Review : Phantom of the Paradise
The Phantom of the Opera is a story I'm all too familiar with and one that will forever remain in my memory. My first exposure to the story was in the mid 1990's when it was the hot Broadway ticket and touring companies came to the major markets in Canada. Although I never saw the play as performed on stage my 4th grade class at the time was looking for a musical to do and decided to do our own version of the story. Sure some elements had to be toned down and the length dramatically reduced but the resulting product I felt was quite good. Then again my thoughts on the matter would be biased as I was involved in every aspect of the production. I wrote the adaptation, coordinated the technical and special effects and was the director. It truly was my baby. From it's original inception to completion I spent the better half of the year working on the project. I immersed myself in all things Phantom reading the Broadway stage play and seeing the various versions that existed on film. Including the Lon Chaney silent film and the Australian TV version with Maximillan Schell. By the day of curtain I considered myself a Phantom expert at least to the degree that a kid of 13 or 14 could be. Has Hollywood done the definitive version of this story yet I'm not sure. There has been a long rumored film that could star Antonio Banderas but that doesn't seem likely to come to pass. This isn't bad news though as one of the things that works for the story is that it can be set in different locations or times with little difficulty. This is the case with the 1974 Brian De Palma film "Phantom of the Paradise".
Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a backup piano player for the band The Juicy Fruits who dreams of his own solo stardom. After a rehearsal Winslow stays at the piano and starts playing his own music. Unbeknownst to him the head of Death Records a reclusive superstar by the name of Swan (Paul Williams) is listening and sends his trusted assistant and lackey Philbin (George Memmoli) down to talk to him and try and acquire rights to the music. Philbin sweet talks the music out of him promising that Swan will look it over and be in touch. Winslow is so excited to have his work even considered by Swan that he doesn't even think twice of what might happen. After a couple months pass without hearing back Winslow goes to the offices of Death Records to try and find out what's going on. When the receptionist looks up his name and sees that's he's not allowed to be there security is called and he is removed from the premises. Thinking the events at the record company was a mistake he follows Swan's limousine home where an 'audition' for female singers is being held. It's here where we first meet Phoenix (Jessica Harper) a young singer who wants only wants to become a star. However she get's more then she bargained for as the audition isn't really for singers but girls to entertain themselves while Swan watches. Winslow hears the girls singing his words and get's upset and tries to see Swan. After he is removed from premises he is beat up and left for dead. Meanwhile Swan's plans continue as he plans to open the Paradise a spectacular club to feature his acts. However when a tragic accident occurs on the set causing the death of two his stars Swan get's concerned. You see Winslow wasn't killed in the accident only disfigured. Winslow now known as The Phantom makes a deal with Swan to rewrite the pop cantata based on Faust he was working on previous. Winslow's only condition is that Phoenix is the one to sing the piece. So Winslow signs a contract that he's not sure of and goes to work on the piece. Swan however has other ideas on what to do with the work and when Winslow get's wind he starts wreaking havoc on the theater and all involved. Will Swan's theater remain standing or will Winslow get his vengeance find out in the fiery conclusion of "Phantom of the Paradise"
This movie is an over the top send up of the glam rock era of the 1970s when it was produced. In a time when David Bowie was dressing up in drag this film would have fit in quite well though sadly it doesn't hold up as well today. Based loosely on "The Phantom of the Opera" and containing elements of Faust director Brian De Palma creates a interesting and somewhat twisted love triangle between a hideously disfigured man, the controlling producer and an innocent girl. It's safe to say that the film was an eye opening experience for me as I had never seen anything quite like it before. A mixture of horror, romance and over the top stage theatrics are directed in De Palma's unique visual style. De Palma who had just directed the offbeat horror tale Sisters and would go on to Carrie soon after showed even in this early film that he was a talent that would go far in Hollywood. In recent years he hasn't had as much success but his efforts have been becoming more and more mainstream. De Palma would be wise to stick to roots and direct more offbeat or unique pictures.
