I’ve been a Brian De Palma advocate ever since I first laid eyes on the iconic Scarface and soon after Carrie. Whether you like his stuff or not, De Palma’s majestic approach to filmmaking is cinema at its absolute purest. After the trend-setting techniques established by the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock (which he’s frequently been accused of being nothing more than a carbon copy of), this polarizing artist has continued on that fine tradition and in my opinion, took that cinematic language into new majestic heights. The horror/musical Phantom of the Paradise which he also wrote is a clear standout among his filmography. Sure, it contains his signature visual style and bag of tricks (split screen and POV shots aplenty) yet by operating in the musical realm, De Palma is liberated to take his operatic tendencies to new places. It’s a match made in heaven.
This Faustian/Phantom of the Opera-inspired tale is about a struggling composer (the late William Finley) who haunts a newly-open concert hall after its owner, an enigmatic record producer (Paul Williams) double-crosses him by stealing the artist’s music and the girl that he loves. As with most musicals, everything is played in broad strokes on just about every level. Phantom of the Paradise plays it big yet by doing that it somehow connects the viewer to its main character’s plight and the potent themes being explored more so. The filmmaker is greatly assisted by his terrific cast who play their parts with conviction. One of De Palma’s favourite collaborators, Finley injects the role of the protagonist Winslow Leach with a theatricality yet somehow without ever becoming an off-putting caricature. You feel for him every step of the way. On the other end of the spectrum, you got Williams (who also composed the terrific soundtrack) who is an inspired choice as the music mogul Swan. He’s got this strange, mesmerizing charisma that fits this larger than life character like a glove. Williams is playfully subtle at every turn. Caught in the middle of the two main characters’ struggle is the lovely and always captivating Jessica Harper (of Suspiria and the underrated Shock Treatment fame) in her feature debut role as Phoenix, an aspiring singer. Her vocals is exquisite to boot. Rounding out the cast is a wildly entertaining Gerrit Graham as Beef as the garish epitome of a glam rock star.
De Palma gets consistently discredited for his reliance on style over substance. His work can consistently be enjoyed for its superior craftsmanship however in much of his finer work you can see a genuine personal connection to the material. A chunk of his films like Blow Out, Snake Eyes, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, The Fury are about his protagonist’s valiant yet seemingly futile, obstacle-ridden crusade to unravel an ominous, corrupt system. Phantom of the Paradise is no different and might very well be the best, most poignant example of this. While De Palma is clearly taking aim at the music and film industry, it’s easy to connect this satire with corporate greed in general. All of these elements are sadly still every bit as vital today which makes Phantom of the Paradise as effective today. Strip all that subtext away and you still have one feverishly fun horror/tragicomedy. De Palma is clearly having blast. He packs this wild romp with unfettered imagination, not to mention some clever nods to his influences (Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fans will no doubt be amused) for good measure. Phantom of the Paradise is still far and away my favorite musical of all time and having it work on a horror level as well makes it all the more endearing to me.
The video is very different than the one found on the French Blu-ray release. This latest transfer shows more information in the frame, presents much warmer colours and what may cause some debate; a darker appearance. The contrast is strong and at times can swallow up some of the background detail. It never gets to the point of distraction in my opinion but I can see many being bothered by this. As for the sharpness, the video is every bit as good as the French release. The print is also in great shape, the cleanest it’s ever been. Now I haven’t seen the film during its theatrical presentation so I can’t say if this is what De Palma had intended or. Overall though, I find this transfer to be the most visually striking to date. With the deeper contrast and gorgeous colourization, De Palma’s stylish aesthetic stands out like never before.
While the video might rattle some feathers, the audio definitely won’t. Arrow presents the original 4-Track Stereo Mix in all its lossless glory. Williams’ memorable soundtrack has never sounded so good. Also, the bass channel packs more punch than I could have ever imagined. There is also a very fine 2.0 Stereo PCM track but it never quite matches the more engaging DTS-HD 4.0 Master Audio.
All of the special features (minus the Gerrit intro) from the French disc have been carried over. That includes an interview with Costume Designer Rosanna Norton (10 mins), a 35-second promo for the Phantom doll by Finlay and the stand-out 50-minute doc “Paradise Regained” which covers everything you ever wanted to know about the creation of the film. It includes interviews with De Palma, Producer Edward R. Pressman, the late Finley, Williams, Harper and Graham to name a few.
As for new supplements, Arrow gives us the very fascinating “The Swan Song Fiasco” (11 mins), a detailed account of the difficult changes the filmmakers had to make during post-production due to lawsuit threats. Hands down, the crème de la crème of this set has to be the exclusive 72-minute interview with Williams by the one and only Guillermo Del Toro! It’s an engaging and informative conversation from start to finish that’s worth the purchase alone. There is a neat selection of alternate takes and bloopers from the cutting room floor in the “Paradise Lost and Found” section (14 mins). To round out the disc, you also get a great selection of stills, radio spots and trailers.
As with all Arrow releases, you get a reversible sleeve with original artwork and a striking new one by The Red Dress. There is also a collector’s booklet packed with original stills and promotional material, as well as two top notch, new pieces by Michael Blyth and Ari Kahan. The latter is a detailed account of the film’s troubled marketing phase.
40 years later, Phantom of the Paradise still works its magic. There are so many levels in which to enjoy and take out of the experience which is why it’s endured all this time. It might very well be De Palma’s densest work. I’m happy to report that Arrow Video has given us the finest home video release of this horror/musical classic to date (anxious to see what Shout Factory brings to the table with their upcoming disc). We get an attractive brand new transfer and a boatload of quality special features that commemorates Phantom of the Paradise’s anniversary in a manner that it so rightfully deserves.
Note: This is a Region 2-locked disc. You will need a Region-Free Blu-ray Player in order to see this.
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