July 29, 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) early homages in new Tarantino


INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
(USA, 2009)

Some notes, but no spoilers, on my favourite Tarantino film...

Crikey! I like the new film from that fellow, Quentin Tarantino. I know everyone and his brother is going to blog about it, but I'd like to add my own tuppenceworth. Saw the UK Premiere last week. Went in without so much as a clue what the deuce it was all about. Damned fine! Good to see he's not just been watching 70s and 80s exploitation movies, and seen some quality war films of the 1960s. Well-pronounced drama, dry comedy, selfless heroism... all punctuated by short savage bursts of graphic violence. Bravo!

Tarantino takes risks with the pacing, alternating action with drama, letting scenes run long, milking the suspense. There's constant danger that the characters will get caught by the Nazis, who will do to them what the Nazis did best...

Tarantino has encouraged inspired performances from the cast, serving them with dialogue that for once doesn't sound like they're channeling his trademark rants. The attention to detail in the script, of history and particularly European languages, puts many other American productions to shame. The totally 'borrowed' soundtrack is risk-taking but really enjoyable.


It also surprised me by being as much about cinema as it is about war. Besides being relevant to the story, there are many nostalgic reminders about oldschool film technology, like showing reel-changes in a projection booth, as well as tributes to many kings of early European cinema. I won't spoil the many amusing 'references' in the film, but would like to tell you of a couple of the oldest homages...

I was astonished to see G.W. Pabst getting name-checks. But it's only fitting considering that the director made two silent classics of pre-Nazi Germany, both starring American actress Louise Brooks. Two must-see silent classics - Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929).

A detail in another scene is the French wartime thriller Le Corbeau (1943). A tense and clever thriller that showed that edgy, angry material could be produced even when the country was occupied by the enemy. The story is about the damaging effects of malicious gossip and paranoia on a small town. It's just as relevant today. Clouzot was known as the French Hitchcock and was even an influence. 'The Master of Suspense' certainly saw Clouzot's Les Diaboliques and wanted to make a thriller just as inventive and shocking - it turned out to be Psycho. Basterds also gets a Hitchcock film involved in the mix...

There's an earlier reference to the Jewish legend of the Golem. Don't hear much about him nowadays! My overview of this unusual European monster is here. The impressive silent movie version heavily influenced Universal Studio's first version of Frankenstein
(1931).


Inglourious Basterds is funny, violent, but also a brutal drama about brutal people.

... and it's a delight to see Universal's seventies globe logo at the start of the film. A nostalgic reminder of how some of my favourite movies used to begin.



July 25, 2009

PUPPET ON A CHAIN (1971) - rare Alistair Maclean action thrills

PUPPET ON A CHAIN
(1971, UK)


UPDATED March, 2012 - new US DVD release 

What if Daniel Craig was James Bond in the 1970s?


A brutal blond-haired tough guy using any means necessary to bring down heroin smugglers in Amsterdam. With a pistol, and brute force, he's actually an undercover agent working for the good guys, despite his destructive murderous methods. This is a personal favourite of mine for the spectacular, verging-on-reckless, speedboat chase through the canals of Amsterdam that pre-dates many of the stunts used as the centrepiece of James Bond classic Live And Let Die (1973). I was shocked to see how little attention this action thriller had on IMDB.




Movies based on Alistair Maclean novels were sure-fire hits back in the 1970s, fuelled by the popularity of his earlier schoolboy-pleasing WW2 adventures, The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, he then spawned a string of modern-day tough-guy action thrillers, like this one.

After a triple-murder in Los Angeles, a heroin-smuggling pipeline is traced back to Amsterdam and the police's top unorthodox undercover operative is brought in to track down the murderers. Diving headfirst into the seedy world of prostitutes, junkies, pimps and pushers, he murders his way through the bad guys to get closer to the truth. OK, maybe it was self-defence. There's some creepy doll moments too, adding to the weird twilight portrayal of drug-addiction.


Besides the boat chase similarity with Live And Let Die, the hero's persona is much the same as Daniel Craig's present James Bond, but with less charisma. He's not totally heartless, falling for his fellow operative on the case, but he's practically a stone killer.



It's a good opportunity to enjoy a 70s Bond-type thriller without Roger Moore's increasing lightening of the role with awful jokes. A very similar Maclean character is the downright misogynistic anti-hero played by Anthony Hopkins in When Eight Bells Toll.

Puppet on a Chain was usually cut for TV, but in the early 1970s even family audiences could see a little bloody mayhem and even the occasional topless waitress in the cinema. Go-go boys, body stockings and psychedelic nightclubs were borderline classifications, but still allowed for all ages. (The nudity is missing from the 2012 Scorpion USA DVD, though the footage is included as a 4:3 DVD extra). 



