Videophiled Classic: Brian DePalma’s ‘Phantom of the Paradise’

Phantom of the Paradise: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – Brian De Palma’s wild rock and roll remake of Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and The Count of Monte Cristo plays like a decadent glam inversion of Jesus Christ Superstar. Paul Williams (who also wrote the dynamic, Oscar-nominated score and songs) stars as Swan, the evil record tycoon (in the opening scene he parodies Marlon Brando from The Godfather) who steals a rock and roll cantata from a sad sack singer / songwriter (William Finley), who transforms into vengeance-filled, hideously scarred monster in love with ingénue Jessica Harper. This outrageous, over-the-top fantasy, done up in real De Palma style (his love of split screen technique finds a new outlet in the video monitors of Swan’s voyeuristic headquarters), is a spirited satire with wild rock and roll numbers and his most sensitive love story.

Shout Factory’s transfer is from a new HD master and released under their Scream Factory imprint, and they do something novel with the Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition. There are so many supplements in this edition, most of them created for this edition by Shout and all of them new to American home video, that they are split between the two discs.

So you get the two exclusive commentary tracks – one with stars Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (aka the Juicy Fruits), the other with production designer Jack Fisk – on the Blu-ray along with generous new interviews with director Brian DePalma and star / composer Paul Williams and a short piece with make-up artist Tom Burman (focusing on the distinctive mask), plus 26 minutes of alternate takes (presented in split screen to compare to the footage used in the film) and seven minutes of outtakes (showing changes made to cover a post-production change in the name of the record company).

The DVD features the balance of the supplements. The 50-minute documentary “Paradise Regained,” which features interviews with De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, and stars Williams, Harper, Graham, and the last William Finley, and the 72-minute interview with Paul Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro were both featured on the British Blu-ray released by Arrow earlier this year and licensed for this disc, along with an archival interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton and a little 30-second clip with William Finley and the Phantom action figure. Also new to this release are interviews with producer Edward R. Pressman and drummer Gary Mallaber, a guide through the poster design by the artist’s widow, and Gerrit Graham reading a bio he wrote for the film’s press kit.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Body Double’

Brian De Palma makes movies about the movie experience. He takes great pleasure in playing with the artificiality of movies, with audience expectations and the way we identify with characters, with the idea of playing parts and giving performances. Body Double, like many of his films, even begins with a movie within the movie, in this case a cheesy vampire flick by way of an eighties rock video. The film open in saturated giallo color and hokey old clichés like the graveyard with headstones and crosses and howling wolves on the soundtrack. As the camera cranes down through the earth and into a vampire’s coffin, the permed bloodsucker awake in the casket freezes: the actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is claustrophobic. The take is halted and Jake is sent home but as far as De Palma is concerned we’re still in a movie; every shot of Jake is against some artificial backdrop or set piece being moved across the studio lot. It’s Scully in De Palma-land, and that’s just the beginning.

Jake is a born patsy, the meek, trusting nice guy with performance anxiety and a potentially fatal weakness in crippling claustrophobia. Returning home early, flowers in hand for his girlfriend, he hears the sounds of heavy breathing and moaning as he strolls through his house but his expression is merely quizzical, a dazed smile and a cocked head, as if he was pondering what the neighbors could possibly be up to as he approaches the bedroom. Apparently his girl (Stuart Gordon favorite Barbara Crampton in a brief but revealing appearance) found someone less reserved. Betrayed and rejected, he flees, and counts himself lucky when he runs into a guy in acting class with a sublet that is too good to be true. This space age bachelor pad, which resembles a mini-Space Needle or a flying saucer on stilts, is a real-life Los Angeles landmark called the Chemosphere and it has a direct view into the open window of an exhibitionist beauty who performs a strip tease every night to her unseen audience. A telescope is helpfully positioned for optimal viewing.

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Blu-ray: “Scarface” – Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy

Scarface: Limited Edition (Universal)

Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” ostensibly a remake of the Howard Hawks gangster classic, moves the iconic rise and fall crime opera from the tommy-gun gangster wars of the prohibition era to the cocaine wars of Florida in the eighties. In the process, De Palma, screenwriter Oliver Stone and star Al Pacino carved out a film that redefined a generation of gangster cinema.

Pacino’s Tony Montana, a Cuban criminal fresh from Castro’s prisons looking for his piece of the pie in Miami, is a predator from the moment he hits the shore and Pacino is pure drive for success: get the money, get the power, and then you get the girl, is his mantra, and he pulls along his loyal immigrant comrade Manny (Steven Bauer) for the ride to the top.

Oliver Stone’s screenplay keeps the general shape of the original story — Tony’s friendship with Manny, his fierce over protectiveness of his kid sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who isn’t a virginal as he imagines and his obsession with the boss’s ice-queen mistress (Michelle Pfeiffer), the trophy for the winner — while rethinking it in terms of the Miami cocaine boom of the early eighties. It’s a whole new spin on the immigrant story and the American Dream as an underworld nightmare and a fitting bookend to the two “Godfather” films. The façade of family loyalty, underworld authority and the mob code is trampled in the feral battle to get to the top of the cocaine mountain as Tony robs and murders his way to riches and power, and then numbs himself into a fantasy of invulnerability with his own product.

Continue reading at Videodrone for the rest of the review, plus details on the insanely deluxe edition ($1000 retail) and footage from the August 23 cast reunion.

Blow Out: De Palma, Down to Earth in Conspiracyland

Blow Out (Criterion)

Is it too sweeping to call Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta’s best performance ever? So be it. Who knew that De Palma—a director still more often than not dismissed as a technician with a Hitchcock obsession, a facility for bravura camerawork and a penchant for split screens—would be the director to best showcase Travolta’s talents? Or that Travolta would help bring out the best in De Palma? Fresh off the success of his psycho-sexual dream cinema of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out takes us out of the sleek, stylish, rarified worlds of the affluent and drops us into the working class and street culture of urban Philadelphia, where the flag-waving bash surrounding the Liberty Bell Bicentennial comes off like a small town civic celebration blown up by a big city budget.

John Travolta as soundman Jack Terry with the tool of his trade

Blow Out arrived in 1981 as the end of the seventies run of political conspiracy thrillers like an aftershock. Critics were quick to jump on the connections to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s not like the title or the premise made it hard to come to that conclusion) and the echoes of Chappaquiddick, Watergate and various political assassinations of recent history. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was brought up far less frequently, though it’s easily as important a wellspring for De Palma’s transformative work, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, perhaps not so much an inspiration as a fellow traveler in the underside of conspiracy cinema, not at all.

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