Blu-ray essentials: Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise Blu 3DBrian De Palma‘s films are hard to not love, even when they don’t quite work.

The brilliant storytelling of Scarface, the visual inventiveness of Carrie and the precise construction of Mission Impossible are all easy to appreciate but it’s often those slightly wonky, flawed works such as Dressed to Kill, Body Double or Snake Eyes that hold the special place in many film fan’s hearts.

They may be flawed but they’re still pretty great. Plus, everyone loves an underdog.

Perhaps the greatest and most loved of De Palma’s off-kilter, not-quite-a-masterpiece films is his 1974 rock opera retelling of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Phantom of the Paradise is one hell of a fun film and despite its cult status, it is a little surprising that it’s not more of hit at novelty screenings or as inspiration for fancy dress costumes. Perhaps the obstacle is just how unconventional some of the filmmaking choices are, and the degree to which the film’s underlying message is incredibly bleak and cutting.

The central protagonist, the Phantom, begins life as Winslow Leach, both parts played with a deranged brilliance by William Finley. Winslow is a talented songwriter but perhaps a little naive in his dealings with the music industry. In contrast to this is Swan, played by Paul Williams, a ruthless industry tycoon who steals Winslow’s music, frames him for drug dealing and even when Winslow returns as the Phantom, his face horribly burnt in a record press, continues to exploit him.

De Palma’s deconstruction of the music industry is still extraordinarily on point today. Manufactured pop stars are now even more common and talent shows rule the pop charts, making this film from four decades ago seem like a work of prophetic genius.

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De Palma, who wrote Phantom of the Paradise in addition to directing it, mixes in some Goethe and Wilde with his Leroux too, which helps his story that feels as timeless as it does prescient.

And the more fantastical the story gets, the more De Palma plays with extremes of style. A late scene involving split screens feels very much like a dry run for similar sequences in Carrie. There’s a freewheeling abandon here that one doesn’t get from Carrie, though, and it’s in this excess and experimentation that one will find the flaws as well as the more entertaining and enjoyable elements.

De Palma and cinematographer Larry Pizer‘s camerawork is expressive but occasionally far too distracting. It will often draw the viewer in and under at one moment only to spoil everything with a wild flourish of flamboyance the next.

But the somewhat unhinged nature of Phantom of the Paradise does make it incredibly engaging as a cinematic oddity, and watching it for the first time really is an eye opener.

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The new Blu-ray from Arrow Video feels, at least for those like me who grew up with the film on VHS, just like watching the movie for the first time. The leap from VHS, or even the DVD, is a great one. The colours are incredibly deep and vibrant, and the shadows and dark corners of the sets look absolutely inky black. There’s grain retention too, though but it’s very much just a fine layer throughout and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in attempting to match the original grading of the film, a little of the grain was lost.

But it’s a startling transfer, and one that’s complimented by very clean audio tracks. The disc comes with both a LPCM 2.0 track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 track. The 4.0 was as much of a revelation as the new transfer and it was a delight to hear the wonderful soundtrack from Paul Williams fill my room. There’s a variety of elements in the sound mix of the film that are opened up significantly by this mix.

The extras on this new Arrow disc are also something very special indeed. We get the French doc Paradise Regained, ported from the French Blu-ray from Opening Distribution. This goes into a lot of detail about the making of the film and even features comments from De Palma.

There’s also a feature entitled Paradise Lost and Found which collects a variety of extended scenes, alternate takes and bloopers, and then there are also two trailers, a collection of radio spots and a gallery of archival photos.

A video essay piece entitled The Swan Song Fiasco goes into detail about a series of changes that needed to be made in post production. The filmmakers found that they had to change the name of the featured record label following a dispute with Led Zeppelin.

Two short interview segments – also ported from the French disc – with William Finley and costume designer Rosanna Norton don’t offer a great deal of detail but the latter in particular is an interesting inclusion nonetheless.

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Then there’s the real gem of the disc, a newly recorded interview with Paul Williams by none other than his super-fan Guillermo del Toro. This piece runs to over an hour and it’s an absolute joy to watch throughout. Williams is candid, and del Toro clearly relishes the chance to geek out with him about Phantom of the Paradise and a number of other topics. This is the kind of feature that makes you so glad that supplements are still so highly valued by some distributors.

The whole package comes wrapped in a very aesthetically pleasing sleeve – I’m also rather fond of the steelbook, a format I don’t often find myself being drawn too – and comes with a booklet with a number of original stills and writing by Michael Blyth and Ari Kahan, the curator of the invaluable Phantom of the Paradise resource

A fantastically interesting and entertaining film, a solid transfer, great extras and excellent packaging. An Blu-ray essential for sure.

Arrow Video’s Phantom of the Paradise is available to buy now and is locked to Region B. If you are locked to Region A and not willing to go multi-region you might want to consider the Scream Factory disc, which will be released soon.

The following screengrabs are taken from the Arrow Video disc but are not necessarily captured at native resolution. Click through to see them full size.