Phantom of the Paradise (Scream Factory, PG)

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dvd phantomThe overall experience of the film is so wonderfully weird and unique that you really just have to see it for yourself.

 

 

 

I don’t even know how to begin talking about 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise. How can I describe this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it? The plot is fairly straightforward (a modern retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, with elements of Faust and other classic stories thrown in), but the overall experience of the film is so wonderfully weird and unique that you really just have to see it for yourself. And you should, because it’s an absolute blast.

There are plenty of interesting ideas at play in Phantom of the Paradise. It has a lot to say about the general sleaziness of the entertainment industry, as well as commentary on the extreme content people are willing to sell to the masses. A defining line from the villain claims that an assassination on live television is true entertainment. Not only are these ideas still applicable 40 years after the film’s release, but they also work as a meta commentary on the film’s director, Brian De Palma, who has been accused of misogyny and exploiting violence throughout his career.

But the intellectual pleasures to be had in Phantom of the Paradise are merely the icing on the cake. This film works first and foremost on a visceral level. It came at an odd point in De Palma’s career, when he was still young and reckless enough to throw every conceivable cinematic technique into the movie, but after he’d made enough movies to know exactly what he was doing. This film features one of his signature split-screen sequences (a technique that I find annoying and distracting in most other directors’ work) in which a musical rehearsal plays out concurrently with a riff on the opening shot of Touch of Evil. It’s a goofy joke of a sequence, and yet the sheer skill with which it’s executed manages to generate some genuine suspense. The whole film is like that, balancing a weird mixture of tones with incredible craftsmanship, all at a breakneck pace, which feels like a wild ride even by today’s standards.

dvd phantom_300With De Palma bringing his A game, it’s surprising that he isn’t even the MVP of this film. That distinction goes to Paul Williams, who plays the villainous Swan. Swan is one of the strangest villains I’ve ever seen in a movie; he looks like a tiny Toby Jones in an adorable little girl wig. His nonthreatening appearance and soft voice make it really impressive that he is able to sell the dark power the character has over everyone around him. His appearance is contrasted even more by that of William Finley, who looks like a creepy weirdo, yet plays the naïve, bright-eyed hero who is betrayed and turned into the Phantom. De Palma intentionally casts against type (after Williams turned down the role of the Phantom), and it pays off.

Oh yeah, Paul Williams also wrote all the music. Every song. There are a lot of songs, and every single one of them is great. Across the board, it’s a flawless soundtrack, and varied, too. Williams plays with several different styles, from classic ’50s-style pop music, to then-contemporary rock, to power ballads, to some folksy, country kind of thing. As with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the soundtrack is what elevates Phantom of the Paradise from an enjoyable oddity to a genuine cult classic, deserving of the elaborate release it’s receiving.

For the film’s Region 1 blu-ray debut, Scream Factory has gone all out, with a two-disc special edition crammed with extras. The two best features were previously available on a Region 2 release, but it’s fair to say that most people don’t have that version, and they are certainly worth including. The first is a 50-minute documentary called “Paradise Redeemed. It’s an excellent retrospective with interviews of all the major players, covering the project from its inception all the way through production, its underwhelming release, and its eventual popularity as a cult film. Even better is a 72-minute interview with Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro. In addition to being a very charming presence, Del Toro is clearly a passionate fan of the film and of Williams’ other work. Their two personalities play off each other well, and this interview feels much more conversational than any of the other interviews on the disc. They also get into other aspects of Williams’ life, including his battles with drug addiction.

There are quite a few other standalone interviews included, most of which are new. There’s an interview with De Palma, another one with Williams, and more with the makeup artist, the costume designer, the producer, the drummer in the band that features throughout the film, and even the widow of the artist who painted the original poster. A lot of these interviews touch on things that are in the documentary, but by focusing on these individuals and giving them each their own platform, you get a more detailed and personal take on the making of the film. Basically, whatever aspect of the production interests you, this release has you covered.

dvd phantom_250Those key players who don’t get their own interviews are featured on the two new audio commentaries for the film. One is by legendary production designer Jack Fisk. Obviously, not everyone will be interested in production design, but those who are are in for an entertaining and interesting track. Fisk is very lively, and it’s fun to hear him reminisce about how good he felt when De Palma complimented his work, or how he brought his then-girlfriend Sissy Spacek to be his set dresser; two years later, she would be starring in De Palma’s Carrie.

The other commentary is cut together from interviews with The Juicy Fruits’ (the band that features throughout the film) Jessica Harper, who between this and Suspiria will always have a piece of my heart, and Gerrit Graham, who plays a flamboyant stereotype who would never make it into a movie now. I’m generally not a big fan of compilation commentary tracks, but this one is well edited, with long segments that you can actually get into without the whiplash-inducing jumping back and forth they usually do. This track isn’t particularly informative; it’s more about the personal ways in which the people remember the film. The Juicy Fruits have a great rapport; it’s fun to listen to them bust each other’s balls and reminisce about their unsuccessful attempts to seduce some backup dancers. Harper recalls what it was like to go from acting on the stage to being in her first film, and not knowing how anything worked. Graham discusses his initial reluctance, and eventual extreme commitment to a role that would be offensive if it wasn’t so enjoyably weird. There is a brief editing mistake on this track where the audio from two of the separate interviews play over each other, resulting in about 30 seconds of incomprehensible gibberish, but other than that, this is a fun commentary.

And that’s not even all. There’s about 30 minutes of alternate/extended cuts of scenes, most of which are presented in classic De Palma fashion, side by side with the final edit. There’s also a featurette about the changes the filmmakers had to make after being sued by Led Zeppelin, of all things, and a lot of marketing material. People who say that trailers nowadays give away too much should check out the one for this film, where they show the Phantom’s disfigured face from the final moments of the film.

There are some really hardcore fans of this film, and this is the ultimate edition they have been waiting for. But special features aside, you get a great high-definition transfer of a truly special film. It’s unlike anything else you’re likely to see, and it represents two artists, De Palma and Williams, at the top of their game. | Sean Lass

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