I first saw Phantom of the Paradise when I was 8 or 9 years old, and while I'm certain a lot of it went over my head at the time, I also recognized that something cool and unusual was going on. I credit those early years of watching Godzilla movies and films like Phantom and The Last Wave with shaping my cinematic tastes; were it not for those movies, I'd most likely be reviewing romantic comedies and Lifetime Channel original movies.
Phantom of the Paradise updates the Phantom of the Opera story to the Seventies' glitter rock scene. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a backup pianist for a band called the Juicy Fruits. Winslow has been working on a rock cantata of Faust, which catches the ear of record company impresario Swan (songwriter Paul Williams) who is looking for a special sound to open his new rock concert hall, The Paradise. Swan hoodwinks Winslow into giving Swan his score, steals the music and the credit, and has cops plant heroin on Winslow.
Winslow gets sent to Sing Sing, and when he finds out that the Juicy Fruits have released Faust as their own, gets enraged enough to bust out of the big house and vandalize Swan's record studio. In the process he gets his face mangled and burned in a record press (from back when they made vinyl records…anyone else remember vinyl?). So injured that even his voice is destroyed, Winslow dons a black leather outfit, cape, and the Coolest Mask Ever, to become the Phantom of the Paradise. His two goals are to destroy Swan, and to make sure the beautiful songstress Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her debut) sings his cantata.
Phantom of the Paradise was probably destined to be both a commercial flop and a beloved cult film. For every one thing it does wrong it does two things right, in its own unique way. De Palma's direction is highly stylized, using distorted lenses and angles, speeded-up sequences, and split-screen. The result is that while clearly set during the early 1970s, the film does not feel badly dated; it seems to exist in its own little bizarro world. The only aspect that doesn't hold up is the glam/goth band The Undead - they were probably shocking in 1974 but are positively tame in our post-GWAR world.
Music - those who create it, those who perform it, and those who profit from it - is the key driver behind Phantom. Winslow and Phoenix share a love for the cantata, not a traditional romantic love. Phoenix offers her voice to Swan for the chance to sing. Swan robs Winslow not just of his music but his ability to sing. Paul Williams was, in his day, one of the top songwriters. His Phantom songs are pop but they are intelligent and catchy, and they not only tell the Faust story but comment on the events in Phantom themselves.
The acting is strong all-around. Finley is more appealing in Phantom gear than he is as the nerdy composer, but no matter how destructive and homicidal he becomes, he never loses the audience's sympathy. Paul Williams makes for a surprisingly creepy villain with his beady eyes and peculiar way of speaking without using the sides of his mouth; he's like an evil doll. Harper has the same porcelain doll beauty and strength she would later show in Suspiria; small wonder that Winslow not only wants to have Phoenix sing his cantata, but to keep her from being corrupted. Gerrit Graham is also amusing as a gay glam-rock idol named Beef.
Phantom is entertaining and often intelligent, particularly in its depiction of the rock scene and "giving the people what they want." It's far from perfect, though. Winslow and Phoenix's relationship isn't made strong enough to support the story that follows from it. The ending of the movie is chaotic and badly rushed, almost giving the impression that a reel has gone missing. And there must be some kind of record set for continuity problems, particularly in the costumes (Watch Swan's suit change from tan to black and back again! Watch the Phantom's cape change from silver to red lining!).
Scream Factory adds Phantom of the Paradise to its slate of Collector’s Edition Blu-rays and presents it in a bright, bold, and super crisp 1.85:1 1080p transfer, as well as an excellent 5.1 DTS HD audio track that compliments the visual upgrade quite nicely. We’re also given a 2.0 DTS HD mix that sounds weak in comparison, but is more than serviceable, especially for those who prefer the vintage vibes.
Scream Factory really lays on the bonuses here; so much so they’ve had to spread them out over two discs! The Blu-ray features two commentary tracks – one lively, funny track with Harper, Graham, and members of The Juicy Fruits, and the other being a more staid and technical track with production designer, Jack Fisk.
We’re also given two lengthy interview segments, one with director Brian De Palma, and the other with star and chief composer, Paul Williams, as well as a fairly large collection of outtakes and alternate footage, and a stills gallery. All of the Blu-ray features are, of course, presented in HD!
The second disc of goodies comes in the guise of a DVD which is nearly as loaded, and many more interviews (including a near-feature length interview with Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro), a lengthy retrospective documentary entitled Paradise Regained, which features interviews with much of the cast and crew, as well as healthy amounts of behind-the-scenes goodies, and so much more!
While European fans have been able to enjoy this cult favorite on Blu-ray for quite some time, we in North America have finally got a feature-packed edition to call our own, and Scream Factory’s presentation is, as always, superb. Highly recommended!