blu ray review: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

*throws hat into the ring*

Well, now that Shout! / Scream Factory has released their spanking blu-ray for Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), I’m contributing yet another review to the many already out there for this new edition of the film. Having written an essay on Phantom for the award-winning book, Hidden Horror, I feel particularly compelled. So, onward!

phantom2Paul Williams: Sex God, apparently

Blending elements of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a dash of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” for good measure, Brian de Palma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise is a rock-and-roll horrorshow that has maintained a steady cult following over the last 40 years. The story centers on one Winslow Leach (William Finley), an idealistic songwriter with a cantata based on the story of Faust, the man who sells his soul to the Devil for untold pleasure and power.

Winslow performs part of this cantata during a break at a concert for pop-nostalgia band the Juicy Fruits (Archie Hahn, Harold Oblong, and Jeffrey Comanor) and is overheard by record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and his sidearm Philbin (George Memmoli), who offers the young musician the chance to have Swan make him a star. When Winslow realizes that the mysterious entrepreneur has stolen his music, he breaks into Swan’s mansion, meeting and assisting young ingenue Phoenix (Jessica Harper), only to be thrown out for trespassing and (planted) drug possession.

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After a stint in Sing Sing (get it?) where his teeth are forcibly removed and replaced with metal dentures, Winslow overhears on the radio that his cantata has become a huge hit for the Juicy Fruits and Swan. He breaks out of prison and heads straight to the record-pressing plant where copies of “Faust” wait to be shipped, but an unfortunate accident maims him and he’s presumed dead. Soon, Swan’s hot new theater / nightclub The Paradise is haunted by a phantom figure who will kill to have Phoenix sing his songs.

First off, the Shout! / Scream Factory blu of Phantom looks and sounds fabulous. Colors are crisp and bright and the audio is clear. This is a marked improvement over the DVD edition from 20th Century Fox (the one with the weirdly generic red cover featuring an extreme close-up of the Phantom), which seems a bit muddy in retrospect. Everything on this new edition seems to pop, and thankfully, it doesn’t bear that weird unreal sheen of many restored blu editions. There’s still some grain here.

phantom-of-the-paradise-gerrit-graham-beefBeef: Death At Last

The special features are hit / miss, for what I’ve seen of them. The making-of feature is from the ultimate 2006 French release, as evidenced by some of the titling and a whole segment where Gerrit Graham discusses his audition for the role of Beef in French.  There are separate, more recent interviews with director de Palma, who under-enthusiastically mumbles his way through the backstory and legal woes that beset the film’s release, and songwriter Williams, who apparently has perfect recall of every song he’s written and often breaks into song during his interview.

The actor audio commentary leaves a lot to be desired, as it quickly becomes apparent that the Juicy Fruits are watching the film “live” during the recording, while Graham and Harper are not. It’s also grossly apparent that these audio tracks were mixed separately — Harper’s track is overly loud, while the Juicy Fruits’ is often too quiet. In a most egregious mistake, at about 70 minutes into the film, Graham’s and Harper’s tracks overlap, rendering the audio completely unintelligible for about a minute. There are often silences throughout the actor commentary as well; many other films will bring up the film’s soundtrack to level in between actor’s comments and that does not happen here, leaving some awkward moments of silence. There’s also a moment near the end where Harper can be heard talking to an interviewer “off mic,” which is confusing and odd. This part of the package frankly seems rough, and word is that it will be corrected in future pressings. This leaves me to wonder why it wasn’t done right the first time, as it gives the impression of a rushed final product. It’s a bit embarrassing.

Phantom4

Overall, however, this new edition of Phantom of the Paradise is worth picking up, especially for die-hard fans of the film. Skip the actor commentary, make sure to check out all the other special features instead, particularly the making-of, as it features some wonderful comments from Bill Finley. As with other Shout! Factory releases, the case includes a reversible cover, giving you an option to display your choice of original or alternative art. And if you want more of my thoughts on Phantom of the Paradise and a hundred other lesser-known horror films, grab a copy of Hidden Horror…y’know, for the hell of it.

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