As always the music is a key element in the success of any musical. Since this film is not a musical in the same sense as "Grease" or "A Chorus Line" some adjustments to my usual expectations had to be made. The entire musical score has been written by Paul Williams (Swan) in the picture and ranges from the very contemporary rock opera type music of the time to hillbilly beach rock and songs with a more classical sound. I found parts of the score enjoyable but on a whole the music in the movie just wasn't all that impressive to me. The opening and closing numbers were quite good though.
For a rock spectacle the cast in the movie was rather focused on a small group of core characters. William Finley who appeared in De Palma's previous film was quite good in his dual role as it was easy to believe his naivety. Paul Williams who pulled double duty acting and writing the music for the film looks and acts like a controlling record producer type letting off just the right persona to make me not trust him in a deal. Newcomer Jessica Harper showed that she really could sing and act in this picture. In a time where musicals were being made this was a very good thing to be able to do. Sadly Jessica's career never really got off the ground as she's currently doing one shot guest appearances on television shows like "7th Heaven" and "Ally McBeal".
"Phantom of the Paradise" is a cult classic and as such has many fans of around the world. For this reviewer the film was just a bit out there for his liking. The take on the material is original, the cast is good, the music had it's up and downs but at the end of it all It just turned out to be a little too over the top. Still the movie isn't without it's finer points and I'll give this one a conditional recommendation. If you like your musicals a little on the wild size or if your a fan of the glam rock period in music then you'll like "Phantom of the Paradise".
Movie Rating : 6/10
Once again Fox goes above and beyond the call of duty for a DVD release. "Phantom of the Paradise" is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer that appears to be from a new print. It should be noted that previous home versions of this film were pan and scan only with one key scene letterboxed. The image is surprisingly smooth and clear considering the age and original source materials. Colors are strong and aside from the occasional shift early on stay that way for the length of the film. Aside from a few soft focus scenes the image has excellent depth. There is an unusually low amount of grain and the only real problems that pop up are some slight edge enhancement and numerous specks of dust on the print. While the transfer is not without it's faults this remaster should please fans who have long wanted a widescreen version of the film. This is really a nice effort for a title that in the hands of another studio might not have been handled as well. Another great job from the team over at Fox proving that no title is too small to do right.
Video Rating : 8/10
20th Century Fox presents "Phantom of the Paradise" in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Mix. As a musical there is no doubt that the soundtrack could have benefited from a 5.1 or even a Prologic mix. This mix sounds rather dated as stereo separation is only used for the musical numbers and even then it isn't used very effectively. There is a definitive lack of dynamic range with the lows sounding flat and the highs sounding weak as well. Dialogue is inconsistent throughout the movie as some sounds perfectly clear and natural while some has a edgy high pitched shriek to it. Also a few lines of dialogue were marred by some sort of distortion or hiss on the soundtrack. In general the music numbers sounded good although there will be no disguising the vintage of the recording techniques used in the production. It's a bit disappointing that more work couldn't have been done in restoring the audio portion of the film to better match with the newly restored print. The mix presented here is adequate for a stereo soundtrack from the 70s but I think even more could have been done to enhance the audio section of the disc. Also included is a French dub in Mono.
Audio Rating : 6/10
With a cult title like "Phantom of the Paradise" the marketing people at Fox had to consider the number of copies the disc was going to sell when considering the special features section of the disc. Although the film is similar in theme to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" which would come the following year it doesn't receive the same treatment on DVD. Despite its cult status Fox didn't see fit to bestow many extras on this disc.
Kicking off and concluding the extra features section of this disc is an odd trailer for the main feature which doesn't contain a narrative or even titles and ends rather suddenly. Also included are Fox Flix trailers for "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", "Bedazzled", The Legend of Hell House", "Big Trouble in Little China" and the aforementioned "Rocky Horror Picture Show".
Extras Rating : 4/10
Final Thoughts:"Phantom of the Paradise" won't go down as one of my favorite movies that I discovered while reviewing DVDs but I can see what other people see in it. Fans of the film will be happy with this DVD release as Fox gives it a very nice widescreen transfer with respectable audio quality. Those of you unfamiliar with the film would do best to rent the disc before committing to a purchase.. Despite it's lack of extras it's well worth it at the affordable suggested retail price of $19.99 that I'm sure will be even lower in most major stores.
Disc Rating : 7/10
Reviewed by Mark McLeod September 24, 2001