The star is Sven-Bertil Taube, who I failed to remember from The Eagle Has Landed (1976). He's excellent, but maybe too humourless for a career in action movies. Barbara Parkins usually played a suburban good girl in Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place and seems ill at ease here, but was also dipping into horror at the time, in The Mephisto Waltz and Asylum. Best of all is Vladek Sheybal whose Polish accent and cheeky acting enlivens every screen appearance (UFO, From Russia With Love, Deadfall, The Boyfriend). He and Sven also brave out much of the onscreen stunt driving.



The big chase scene makes the most of the location, with spectacular helicopter shots of the speedboats charging through the canals of Amsterdam city centre. The stuntwork, particularly the collisions, seems to exceed the bounds of safety of even Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films. The chase scene was shot, second-unit, by cult director Don Sharp (Psychomania, Curse of the Fly, Kiss of the Vampire, The Face of Fu Manchu).




The 2012 Puppet on a Chain DVD from Scorpion Releasing (pictured above) is 16:9 anamorphic, though reportedly offers less picture image than the older 4:3 releases. The film source used looks in slightly rougher shape as well, but it adds to the 'authentically seventies' look, and now neatly fits widescreen TVs. Here's another review - DVD Talk on the the new widescreen transfer...






The other best Alistair Maclean thrillers on DVD:


These include some of the most action-packed thrillers of the 1970s, paralleling the early Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood tough guy films where the hero is an anti-hero, prone to destructive, stunt-heavy action. More love wanted for the Maclean!


THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) UK and US DVDs

THE SATAN BUG (1965) Available widescreen from Warner Archive

WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) UK and US DVDs

WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (1971) UK DVD - uncut

FEAR IS THE KEY (1972) UK widescreen

FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (1978) US and UK DVDs


Other films based on Maclean novels include Caravan To Vaccares, Breakheart Pass (Charles Bronson), Golden Rendezvous (Richard Harris) and Bear Island (Donald Sutherland) all of which I haven't seen recently enough to pass comment. But his body of thrillers obviously influenced action cinema for nearly two decades. Many of these rarer films are out in Scandinavia, but only as fuzzy-looking, non-digital, full-frame transfers.




July 23, 2009

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) - the pick of the hunch



THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME(1939, USA)


I recently watched three movie versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and completely revised my opinions of all of them. The Lon Chaney (1923), Charles Laughton (1939) and Disney musical (1996) versions were the three most lavish and serious attempts at visualising the story. But which stands as the best?

The novel by Victor Hugo (who also wrote Les Miserables and The Man Who Laughs) centres on the clash between the gypsy population and the citizens of 15th century Paris. Violent unrest threatens the peace of the city when a young gypsy girl is framed and takes sanctuary in Notre Dame cathedral, protected by the deformed deaf-mute bell-ringer. They're all unaware that they're being manipulated in a bid to ridding the city of travellers...


The Disney version, which I enjoyed first time around in the cinema, updated the story with the feisty gypsy girl matching the chief of the police in both strength and wit. There was also an unusually adult portrayal of a predatory religious hypocrite, for Disney anyway. But seeing it again, the heavy use of modern, anachronistic puns and sight gags, together with too much unfunny slapstick, spoiled it for me considerably. Perhaps I wasn't in the mood for a musical (rarely am). I don't think it's aged as well as many other recent Disney features.

Next I watched the version I'd assumed would be the best, with Lon Chaney in the silent movie epic. The versatile actor has had a considerable amount written about him in recent years, particularly three exhaustive and impressive books by Michael Blake. Chaney's films are amongst the most watchable and available silent movies on home video, certainly of interest for fans of early horror and the macabre. I really enjoy Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera (1925) the most of all the Phantoms. It's a must-see silent movie and horror film.

So I expected Chaney's previous portrayal of the Hunchback, Quasimodo, would be similarly impressive, but I found the film to be slow and too talky. Quite a feat for a silent movie. Chaney's portrayal of Quasimodo was also hard to take seriously because of the make-up. His mop of Scarecrow hair and unreal facial disfigurements were part of his most elaborate and extensive make-up, but not his most successful. Of course, it's impressive that he designed and applied the look of his spectacular characters. But I'd say that the 1939 version easily outshines his work here.


The Charles Laughton version, directed by Wiliam Dieterle, is a masterpiece. Even worth highlighting for your attention here. A movie that looks like it actually might have had a cast of thousands. The plot still holds surprises, including some a sublimated sexual undercurrent, as Esmeralda gets caught in a love quadrangle (she's that popular!). There's a superb cast, particularly the treacherous Frollo, exceptionally played by Cedric Hardwicke (The Ghost of Frankenstein, Rope).


