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Phantom Of The Paradise

review by Anthony D.


Rated R

Running Time: 92 minutes

Starring Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, William Finley

Written and Directed by Brian DePalma

Studio: Fox

Retail Price: $19.98

Features: Photo Gallery, Theatrical Trailers

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Stereo, French Mono, English Closed Captions, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

Released: September 4th, 2001

Every generation, it would seem, has its very own take on Gaston Leroux's penny-dreadful novel, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Mary Philbin unmasked Lon Chaney in the 1920's, Susanna Foster revealed Claude Rains in the 1940's, Herbert Lom was unmasked by Hammer Horror heroine ? In the 1960's; while on stage Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical truimph, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA won world-wide audiences over with its theatricality and romantic songs, granting a second career to Michael Crawford, and beginning the career of diva Sarah Brightman. Television audiences saw Charles Dance and Burt Lancaster enact an Arthur Kopit script, which later was musicalized by Maury ("Titanic") Yeston. Italian director Dario Argento created two vital versions, if not entirely faithful, of Leroux's tragic tale: "Opera" and "The Phantom of the Opera." With the exception of the Argento pieces, no one attempted to take this same material into the world of rock and roll, (even Argento's pieces are set in real operatic situations, but make firm use of a rock score) until Brian De Palma wrote and directed his personalized riff: 1974's "The Phantom of the Paradise."

Even though it is very early De Palma, evidence of his personal stamp is already on display: quirky humor in horrible situations, girls, girls, girls, split-camera photography and a misunderstood outsider. De Palma takes the very structure of Leroux's novel: gifted composer's music is stolen by a self-serving producer, composer meets a tragic accident which leaves him thought to be dead, composer becomes an "angel of music," tutoring a gifted young woman in the art of singing, composer lashes out violently at anyone who comes between him and the woman - - often creating chaos which kills. De Palma retains the element of the composer having written a piece based on the Faust legend (man sells his soul to the devil to achieve eternal life), but adds yet another surprising layer to it, in what is easily De Palma most restrained and accessible film.

Taking the elements of the story into the world of 1970's sex, drugs and rock and roll makes perfect sense in De Palma's film - even though, by today's standards, everything is very tame. Substituting for an opera house manager is recording world boy wonder, Swan ( a miscast, but believable Paul Williams - yes, the composer of "Evergreen") a pint-sized bundle of bullshit, who bullies his way through life, protected by a group of Hell's Angels-like body guards. Swann is tired of the retro-50's bubblegum music he's producing, so of course when he hears the lofty, piano rock of Winslow Leach (William Finlay), Swann finagles a deal which will make Leach's music his own. Leach's composition is a cantata based on the Faust legend, which he feels only he can sing - -until he hears lovely soprano Phoenix (the ever beautiful Jessica Harper) at an audition for Faust, and audition to which he, the composer, has been forbidden to attend.

Swan actually frames Leach into a prison term on a trumped up charge of heroin possession. Leach makes a dazzling escape from Sing Sing, infiltrates Swan's recording studio, where he tragically gets his face mangled in a record pressing machine. The newspapers report his tragic demise on the same page that they announce the opening of Swan's dream palace: The Paradise.

With the imminent opening of The Paradise, Leach begins his vengeful deeds. By donning a black cape, and silver-bird-like helmet, he hides his infirmity and himself backstage, creating chaos for those onstage. Swan, never the dummy, tricks this phantom into signing a contract with him - - a contract with clauses no lawyer has ever heard of - - to finish the writing of Faust for the opening of The Paradise, and for Phoenix. But the singer Swan really has in mind is Beef, an outrageously funny Gerrit Graham, a pre-Billy Idol pouter, with a queenly demeanor where a masculine one should be. Graham's scenes are played quite broadly, and provide a humor not seen in most of De Palma's work.

So the stage is set for the premiere of Faust. Leach sees to it that Beef only gets to sing one chorus of his big song before striking him with a neon lightning bolt, successfully electrocuting him. Swan's personal assistant, Philbin (named, no doubt in honor of the silent screen star), forces the frightened Phoenix to take the stage, where she unbelievably wows this hard-rock audience with a tender ballad. Not only is the audience won over, but Swan decides that Phoenix will become his bride on a live television broadcast. Well, that's what he promises Phoenix anyway; his real plan is to have her assassinated on live television, just as she utters the words, "Til death do us part." At the same time, Leach has discovered the loophole in the contract, a loophole which will mean certain death for at least two leading characters. As the broadcast goes on, Leach sets his own diabolical scheme into motion, saving the day by saving Phoenix's life. The resulting melee deals out comeuppance for all who deserve it, while at the same time, unlocking some surprising secrets.

