Lots of people rally over the 1975 cult movie musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Personally, I’ve always preferred a film that came a year earlier – Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. It’s a music-centered horror fantasy that flopped upon its initial release (unless you lived in Paris, France or Winnipeg, Canada). Thankfully, over the years its popularity has grown.
It has never been the easiest film to get a hold of and the last time it was released was in 2001 (on a DVD that contained little in the way of extras). Finally, Shout! Factory has released a new Blu-ray on its Scream Factory subdivision. The disc is incredible and features more extras than even the most fanatic of supporters could have hoped for.
Here’s a plot summary for those unfamiliar with the movie. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a songwriter desperate to have his music heard. He thinks that he’s found his big break after being approached by record label magnate Swan (Paul Williams, who also composed the music). However, Swan is only interested in the music and not the man who created it. The label owner steals the tunes and re-purposes them to suit his in-house artists. Of the many musicians, the most notable is Beef, an over-the-top flamboyant rock star memorably essayed by Gerrit Graham.
While attempting to sort out the trouble, Winslow meets a sweet aspiring singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Furious and determined to rid the world of Swan’s bastardizations of his music, Winslow becomes a monster-like figure known as the Phantom of the Paradise. But it isn’t long before the vices of the industry entwines everyone in its web.
It’s an excellent movie that was ahead of its time and satirically skewers not only the music business as a whole, but the fans who clamor for more. By the time it’s over, showmanship begins to mesh with reality all for the sake of entertainment – the film’s villain even plots an on-camera assassination of an artist to boost record sales. It’s hard to watch and not think about how many things about the industry that it predicted forty years ago. The movie is well cast with both likable and memorable characters, who all desire fame and public success to some degree and ultimately pay a high price for it.
It is also a striking, visual treat highlighting a wildly exaggerated color palette. As expected, director De Palma’s camera moves are also incredible, some memorably shot sequences. One standout is an event staged and filmed with two cameras in splitscreen while other notable moments feature unique angles or are filmed in rooms filled with giants mirrors – it’s amazing that the camera itself never appears to be visible in any of these scenes at any point.
The Blu-ray features a stunning transfer that maintains its gritty 70’s appearance while adding a layer of sharpness previously unseen. It features two commentary tracks. The first is a new one that cuts together comments throughout from actors Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, as well as Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (aka The Juicy Fruits/The Beach Bums/The Undead). The second is an informative track with production designer Jack Fisk (which is not listed on the box as a special feature).
There are other interviews and it’s all interesting stuff, with De Palma’s of particular note. He recounts the production process and the legal horrors of having to re-cut sequences after troubles over the use of the name Swan Song as the antagonist’s record label. Reportedly, the identically-named Led Zeppelin music label was created and copyrighted while the film was shooting – the band’s manager would not permit the name to be used for personal reasons. The director also explains his disappointment over the movie’s box office failure. Many involved in the production suggest that its critical satire of both music professionals and fans played a role in the film not catching on with its target audience.
There’s a second DVD added that includes lengthy documentary produced for the French release that includes features with the late William Finley, as well as interviews with Harper, Graham and many others. Also on in the disc in a 90 minute interview between Paul Williams and famed director Guillermo Del Toro, alternate takes from the movie and the original version and edits made to the Swan Song footage. Finally, viewers can check out all of the original trailer, TV and radio spots for the film.
In summation, this is a case of a fascinating and expertly made film finally getting the special edition treatment it deserves. This writer is certainly biased in favor of the title and has no difficultly recommending the Phantom of the Paradise Blu-ray to the film’s enthusiasts. But anyone with a taste for horror, satire, fantasy, comedy or music-related entertainment can enjoy it as well – you would all be well advised to pick up this release.