Phantom of the Paradise (US - BD RA)
Gabe compares the Scream Factory's new disc to some older releases...
Because I just got back from a weeklong vacation and this review copy arrived slightly later than usual (Shout Factory discs almost always arrive with plenty of time to spare – they just had a snare this last month), I have decided to forego a lengthy critical exploration of Phantom of the Paradise this time. I assume that the majority of readers keen to check out this particular review have already made up their minds concerning the qualities of Brian De Palma’s most outrageous and flashy motion picture and are more curious about the qualities of Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release. I’ll complete this section with the assertion that Phantom of the Paradise gets better every time I see it. I’ve gone from moderately amused to being convinced that it isn’t only De Palma’s masterpiece, but one of the best films of the ‘70s and a sampling of the film mediums’s full scope of technical possibilities. If you’re one of those strange people that don’t enjoy it, I strongly suggest you give it another shot as soon as possible.
Phantom of the Paradise has one of the stronger cult followings in filmdom and, as such, has been regularly re-released on all available home video formats. DVD versions have been issued by Twentieth Century Fox throughout the world, but the studio never seemed interested in a Blu-ray release. For some time, the only available HD version (besides ones that might show up on cable television every once and a while) was a region free French release from Opening Distribution. OD’s disc was perfectly acceptable – it looks like a sharper version of Fox’s older DVD and had minor noise and clarity issues (eagle-eyed viewers will also notice that it is slightly zoomed) – but there was room for improvement.
Then: the plot thickened. Despite never releasing a Blu-ray under their own banner, Fox did produce a new HD transfer, which they supplied to various outlets, including Arrow Video in the UK, who was the first to release a ‘remastered’ version. The image quality was notably sharper and cleaner than Opening Distribution’s Blu-ray, but the colour-timing was, in this fan’s opinion, a problem. The black levels were crushed, contrast was increased, and the formerly eclectic palette had been revamped into a more modernistic orange and teal mush. And in case there was any doubt as to who scanned and restored the film, Arrow’s set included the following statement inside of its booklet: Quote: Phantom of the Paradise was transferred from the original pre-print material by Twentieth Century Fox in the USA. This was delivered as a restored file on a master tape to Arrow Films
Apparently, no one ever claimed that De Palma or cinematographer Larry Pizer had anything to do with the restoration, meaning someone at Fox made the decision to alter the image. The colour-timing on the Opening Distribution disc more or less matched the Fox DVD (though you can see in these caps that the SD disc leaned a little more yellow and green), Fox’s pan and scan VHS, the HD transfer available on Amazon Prime (see a sample at the bottom of this page), the television version (I believe it was most recently available on the IFC channel), and even a bootleg of the version of ‘Swan Song’ cut I found (see the extras section). Outside of jumping into a time machine to see the movie during its first run in 1974, there’s no more definitive proof to the contrary.
This brings us to Scream Factory’s release, which fans knew from the beginning was going to based on the same Fox remaster (unless noted otherwise during press releases, the vast majority of Shout and Scream Factory’s transfers were supplied by the studios that they ‘lease’ titles from). First, the bad and not unexpected news: the colour-timing here has more in common with the Arrow release than the Opening Distribution release. Skin tones and browns are still too orange, cooler backdrops are still too steely, and black levels are still flat. Viewers that were irreparably annoyed by the change aren’t going to be particularly happy. Personally, I find the predominate darkness and soupy pools of black more frustrating than the hue alterations, especially during scenes that were never meant to be so moody, like the opening title scene.
Now, the good (or at least the better) news: the people at Scream Factory have tweaked Fox’s scan in ways that I believe make it superior to the Arrow release. As you can see in these screen caps, some sequences don’t seem to have been changed at all, but the bulk of them feature slightly more natural skin tones, less blue/teal-infused backdrops, and more vivid pastels and neons. Those terribly flat onyx pits are still an issue, but gamma levels are softer overall, making it possible to actually see pieces of set and wardrobe throughout the backgrounds. Looking at screen caps from the two releases side by side it appears that this newer version is a bit sharper than Arrow’s. This is partially due to the gamma correction, which keeps some of the details from completely disappearing into raven-pitched shadows, but also seems to be a sign of a slightly better encode or maybe just less compression. Despite all the digital tinkering and a very clean, sharp HD scan, grain levels appear accurate and relatively consistent (some of the darker interiors are grainier). There are a few flecks of minor print damage, but nothing extensive or abrasive. Compression artefacts are practically nonexistent, aside from some slightly noisy red and brown backdrops (the lack of edge enhancement haloes is especially impressive, given the high contrast images).
So, Scream Factory has a slight edge in terms of video quality, but Arrow’s disc still has one advantage – a DTS-HD Master Audio representation of the film’s original Westrex 4-Track Stereo soundtrack. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing the 4.0 mix, but note that Chris Gould complained about low volume levels in his review. This release’s remixed, DTS-HD MA 5.1 version of that 4.0 track is still quite satisfying, however, even if it isn’t a completely authentic representation. The sound quality here is certainly consistent with crisper embellishments and louder overall volume levels than the French release’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 remix. There are a number of directionally influenced effects alongside some roaming dialogue sounds, but the 5.1 mix, like the 4.0 original (it was probably presented in either stereo or mono in the vast majority of theaters in 1974), was a largely centered affair. The majority of stereo and surround enhancements are applied to Paul Williams’ music. The underscore is simple and stereo-infused, while the pop and rock numbers are given a wider range of aural motion. The discrete LFE channel helps support the warm groove without sounding artificially augmented or warbly. The 4.0 track would’ve been a great addition, but, otherwise, I’m having trouble faulting this track.
