Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Stars: Paul Williams (Swan), William Finley (Winslow Leach), Jessica Harper (Phoenix), George Memmoli (Philbin), Gerrit Graham (Beef)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1974
Country: USA
Phantom of the Paradise DVD Cover

Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise is a true cinematic one of a kind, a gaudy, silly, but undeniably innovative merging of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera and the Faust legend into a giddy art-rock opera that satirizes the conflict between big business and artistic pretension. It's a good idea for a movie if not a very good movie--the screenplay is particularly labored, even if it contains some of the choicest cuts of dialogue in the entire De Palma canon. Nevertheless, it's hard not to admire its creativity and, most of all, its sheer hubris. It was a labor of love for De Palma, something he had been trying to get off the ground for half a decade. Despite its apparent pop-rock shallowness, Phantom was a personal reflection for its writer/director, as his own troubles with big studios (and perhaps his inner desire for vengeance) is mirrored in the movie's protagonist, an eager young composer who seeks revenge after his masterwork is stolen by a megalomaniacal record producer.

William Finley, who also appeared in De Palma's Sisters (1973), stars as Winslow Leach, a gifted, but unknown composer whose desire to maintain his artistic integrity leads a powerful and mysterious rock impresario named Swan (Paul Williams) to steal his recent work, a rock cantata based on the Faust legend, and frame him for a crime he didn't commit. Winslow escapes from jail and starts to wreck havoc on Swan's warehouse, but he accidentally gets caught in a record press where he is horribly disfigured and loses his voice.

Down, but not out, Winslow dons a leather suit, cape, and a hawk-like metallic mask and begins to haunt Swan's lavish new rock club, the Paradise, until Swan agrees to let Winslow dictate how his music is to be performed. Winslow wants only a woman named Phoenix (Jessica Harper), whom he loves, to sing his cantata, but Swan again double-crosses him by bringing in a vulgar, proto-heavy-metal band led by a garish frontman named Beef (Gerrit Graham) to perform the Faust rock opera instead, which only heightens Winslow's seething desire for vengeance.

Phantom of the Paradise is at best a deliriously funny parody of the rising-star story that also pokes great fun at musicals and horror movies. De Palma fills the screen with homages, from an elaborate set design for a rock concert meant to invoke The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), to a musical number that pays tribute to James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), to a long take of the Phantom planting a bomb in the trunk of a prop car that brings to mind the opening shot of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) if Welles had used split-screen.

The movie hasn't aged all that well, though it should be kept in mind that, even in 1974, it was meant to be outrageously tacky with its bizarre plot, outlandish costumes, and pretentious rock music. The movie's delirious invocation of the power of the rock opera (the late 1960s and early '70s being the era of The Who's Tommy and Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, among other rock operas and concept albums) plays even better as camp parody now than it did then, especially when you realize just how vacuous Paul Williams' songs are. Some of the humor has become decidedly worse with the years, especially Gerrit Graham's jokey portrayal of the ubermasculine Beef as a stereotyped effeminate homosexual in reverse gender drag (although the amusing shower scene that spoofs Hitchcock's Psycho only looks bad because so many others have done it since).

It's impossible to take the movie seriously, even though De Palma had deep-rooted feelings about the satirical barbs he was jabbing at the entertainment industry that had snubbed him so often. The same goes for star Paul Williams, who already had a successful career as a composer (he wrote many of the Carpenters' biggest hits), but felt he had been used by the music industry. Williams once said that, even if he cured cancer, he would still be remembered as the guy who wrote the theme song for The Love Boat. The fact that he ended up playing the evil producer is a more satisfying ironic twist (he originally wanted to play the Phantom), even if he doesn't play the heavy all that well.

If anything, Phantom of the Paradise is proof of De Palma's range and creative scope, even in the early phases of his career. Never one to be pigeon-holed as an artist, De Palma's innovative stylistic techniques and wicked sense of humor are on ample display in Phantom, even if audiences at the time (and some today) didn't quite appreciate it for what it was.

Phantom of the Paradise DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioDolby 2.0 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish (2.0), French (1.0)
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
SupplementsOriginal theatrical trailer
Distributor 20th Century Fox

The new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer of Phantom of the Paradise is very good overall, although at times it can be somewhat uneven, with image quality varying from scene to scene, sometimes shot to shot. There is no doubt that it is vastly better than Phantom has ever looked on the home video market, especially now that we get to see it in its proper aspect ratio. The transfer is generally sharp and well-detailed, although De Palma's proclivity for soft-focus sometimes makes the image look a little too hazy. The color seems to have worn well over the years, with most scenes being bright and well saturated while only a few seem to have faded. The print used for the transfer was very clean, as there are only minimal instances of speckling or age artifacts.

The soundtrack, presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo, sounds quite good for its age, even though the fidelity and range are understandably limited and separation across the channels occurs only during the musical sequences.

The only included supplement is an original theatrical trailer presented in full-frame. This must be only a fragment of the trailer, as it is really little more than a collection of scenes from movie that ends very abruptly with no credits or title card of any kind. Also included are trailers for a handful of other 20th Century Fox movies available on DVD.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

© 1998 - 2017 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.