The Movie Waffler BluRay Review - <i>Phantom of the Paradise</i> (1974) | The Movie Waffler

BluRay Review - Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Arrow Films' reissue of De Palma's offbeat musical.

Directed by: Brian De Palma
Starring: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli

The Movie:

Brian De Palma has always been a director easy to pigeonhole, an uber-stylist with a Hitchcock fetish, festooned with a bag of cinematic tricks that sometimes glossed over the emptiness beneath the surface. Always at his best when dealing with the suspense genre or flirting with horror, De Palma also likes to flex stretch his boundaries from time to time, whether it is the experimental work of his early career, such as Greetings and Hi, Mom! or his ill advised forays into comedy, Wise Guys and the truly execrable The Bonfire of the Vanities. Phantom of the Paradise falls between two stools. As an exercise in cinematic hutzpah it can’t be beat. Split screen images and sinuous camerawork, garish set design and an incessant need to keep on entertaining; this is cask strength De Palma, a little too strong on the palette for some. The visual tropes would be carried over into his breakthrough movie Carrie, and the disco palette and garish decor would find its way into his grubby, nihilistic empty shell re-imagining of Scarface. It is this instantly recognizable visual sheen, married to his earlier counter cultural hippie films, that makes Phantom so appealing. Oh, and it’s also a musical.
As the title suggests, this is a reinvention of The Phantom of the Opera, but in glam clobber rather than the ersatz emotional histrionics of the Webber musical behemoth. De Palma, also scripting, throws a bit of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray into the mix as well. In this version, Winslow (Finley) is the phantom, a nebbish schlub with a skill for composition and a face for radio, who is duped out of a record contract by music impresario Swan (Williams) (who appears to be channeling Phil Spector in a way that would become scarily prescient), who wants the music but needs a more presentable face. Winslow becomes fixated on Phoenix (played by Suspiria’s Jessica Harper) and becomes convinced that only she should be able to sing his music. Once Winslow is injured in a record pressing plant, and the grand unveiling of Winslow's stolen work is to be unveiled, does the full nature of Swan’s Mephistophelean bargain become clear.
If Swan comes across as a slightly nicer version of Simon Cowell, and the business shenanigans seem so sadly contemporary, it is only because the entertainment industry has always been managed by tyrants, megalomaniacs and charlatans. This set up has been playing as old as time; the costumes may be vintage but this is a protean tale that will always be told.
De Palma is having a ball here, much funnier than his more up front comedies, and shows his gift with actors as well as his ability to marshal all this craziness into some sort of recognizable structure. The songs are surprisingly good as well, with Williams on double duty as actor and song writer, creating very serviceable prog rock numbers and Frankie Avalon pastiches. Finley, as Winslow, does good work retaining your sympathy but making him also awkward and strangely unlikable, Paul Williams has been in this milieu his whole life so fits into the lizard like Swan like a glove. Harper is in more relaxed mode than in her work in Argento’s masterpiece and gets to dance in a way that would not gain her entry to a ballet school, even one run by witches. The stand out performance though is Gerrit Graham as Beef, a Jim Morrison troubadour through the lens of Andy Warhol with the voice of Marc Almond. It may be a small part but he gives it his all in a way that suggests he should not have ended up being Bud in Chud 2: Bud the Chud.
As someone with an irrational dislike of The Rocky Horror Picture Show I approached this with caution, but as a devotee of De Palma I wanted to like it. The maestro did not let me down. Camp as Christmas it may be, but also amazing fun, packing a hell of a lot into its 90 minutes. Rod Serling narrates it as well, which instantly makes it better than Tim Curry titting around in a basque.

Woo daddy. Arrow have really gone to town on this release. With a great transfer and DTS 4:0 audio, you also get a comprehensive selection of extras, the highlight of which is a 72 minute conversation between director and Mexican Totoro lookalike Guillermo Del Toro. A 50 minute making of with all the key players. A look at the changes made to the film in post production. Old interviews with the costume designer and William Finley. Bloopers, extended scenes and art galleries. Trailers, radio spots and, phew, a booklet featuring writing by Ari Kahan and Michael Blyth round off the package. Comprehensive is the word.

Jason Abbey