Phantom Of The Paradise (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running time: 92 minutes approx.
An enigmatic but reclusive music mogul named Swan (Paul Williams) is planning to open his own music theatre called Paradise with the prospective headline act being his mega hit protégés The Juicy Fruits. A nerdy looking singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finlay) fails to impress Swan with his singing but his music does. Like any canny businessman Swan simply steals Winslow’s music from him, a cantata based on the story of Faust. When Winslow tries to extract his revenge he ends up disfigured in an horrific accident and unable to speak, forced to hide behind a mask. Swan signs him to a contract to re-write Faust for a female singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper), but Winslow soon discovers that Swan is once again not being entirely honourable, instead hiring an arrogant glam rocker named Beef (Gerrit Graham) to front the Faust show.
No this isn’t a shameless rip-off of Phantom Of the Opera but a multi-referential homage to many great films and stories rolled into one camp, kitsch but hugely enjoyable cult classic, getting a long overdue Blu-ray release. While Brian De Palma has since gone on to become one of the most lauded American directors to come from the new wave of 70’s filmmakers, this earlier work from 1974 sees him pay tribute to his influences while creating something quiet unique in the process. De Palma’s career might have kick-started in earnest with seminal horror Carrie two years later but this is arguably the film where the elements all came together for the first time.
Aesthetically the film is very much a product of its time with the gaudy 70’s fashions and comparatively cheap looking practical effects but the story contains a scarily prescient satire on the music business. The “here today gone tomorrow” shelf life of the acts; the practice of having good looking performers sing someone else’s music; the heavy handed tactics by which Swan keeps Winslow at bay – framing him for possession of drugs and having him locked away at a correction facility where his teeth are removed and replaced by metal ones. After Winslow’s disfigurement when his head accidentally get caught in a record press, Swan gives him a vocal box to help him speak and, for recording his “singing”, Swan applies a number of electronic audio processors to the sound to make it pitch perfect – effectively inventing the prototype concept for today’s auto tune software.
De Palma also foresees the retro take on early rock and roll music that would appear, largely in the UK, by the end of the decade via bands like Darts and Showaddywaddy. As much as he himself is borrowing from the past De Palma is unknowingly sewing the seeds for the future!
The story borrows from many sources – the aforementioned Phantom (although his inspiration was the 1943 Claude Rains film), Goethe’s Faust and Oscar Wilde’s Picture Of Dorian Gray – while film buffs will get a kick out of the numerous visual references from classic movies, including Psycho, Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, Touch Of Evil and James Whale’s Frankenstein. It sounds like a recipe for disaster with so many varied styles and ideas being thrown together but De Palma proves a successful alchemist with his seamless blending of these random elements.
Due to its age the plot will seem corny but it is still nonetheless effective and engaging. You have Winslow the talented geek who falls for the beautiful song bird driven by her lust for the spotlight and the Machiavellian impresario who can make it happen – for a price of course. Hiding behind a mask and cape Winslow stalks all who dare sing his songs aside from Phoenix; the confrontation between Beef and The Phantom is a very funny take on the famous Psycho shower scene, while the deaths during the musical numbers surely influence Spinal Tap! Phoenix however is quick to become consumed by fame, unaware that Swan has a killer idea involving her for his next TV publicity stunt.
Even being a story driven affair the film revels in its musical and visual spectacles, incorporating glam rock with gothic horror with the aforementioned tributes to De Palma’s influences. The character of Swan’s henchman Philbin (George Memmoli) was named after Mary Philbin from Lon Chaney’s 1925 version of Phantom, while Winslow Leach was a tribute to De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach. There was also a spot of bother with Led Zeppelin’s notorious manager Peter Grant who threatened to sue over the use of the name “Swan Song” for Swan’s record label – the label set up for Zeppelin – forcing De Palma to change it to Death Records.
Upon release the film wasn’t a success except in Canada but has steadily gained cult status over the years, meaning the cast didn’t get to make their mark on the film world despite their best efforts here. The fragrant Jessica Harper, in her debut (beating out Linda Rondstadt for the role) will be most well know for starring in Suspira but has since gone on to become a successful food and children’s author. Unlike co-stars the late William Finlay and Gerrit Graham, Harper sung her own songs; Finlay was dubbed by Paul Williams in a wonderful touch of irony while Graham mimed to the voice of jobbing musician and songwriter Ray Kennedy. The music was written by the diminutive Paul Williams, a successful songwriter, who pulls off a chillingly cold essaying of the evil Swan. One other trivia note: a set dresser on this film was a girl named Sissy Spacek!
Modern audiences will look upon Phantom Of The Paradise as a curiosity, particularly if they revere Brian De Palma but it deserves greater recognition. This superb Blu-ray release, with a stunning transfer and a wealth of extras, should help keep the cult of this gloriously outlandish but under appreciated gem alive. It’s definitely recommended as a companion piece to the Rocky Horror Picture Show if you ever fancy a double bill!
New 1080p Blu-ray presentation in original 1.85:1 Widescreen aspect ratio
Uncompressed Stereo PCM
4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Options
Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack
English SDH Subtitles
Paradise Regained Documentary – Making Of
Guillermo del Toro Interviews Paul Williams
The Swan Song Fiasco
Archive interview with Costumer Designer Rosanna Norton
William Finley on The Phantom Doll
Paradise Lost And Found – Alternate Takes and Bloopers
40 Page Booklet
Rating – *****
Man In Black