Full honours have to go to the astounding performance by Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter, The Old Dark House), in a flawless make-up. Laughton plays Quasimodo deaf and dumb, struggling to communicate with everyone around him. Impressively he still acts up a storm without the power of clear speech and under a ton of make-up. The actor is almost completely unrecognisable, in a role reminiscent of John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980).


There's a misleading early scene with him acting like a typical Frankenstein sidekick, lurking in the shadows, chasing a helpless girl while doing his master's bidding. It's fun but feels out of character. A bigger minus for modern audiences could be the overly theatrical turn by a young Edmund O' Brien (Fantastic Voyage), who is overacting to the heavens, because he's playing a smitten theatrical type.


Hopefully the drawbacks are be outweighed by the spectacularly huge sets, beautiful black-and-white cinematography, gigantic crowds and action scenes, and a top-rate cast milking the intense drama that feels decades ahead of its time.

It was an RKO picture, so I shouldn't have been surprised that the late Robert Wise edited it, shortly before he also did Citizen Kane for the same studio.

All three versions of Hunchback are out on DVD in the US. But while the 1939 film used to play regularly on British TV, it isn't on DVD in the UK.


Finally here's the trailer for the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame on YouTube.



July 19, 2009

SPIRAL (1998) - first and best of the RING sequels


SPIRAL

(1998, Japan, Rasen)

Continuing a series of reviews from the Ring phenomenon

The success of Ring (1998) in Japan lead to a successful sequel Ring 2 (1999) and a prequel Ring 0 (2000). But their stories were drastically different to Koji Suzuki's original books, and ignored the events of the very first sequel, Spiral, which was actually released at the same time as Ring. While Ring was immediately popular, Spiral wasn't, encouraging producers to pursue a different storyline for Ring 2 the following year.

Ring 2 gave audiences more of what they (we) wanted - more videotapes and more twitchy, scary Sadako. But Spiral primarily uses ideas from Suzuki's second novel, with a subtler but ultimately far more horrifying scenario where Sadako could become more powerful than you could possibly imagine...


Spiral begins the day after the events of Ring, with a pathologist being called in to perform an autopsy on a former colleague, the latest victim of Sadako. He finds himself haunted by his former friend and how he died, mixed in with his suicidal despair over the accidental drowning of his young son (shades of Suzuki's Dark Water).

The cause of death makes no sense to him, neither does talk of a cursed videotape. He teams up with a journalist to investigate, while more and more witnesses continue to die mysteriously.

When Sadako appears, she's not shrouded in black hair and a shroud, but a sexy nightdress. Another change of tactics is to spread her curse in other ways besides boring old videotape...



When I first saw this, when it was confusingly being sold around Asia as Ring 2: The Spiral, I was disappointed with the lack of videotape deaths and the twitchy, jerky Sadako that we all love. But over the years, and being less impressed by re-watching Ring 2, Spiral is now my favourite of the sequels. A better story, that doesn't suffer by repeating the highlights of the first film.

This is as much a medical thriller as a horror. But the scares are subtle and effective. The growing realisation of what Sadako is planning is both dramatic and very powerful, reminiscent of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (Kairo). Director Joji Iida went on to direct Another Heaven and the post-apocalyptic Dragonhead.


It's also interesting for Ring fans to see the same characters, with the same actors, following completely different paths than they take in Ring 2. Suzuki's books are so full of ideas that the stories about Sadako can spin off in many directions.

As a title, Spiral is an undescriptive name and the original generic poster art didn't help. Ring: Virus would have been a more apt title, but confusingly the South Korean remake (1999) was called that. Speaking of which, I'll review that one next. Eventually I'll also plough through the TV series made of Rasen in 1999.

Spiral is available in the US Ring Anthology boxset, under the Japanese name, Rasen. It also used to be available in the UK as Spiral (artwork at top).

There's plenty of screengrabs, but a less good review over at The Ring Cycle site.

Links to the other Ring movie reviews are here on the Ring Overview.


July 14, 2009

RING 0: BIRTHDAY - the young Sadako's downfall


RING 0: BIRTHDAY
(2000, Japan, Ring 0: Basudei)

Ring, Ring 2, then back to Ring 0...

Just finished the fourth Koji Suzuki book in his Ring series and it reminded me to continue my look at the extended family of movie adaptions.

While the Japanese sequel Ring 2 had taken the story of Sadako further away from the events of the books, Ring 0: Birthday rewinds to the events before Ring, following the young Sadako's life in 1960's Tokyo when she joined a theatre company. But even when she's alive, in the traditional sense, Sadako is surrounded by creepy trouble. When a member of the cast dies suddenly, the other actors are slow to realise who she is and the strange powers that made her mother infamous. While Sadako aims for a career on the stage and maybe even a boyfriend, a reporter is closing in on her, wanting to stir up the past.


