham reading the “biography” (or “fluff piece” as he describes it) he wrote for the film's original press kit. “William Finley and Toy” (00:33) is a quick bit from some years ago with Finley showing off the Phantom action figure. Rounding out the supplements on the DVD portion are a series of radio spots (most of them narrated by Wolfman Jack), TV spots from both the original release and 1975 re-release), two theatrical trailers and a shorter still gallery made up mostly of different images than what could be found on the Blu-ray’s gallery. The new cover art is spectacular, and you can reverse the inlay sheet and find the colorful one-sheet poster art for the 1975 re-release. (George R. Reis)
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