Director Brian De Palma’s lifelong obsessions (sexual betrayal and manipulation, JFK’s assassination, Alfred Hitchcock) coupled with his unique visual aesthetic, are in full bloom with Phantom of the Paradise, and Shout! Factory has released a 2-Disc Blu-ray set befitting the movie’s ambitious scope.
Originally co-penned by De Palma and Louisa Rose, Phantom of the Paradise had been stirring in De Palma’s brain since 1969. After moniker changes due to lawsuits (it was originally titled Phantom of the Fillmore and then just plain Phantom) and a creative disagreement with Rose, De Palma rewrote Rose’s sections of the script, worked out a suitable name for the film, and forged ahead.
The result is De Palma at his baroque best, as the filmmaker blends horror and musical genres to create an eviscerating look at the uneasy (and in De Palma’s case, destructive) marriage between art and commerce.
Late actor William Finley, whose extensive collaboration with De Palma includes Sisters, The Fury, and The Black Dahlia, is Winslow Leach, a composer whose lyrical work doesn’t mesh with the pop music/rock vagaries of the day. Winslow’s dreams of seeing his songs take center stage takes a tragic spin when an evil record tycoon named Swan (Paul Williams who penned Phantom’s songs and score) bastardizes Winslow’s vision and transforms the tunes into a garish display spearheaded by a pop group known as the Juicy Fruits (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, Harold Oblong).
After taking a beating from Swan’s goons and getting his face disfigured from an accident, Winslow dons a phantom mask to haunt Swan and his performers (a split screen sequence, which has Phantom planting a bomb inside a stage crew designed vehicle, is one of the film’s most visually arresting moments).
Jessica Harper is Phoenix, a silk voiced ingenue who serves as Winslow’s muse. Even though Swan is his mortal enemy, Winslow’s lust and admiration for Phoenix (he tells her that he wouldn’t let his “personal desires” influence his “aesthetic judgment”) wins out, and he enters a Faustian bargain with Swan that leads to heartbreaking results.
If Shout! Factory simply released the high-definition transfer of Phantom of the Paradise, I’d still be in hog heaven. Thankfully, they have littered this edition with tons of special features. Here’s just a few of the treasures that await Phantom of the Paradise fans and future initiates:
- Paradise Regained – This is a 50 plus minute look at the making of Phantom of the Paradise and is the first feature I’d take a peek at. Each chapter is broken down to interviews with Brian De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham and other members of the cast.
- Brian De Palma Interview (36 minutes) – A must see interview with the director, as he explains the importance of visualizing a movie and why he’s not a huge fan of directors who simply shoot coverage. “I have a very definite way of shooting things and when I write a scene or have an idea for a movie,” says De Palma in the feature. “I have a very direct, important place for the camera to be or a way to structure a series of images and I think about it quite a lot.”
- Paul Williams Interview (30 minutes) – Although Phantom of the Paradise is De Palma’s brainchild, a huge portion of the movie’s soul comes from Paul Williams’ music and “devilish” (spoiler alert!) performance as Swan. During the interview, he cites the Phantom song “Old Souls” (sung by Jessica Harper) as one of his two favorite compositions which, considering his prolific work, says a ton.
- Guillermo Del Toro & Paul Williams Conversation – Clocking in at 72 minutes, Del Toro is a huge Phantom of the Paradise fan, and he’s collaborating with Williams on a stage version of Pan’s Labyrinth. Thus, the pair have a mutual shorthand, and the talk is an informative look on Williams’ creative process as well as Del Toro’s passion for Phantom (at one point, he considered naming his daughter Phoenix). It’s also great to hear the pair randomly geek out over actor Montgomery Clift (“Before he says a word, before he makes a move, you feel (Clift’s) pain,” says Williams).
- Other special features include audio commentary from the cast and crew (which includes Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, Jeffrey Comanor, and Harold Oblong), 40 minutes worth of alternate takes, TV & Radio spots, a still gallery, theatrical trailer, and interviews with production designer Jack Fisk drummer Garry Mallaber, producer Edward R. Pressman, and quick clip of William Finley promoting a rare Phantom of the Paradise doll.
Phantom of the Paradise is a perfect example of Brian De Palma’s successful collaborations with musicians and songwriters. Williams, as witnessed from his work with The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, and even Diamond Rio (“You’re Gone”), knows how to write and compose an evocative tune, and that melancholic tone serves as the perfect balance to De Palma’s audacious and stylized filmmaking.
De Palma’s own personal attachment to Winslow Leach is, upon closer view, a rather obvious one. Winslow Leach would rather craft elaborate cantatas than subject himself to penning pop jingles, and De Palma is happiest when left to his own creative devices.
Although he’s directed excellent studio driven projects such as Scarface, Mission Impossible, and The Untouchables, much of his creative bliss lies in writing and directing intensely personal and suspense filled narratives (Sisters, Raising Cain, Dressed to Kill, and the woefully overlooked Femme Fatale are pure, De Palma driven cinema)..
Back in 2002, I interviewed De Palma for Femme Fatale, and in the following clip, he talked about why music is a huge influence in his storytelling:
Phantom of the Paradise is now out on Blu-ray, and you can order it online via Shout! Factory through this link.