Judge Clark Douglas will not have The Juicy Fruits defile his songs!
Our review of Phantom Of The Paradise, published October 4th, 2001, is also available.
He sold his soul for rock n' roll!
"It's all here. Read it carefully, and then sign at the bottom in blood. Messy, I know, but it's the only way that can bind. Tradition. What do you have to lose?"
Facts of the Case
Winslow (William Finley, Sisters) is a talented, sensitive musician who has just finished writing what he believes to be the greatest work of his career: a rock cantata based on the story of Faust. The work attracts the attention of a devious record producer named Swan (Paul Williams, The Muppet Movie), who woos Winslow with promises of fame and fortune. Alas, as soon as Swan gets his hands on the music, he claims it as his own and shoves Winslow out of the picture. When Winslow attempts to protest, Swan unleashes a diabolical plan that destroys the composer's life and physical appearance.
Badly disfigured and hungry for revenge, Winslow returns as a mysterious phantom and begins haunting the halls of Swan's lavish new theater, The Paradise. Sensing yet another moneymaking opportunity, Swan offers to collaborate with Winslow and help him bring his cantata to life. Ah, but the villainous producer still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Meanwhile, Winslow begins developing feelings for Phoenix (Jessica Harper, Suspiria), a lovely singer with an even lovelier voice.
When Phantom of the Paradise was released in theatres in 1974, it was dismissed by both audiences and critics. "Phantom of the Paradise is an elaborate disaster," wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times, "full of the kind of facetious humor you might find on bumper stickers and cocktail coasters." However, there were two cities which responded with enthusiasm: Winnepeg and Paris. Why those two cities? Who knows? Eventually, the rest of the world began catching up with them: the film now has a devoted cult following and is frequently mentioned as one of Brian De Palma's strongest early works.
The movie is a Frankenstein's monster-esque amalgam of a number of classic stories: Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Despite its then-modern satirization of the glam rock world, there's a classical element to the tale's construction which allows it to feel fresh. It's every bit as riveting as Andrew Lloyd Webber's take on The Phantom of the Opera, with the added bonus of being both funnier and cooler. This isn't a movie for everyone—it might be the least subtle film of De Palma's career, which is really saying something—but if you can get on its wild wavelength, you'll have a fantastic time.
At least 50 percent of the film's success is owed to Paul Williams, who dominates the movie in one way or another at every turn. First, he wrote the film's dynamic soundtrack, which covers a wide array of genres while still managing to sound like a unified whole. Williams was handed a couple of tricky tasks: first, he had to write music which sounded genuinely beautiful and heartfelt. Then, he had to rearrange those songs in a manner which made it feel as if the songs were being stripped of their dignity, while simultaneously delivering tunes that were entertaining on their own terms. Somehow, the guy pulled it off. You wouldn't expect Paul Williams to be able to churn out pounding, Alice Cooper-esque anthems, but he does it with aplomb. Still, as usual, he really shines when delivering the intimate ballads: "Old Souls" is a killer number, partially because it serves as this film's cinematic eye of the storm.
Ah, but Williams isn't done contributing. In addition to writing the music (and providing the singing voice of The Phantom), he delivers the film's most riveting performance. His Swan is such an effectively slippery villain; his innocent, cherub-like face masking a serious nasty streak. Despite the fact that Swan's plans are undone time and time again throughout the film, he always seems more amused or intrigued than upset. Williams always seems as if he's in control—even when he clearly isn't. Granted, this can also be attributed to the anguished performance of William Finley, who always seems out of control—even when he isn't.
De Palma's direction is fast, furious and funny. As usual, references to his cinematic idols abound. One musical sequence explicitly recalls The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A split-screen suspense scene lovingly borrows the opening scene from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Best of all is a scene which begins as a blatant Psycho homage and then takes a hilarious left turn. De Palma's work hits its peak during the final fifteen minutes or so, when he delivers one of those spectacularly operatic setpieces that he can deliver like nobody else. In a number of ways, it feels like a precursor to the stunning conclusion of Blow Out (still his masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned).
Phantom of the Paradise (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer from the good folks at Scream Factory (a subdivision of Shout! Factory) which faithfully captures the film's flashy imagery. The movie definitely looks like a product of the '70s, but detail is strong throughout and a somewhat heavy layer of natural grain is left intact. Colors have a lot of pop and depth is strong. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is stellar, too, really delivering during the musical numbers and providing a surprisingly immersive experience. Dialogue is crisp and clean, though the Rod Serling narration which opens the film sounds a little tinny.
The set really delivers in the supplemental department. On disc one alone, you've got two commentary tracks (one with actress Jessica Harper, cinematographer Gerrit Graham and the actors/musicians who played The Juicy Fruits, one with production designer Jack Fisk) terrific new interviews with Brian De Palma (33 minutes), Paul Williams (35 minutes) and sfx supervisor Tom Burman (4 minutes), some alternate takes, a nifty featurette ("Swan Song") and a still gallery. That would be plenty, but there's a bonus DVD (I don't know why it isn't a bonus Blu-ray) with a lot of extra stuff: a 50-minute making-of documentary ("Paradise Regained"), a long chat between Guillermo Del Toro and Paul Williams (72 minutes), interviews with costume designer Rosanna Norton (9 minutes), producer Edward R. Pressman (19 minutes), drummer Gary Malaber (17 minutes) and Gerrit Graham (9 minutes), a featurette on the film's poster design (11 minutes), a 30-second clip of William Finley with a Phantom action figure, trailers, TV spots, radio spots and another still gallery. Honestly, it's one of the most impressive supplemental packages I've seen this year for a single film. This is exactly the sort of package cult classics deserve.
Forty years after its initial release, Phantom of the Paradise is still a blast. The Blu-ray release is nothing short of terrific. Highly recommended.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
Review content copyright © 2014 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.