He's been maimed and framed, beaten, robbed and mutilated. But they still can't keep him from the woman he loves.
After watching Brian De Palma's latest turkeys, Snake Eyes and Mission To Mars, I had become convinced that De Palma had lost his mind in recent years. Now that I've seen Phantom of the Paradise it's rather obvious that De Palma has been insane for quite some time.
Facts of the Case
Winslow Leach (a miscast William Finley—The Fury) is a brilliant musician who has composed a great seemingly lip-synced "pop cantata" on the subject of Faust, which draws the interest of Swan (the mumbling, slug-like Paul Williams—The Muppet Movie), a rock impresario readying for the grand opening of his new club, The Paradise. Swan, being the greedy, corporate music magnate that he is, steals Leach's music and sets off to produce a rock version of Faust at his new club without Leach's help. When Leach tries to get his music back, he meets hopeful singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper—Stardust Memories) and for reasons of moving the plot along quickly falls deeply in love with her and promises to help her get her career off the ground. Leach is then ejected from Swan's abode and thrown into prison, where his teeth are removed. Leach soon escapes and in yet another revenge attempt accidentally has his head pressed in a vinyl LP compressor. (You see, back before the days of CDs and DVDs, music had to be purchased on "records" made of…oh, forget it.)
Now ticked off at the world and horribly disfigured, Leach does what any normal man in his position would do—he dons a ridiculous-looking mask and a cape and fights crime in the streets of Gotham…ahem…he dons a ridiculous-looking mask and a cape and sneaks into The Paradise in order to gain revenge on Swan. Accenting his new look with Goth-style make-up, Leach begins his spree of terror by causing the band practicing at The Paradise to explode, which seems to be of no consequence since they turn up later in the film as another band.
Swan quickly figures out what's going on and strikes a bargain with the Phantom, who will finally allow his cantata to be performed by Phoenix. "My words are only for Phoenix," he gruffly warns, now using a mechanical voice synthesizer to talk. Naturally, Swan screws him over yet again by supplanting Phoenix for heavy metal rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham). Once Beef is dead, Swan again promises that only Phoenix will sing the cantata, and repays Leach by sealing him in his quarters with bricks in the same fashion that Yosemite Sam might have done to Bugs Bunny. (Hey, if a slimy music magnate screws you over twice, surely he wouldn't do it a third time, right?)
The film degenerates quickly from there (not that it already hadn't at this point) as Phoenix falls for the vapid, gastropodic Swan and we start getting into the realms of deals with the devil and such. The beginning of the movie didn't make a whole lot of sense and I can assure you the ending didn't either.
Brian De Palma is quite easily the most overrated director in Hollywood, yet somehow he's allowed to continue to make movies. Sure, some of them like Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables were blockbusters, but the former was a garbled mess that sold tickets on its name and star power. The sea of refuse that is De Palma's oeuvre is an enormous, sludge-filled toxic waste of films like The Fury, Raising Cain and the vastly overrated Scarface. Since he continues to get work, he must clearly have one fan out there (Bernie Meckleson of 1023 Stone Street, Quincy, Massachusetts, I'm talking to you) who enjoys this stuff. For fans of Mr. De Palma, you will be relieved to know that he uses his split screen technique in at least one scene, which causes the audio to be one unintelligible mass of verbiage and blaring soundtrack. Words can not express how much I was annoyed by this.
Since De Palma wasn't in the mood to rip off Hitchcock for this movie, he decided to try his hand at Phantom Of The Opera by using ideas from some of the top rock bands of the era, with Kiss being at the top of the list. This is evident in the opening musical number of Faust when the band killed in a previous scene performs while wearing black and white face paint and black-haired wigs while also tearing apart fake blood-spewing mannequins in the front row of the crowd. This probably would have been a shocking number for this faux Kiss, unless of course you had attended an actual Kiss concert.
I would really like someone to let me in on the secret of the appeal of this film. The blurb on the box calls it "The most highly acclaimed horror phantasy of our time." I can assure you it wasn't scary at all, unless you count the thought of watching it again (the horror!), and I really don't know what "phantasy" is, but I'm betting it wasn't present here. The film then attempts to be some sort of comedic satire and fails miserably at this as well. The musical numbers appear to be lip-synced and vastly unoriginal. The concept is a retelling of a classic horror tale, only without the nostalgia you need for this to work. There are absolutely no likeable characters, with Paul Williams' Swan exuding all the charm of an asphyxiated guinea pig. I can not for the life of me determine why this guy was ever a star, but I feel the need to point out that he wrote the musical numbers for this film.
On top of all this, the Phantom puts on what has got to be the dumbest looking mask that he could find. Seriously. After becoming the phantom he appears to be some sort of metallic bird/owl-thing person. I still can't put my finger on it, and this disturbs me to the point of heavy drinking.
Everything that Phantom of the Paradise tries to be—shocking, outrageous and over-the-top—was done far better the following year by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is also overrated but that's another rant.
Fox has given Phantom of the Paradise a commendable anamorphic transfer. I suppose if movies like Slugs can have anamorphic transfers, then why not Phantom of the Paradise? The colors are vibrant and the blacks are solid, though the transfer is limited by the age of the source material as evidenced by some graininess and artifacts. Some of the Faust numbers contain a great deal of red and black colors and very little edge enhancement is noticeable. Considering when the film was made, there is little to complain about here. With all of the musical numbers in Phantom of the Paradise, I have to wonder why the soundtrack wasn't remixed into 5.1 stereo. As it stands, the sound seems simply flat and bland. As far as the extras go? You get a trailer for Phantom of the Paradise which is as equally poor as the film, and some trailers for some other recent Fox DVD releases. Considering how laborious this was to watch I'm happy there was no director's commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What else is there to say about Phantom of the Paradise except that it moves along at a quick pace and is over fairly quickly, clocking in at just over 90 minutes. De Palma packs a tremendous amount of plot into the film, and that will be the only nice thing I can say.
I would also like to take Fox to task for once again inundating us with their "Are you ready for Fox DVD?" ad campaign at top volume at the DVD start-up. Why is this on every one of their DVDs? Why do they ask if we're ready for DVD? If we weren't ready for DVD what makes them think we'd see their advertising? Why do they need to make the sound levels so much higher than any other material on the DVD to the point of causing my neighbors to pound on their ceilings and walls with blunt instruments? Why do they torture me so? If anyone at Fox is listening, please make these things go away.
If you are one of the cult who follow Phantom of the Paradise, then by all means have at it, as I doubt a better version will be released. If you're not in this aforementioned demographic, then I've taken the metaphorical bullet for you and you can thank me by not watching this DVD.
Guilty! So much guilt this movie has I can not tell you!
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