Aside from some minor quibbles with the casting, I found "The Phantom of the Paradise" to be a highly enjoyable film. There seem to be two schools of acting going on here, one natural and one so far over the top that it nearly parades into self-parody. Williams is not an actor, but that fact the villain is a short blond man makes his performance varied; Harper is really wonderful; Graham never lets his Beef become a stereotype; but Finley never seems to know what to do at any given moment, with his hang-dog expression, and bad-hair, his Leach never reaches the operatic heights that such a character should.

Fox's presentation of "The Phantom of the Paradise" is one of their better efforts with a library title. Though a tad on the light side, everything about "Phantom" looks right - from the shimmery black leather of Leach's costume, to the feathery confections worn by Phoenix, up to and including the fleshtones, "Phantom" looks every bit the 1970's film that it is. Time, however, has been very kind to this "Phantom," as I rarely spotted an age-related artifact or signs of grain. Blacks could go a little deeper, but the Mandarin red within the corridors of Swan's Paradise never bleed, and contrast nicely with the slightly less red doors therein. And of course, this is an anamorphically enhanced presentation of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Remember when you watch this one that Academy Award winning actress Sissy Spacek was responsible for all of "Phantom of the Paradise's" set dressings - - all of which are nicely rendered on this DVD.

Nor are there any real problems with the audio presentation. Fox opted not to digress from the film's original stereo soundtrack, which suffices. As "Phantom of the Paradise" was a low-budget film, the soundtrack reflects the budgetary restraints; there are no bells and whistles here, just a simple, well-crafted audio track. Of course, the score is the sound's selling point, and here there is enough spaciousness to suggest the stage of the Paradise itself. Harper's solo number seems to be on the soft side, but perhaps that's because it follows so closely on Graham's "Life at Last" which probably should rock a lot louder than it does. The song score itself, composed primarily by star Paul Williams, is not your "Woodstock" or "Tommy" rock, but a rock-flavored pop style that would work wonders with Williams and Barbra Streisand in "A Star is Born." The score should have been written by Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, as the film's Beef is obviously supposed to be a Meat Loaf like figure, and the chords and arpeggios that Leach plays in his opening song are very Steinmanesque. A French mono soundtrack is also provided, along with Spanish subtitles in addition to the very literal Closed Captions for the hearing impaired.

Five similar films are featured under the "Fox Flix" heading in the disc's Extra Features section, and while four have them have attained true cult status, one questions the inclusion of 2000's "Bedazzled's" trailer along side of "The Legend of Hell House," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Big Trouble in Little China," but that's a minor nit-pick. "Rocky Horror's" trailer is soft, full-framed and scratched, looking nothing like the film's excellent DVD; also presented full-frame is "Phantom of the Paradise's" original Theatrical Trailer, filled with enough spoilers to be a Reader's Digest Condensed version of the film. One of my personal favorite ghost story's trailer is presented in an 1.85:1 aspect ratio, "The Legend of Hell House" quite possibly looks better than I remember it being with its choice scenes in the trailer. "Buffy," "Big Trouble in Little China" and "Bedazzled" all are presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratios.

This one is a real keeper folks. Of course, De Palma fans will snatch this up quickly, since it is his most sure-handed directing - although early critics didn't find anything nice to say about it* - this "Phantom" has wit, energy and a love for the film medium that De Palma's later films would only hint at. There is of course, a delicious Hitchcock hommage within, a funny poke at "Psycho's" shower scene; as well as other obvious film references including the silent era's "Phantom of the Opera" and "Cabinet of Dr. Calgari" along the way. Jessica Harper, in her debut film, is sure of voice, and lovely to look at. Not surprisingly, Jessica would go on to make a couple of other musical films: Herbert Ross's brilliant "Pennies from Heaven" and 20th Century Fox's illogical sequel to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," where she played Janet in "Shock Treatment." But it was her return to the horror genre that will forever make Harper an object of fan idolatry, her work in Dario Argento's "Suspiria" continues to win new fans with every passing year. Oh, for you Buckheads out there, like me: once again, Betty Buckley's voice appears uncredited in a Brian De Palma film.


*Rex Reed in The Daily News wrote: "Pay a visit to De Palma's new film...and you'll want to throw up. I can't think of anything within recent memory that I have hated more than this terrible rock and roll parody of "The Phantom of the Opera." Totally lacking in structure, style, coherence and talent, it is one of the most disgraceful abuses of money that has been trashed upon the screen since "Candy" [1968]. It should have been reviewed with a machine gun, since it seems to have been made with one."

(4/5 - NOT included in final score)




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