Summary : Even after forty years, Phantom of the Paradise is still fresh, frantic and funny.
Phantom of the Paradise is a bonkers mash up of Brian de Palma stylistic fireworks, rocking tunes and gloriously camp excess. Before de Palma got all serious with the likes of Carrie and Obsession, he made this wonderful curio that is dark, delirious and delightfully trashy.
Winslow Leech (William Finley) is a sad sack composer who has his music stolen by music producer Swan (Paul Williams) who intends to use it to open his new rock palace The Paradise. Within the first 25 minutes, songwriter Leech has been through it all. He has his music stolen, is rejected by the man who steals it, framed for drug dealing, sent to prison, escapes and is then horrifically and painfully disfigured by a record press.
Swan steals both the music and the girl from Leach. Becoming The Phantom, Leach plans revenge on Swan and his about to open rock palace. Selling his soul and signing a contract with Swan to complete his rock opera based on the life of Faust, Leech is again screwed over by Swan, who hires glam rock singer Beef as the lead singer. Leach/The Phantom would love to win the heart of Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and have her sing his songs but Swan keeps him locked away and continues to make his life miserable.
At the start, Phantom of the Paradise feels as though it is in fast forward; a whirlwind of sound of colour that barely pauses for breath. The cinematography and editing are kinetic with stylistic flourishes coming thick and fast. Forget Carrie, this has one of de Palma’s best uses of split screen as a bomb is planted and makes its way to a stage full of rehearsing performers. It’s filled with wild camerawork, over the top acting and an insistent classical score mixed with some killer songs on the soundtrack. From its crazy colourful credits, campy casting and over the top musical numbers, Phantom of the Paradise rarely pauses for breath and never curtails its camp.
William Finley is sensational as Finley and the Phantom, all manic energy and leaking rage. His costume may be ridiculous with black lipstick and a rejected Watchmen Owlman mask but he still invites plenty of sympathy. Paul Williams relishes the role of Swan; a little man with big power who can be smooth, surly and sinister. Whether flashing an impish grin or staring coldly at what he intends to steal, Williams satirises the kind of music he was known for writing at the time the film was produced. Best of all is Gerrit Graham who is gloriously OTT as the prima donna Beef; only in a handful of scenes, he steals the show and gets to give a truly electrifying performance with the aid of de Palma and editor Paul Hirsch’s technical wizardry.
The music industry comes in for a kicking with a proto-boyband being effectively re-branded in different guises to change with the times like Spinal Tap would do a decade later. Swan is the Satan of the music industry who steals from the men and women with the talent, hoarding the glory and eventually reaping the consequences of his evil actions. The tension between art and commerce, composer and producer is explored but never in a preachy manner and never with the foot removed from the throttle.
It’s an enthusiastic early directorial effort from the director who would later tone down the excess but rarely be better. It riffs on Faust, Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and in one silly send up, even Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s packed with nicked ideas and wonderfully inventive technical showmanship and builds to a frenetic climax of colour, light, bright red blood and murder. The story might be cobbled together from all sorts of clear influences but the style is original and way ahead of its time. Even after forty years, Phantom of the Paradise is still fresh, frantic and funny.
50 minute documentary Paradise Regained sees all the central players interviewed about their characters and is packed full of interesting production details as well as the reason the film was the subject of four law suits. It’s also a lot more fun than many of these talking heads docs can be.
Guillermo del Toro interviews Paul Williams with the pair sharing a wonderful rapport. del Toro is in awe of his friend Williams and draws out some fascinating revelations from his subject. It’s over an hour long and only very occasionally cuts to clips from the film. Mostly it is two outsiders who clearly share a strong bond talking about a movie they both have a lot of love for.
There is a ten minute piece on the Swan Song fiasco that details the consequences of a law suit that stopped de Palma from using the name Swan Song records in the final film. There is a comparison of scenes that show how and when any references to Swan song were removed between the production footage and the final edit.
Rounding out the package are a short interview with Rosanna Norton the costume designer, William Finley attempting to sell a Phantom action figure, bloopers, alternate takes, extended scenes, trailers, radio spots and a gallery of stills.
Phantom of the Paradise is released on Blu-ray on 24th February.