There’s still time to argue about the ‘definitive’ Phantom of the Paradise transfer, but I do believe Scream Factory has supplied us with a definitive collection of supplemental features.
Disc One (Blu-ray):
- New audio commentary with Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and The Juicy Fruits (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Harold Oblong aka Peter Eibling) – This group commentary, which has been culled from three different recordings, opens with an intro from The Juicy Fruits, who then kick the track off by rambling their way through their memories of behind-the-scenes antics. They’re not particularly informative, but certainly fun to listen to. Harper and Graham both take the lecture approach and cover the specifics of the production process.
- New audio commentary with production designer Jack Fisk – Fisk is more down to business. Following an introduction, he dives headfirst into his experiences on the film and manages to fill a lot of time, despite the limited scope of his contribution (the track does taper off during longer sequences, when he runs out of stuff to say about each set).
- New interview with director Brian DePalma (33:10, HD) – The director covers a lot of the same ground already covered in older documentaries (see disc two), but discusses his film with more detail and introspection than before. The interview includes scans from the original shooting script and a bit of B-roll.
- New interview with composer Paul Williams (34:50, HD) – The second new interview recounts similar behind-the-scenes stories, but offers more focus than earlier Williams interviews (like the mammoth one that appears on the second disc of this set). Williams is as charming as ever, of course, and offers plenty of insight into his songwriting process. He claims to owe his recent working relationships with Daft Punk and Guillermo del Toro entirely to his work on Phantom of the Paradise.
- New interview with make-up effects artist Tom Burman (4:10, HD) – The make-up designer briefly discusses the design of the Phantom helmet.
- 11 alternate/extended takes and outtakes (26:20, HD) – These side-by-side comparisons show include every angle that De Palma shot certain musical sequences from before editing the best parts together into one piece. These include the gory aftermath of Winslow’s facial burn.
- Swan Song outtake footage (7:30, HD) – Swan’s fictional record company was originally called ‘Swan Song,’ but after filming was completed, Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, claimed to have a copyright on the title for his brand-new, real-life record company. The filmmakers were forced to cover any ‘Swan Song’ logos with ‘Death Records’ logos, sometimes via awkward matte effects. The unaltered images are collected here.
- Still Gallery
Disc Two (DVD):
- Paradise Regained (50:10, SD) – A retrospective documentary that first appeared with Arrow’s set (a number of interviews are taken from a featurette on the Opening Distribution disc, hence Gerrit Graham speaking partially in French). It covers the film’s themes, inspirations, casting, the ongoing necessary evil of a studio system, Paul Williams’ songwriting, lawsuits, release, and the eventual cult success. It includes a number of cast, crew, and critical/journalistic interviews, along with footage from the film (pre-‘remastered’ for the sake of further colour-timing comparisons).
- Paul Williams interview, moderated by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (1:12:20, SD) – Another holdover from the Arrow release, this lengthy, but charming interview covers a lifetime of the actor/songwriter’s experiences. It’s a commitment (practically a talking-head documentary), but still a must-see for anyone interested in Williams’ odd and varied career.
- Interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton (9:30, SD) – A camcorder-shot archival interview that was first seen on French DVDs and Blu-rays.
- New interview with producer Edward R. Pressman (19:00, SD)
- New interview with drummer Gary Mallaber (17:10, SD)
- Alvin’s Art and Technique (11:40, SD) – A look at the creation of the film’s iconic neon poster with his widow Andrea.
- Phantom of the Paradise Biography by Gerrit Graham (9:30, SD) – Audio footage of the actor reading from the film’s soundtrack press kit, which he wrote himself.
- William Finley and Toy (00:30, SD) – The actor tries to sell us on the official Phantom toy.
- Radio spots
- TV spots
Phantom of the Paradise is still the comic book rock musical to end them all and really does get better every time I see it. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray is just about the best packaged set a fan could hope for, including a massive collection of extras, old and new, a strong 5.1 remix, and probably the best of a problematic lot of HD transfers. I’m still not totally sold on the image quality – the colours have been altered from the older, more pastel hues I’m used to and the crushed shadows/overall darkness is an issue – but I’m more satisfied than I was by Arrow’s otherwise sharp transfer. Those that aren’t as attached to the original palette should be very, very happy.
Here's one quick sample of that Amazon Prime stream for comparison as well (it was too difficult to get all eight):
* Note: The above images are taken from (in order) the Scream Blu-ray, the Arrow Blu-ray, the Opening Distribution Blu-ray, and the Fox DVD and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 5th August 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 English
Extras: Actor Commentary, Production Designer Commentary, Brian De Palma Interview, Paul Williams Interview, Tom Burnman Interview, Swan Song Outtake Footage, Alternate/Extended Takes, Still Gallery, Paradise: Regained, Another Paul Williams Interview, Edward R. Pressman Interview, Gary Mallaber Interview, Alvin’s Art and Technique, Phantom of the Paradise Biography, William Finley and Toy, Radio Spots, TV Spots, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Musical and Romance
Length: 92 minutes
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