The script is largely based on the short story 'Lemon Heart' from Suzuki's anthology Birthday, but confusingly not on the story 'Happy Birthday', leaving the title almost disconnected from the plot. To spring some new surprises, there's an added twist in the script that upends everything revealed about Sadako so far, one to keep Ring enthusiasts' minds' whirring.

Set thirty years before Ring, it barely looks like the 1960s, with only the tape recording machines to date it. The movie itself looks old-fashioned, with many rather dated scares. Not until the climax does it feel like a Ring movie, made in this decade.


Director Norio Tsuruta is good at tense and slightly creepy (especially effective with the scarecrows of Kakashi), but takes a long while to get to the horror, which should have been easy for a Ring movie. Ring 0 is a fascinating backstory for Ring fans, especially as it portrays Sadako as such a sympathetic character, a dimension which made the first two films all the more tragic.

Yukie Nakama plays Sadako as a scared heroine, but fails to show any hints of the vengeful demon in her that will eventually surface. The object of her affection is a thankless drippy role, as is Shigemori the one-dimensional slimy director of the play. The interesting roles are all for women. Miyaji, the reporter looking for Sadako, and the eldest actress in the troupe who senses trouble before the rest.

Helpfully, all the supporting characters who've appeared in previous films, are all played by the original actors, to subtly help us in the flashbacks.

For a sequel, Ring 0 is good at standing on its own - you don't really need to have seen the other films. It remin ded me of the Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk With Me, that recounted Laura Palmer's final days, an increasingly dark, occasionally scary, tragic drama.


I snapped up the early DVD releases of the Ring trilogy in the UK, but they were pretty poor in terms of image quality. Birthday had a slightly defocused look, was poor for dark detail and even looked slightly squeezed. But all the films have since been remastered and new boxsets have been issued in the UK and US, made up of different collections of movies and extras.


The US boxset has the trilogy, (Ring, Ring 2, Ring 0) plus Rasen (aka Spiral), an adaption of Suzuki's second Ring book. The UK boxset has the trilogy with Sleeping Bride, an unconnected children's drama also by Ring director Hideo Nakata.

There's a fuller review of Ring 0, with plot spoilers, on the Ring Cycle fansite.

My own short overview of all things Ring is here.
Soon, I'll dive into the alternate Japanese movie sequel, Spiral.

July 11, 2009

THE CHASER (2008) South Korean thriller verging on horror


THE CHASER
(2008, South Korea, Chugyeogja)

Heard this was a hit serial-killer thriller and decided to have a look. Easy enough, because it's already been released in cinemas in the UK and now on DVD. The Chaser was a big hit in South Korea. While very good, it's not a classic like Oldboy, despite many comparisons and similarities. It's already good enough to soon get remade in Hollywood.

I can't give up too much of the story, as much of the enjoyment is how it unfolds. But our unlikely protagonist is a pimp who's having trouble keeping track of his women. Two have gone missing and he starts to suspect that a third might be in danger of being abducted by a rival. We soon know different, following her to the client, where she realises that she's not in a pimp war, but actually being prepared for slaughter...


There's enough South East Asian movies that pit serial killers against inefficient detectives to fill a whole sub-genre (including Zee-Oui, The Untold Story). This is particularly a key issue in South Korea where serial murders are a new phenomenon (Memories of Murder was about the first ever case). The plot highlights dozens of faults by the investigators and legal team, that cause it all to drag on. It's a far cry fom the high tech methods of CSI. In fact it's so slack that many moments are intentionally funny, in the darkest possible way.

After the film, I learnt that this was an actual recent case. While the story deviates from the truth on many points, it must have helped the box office.

I was thus reminded of Dirty Harry, itself inspired by the Zodiac killer, but also because it takes a renegade working outside the system to cut through the legal red tape, cynical policing and party politics in order to help the innocent.


Though in The Chaser, there's a damaging lull in the centre section of the film as everyone is so completely off track that the audience has to sit and wait until the 'ticking clock' can continue. While the director may have intended this to be suspenseful, I was losing interest because so many of the characters were hopelessly lost in the case.

That said, this could be an effort from first-time director Hong-jin Na to avoid movie cliches. The opening half hour is superb and gripping. The cast are excellent, the film is technically top-notch. But the story ignores many loose-ends and uses far too many coincidences. It's certainly unpredictable and full of surprises, possibly because this is what actually happened. But far too flimsy for a fictional story.


The Chaser is still an undeniably powerful, dark, surprising and watchable thriller. With a couple of moments that are unwatchable. Well, I certainly couldn't bear to look. But, I will look forward to the director's next film, The Murderer.

This is out in the UK on DVD from Metrodome, in a good-looking 2.35 anamorphic presentation.

July 04, 2009

GU GU THE CAT (2008) - not what you think

GU GU THE CAT
(2008, Japan, Gou-Gou datte neko de aru)

Hollywood makes a lot of dog movies. I live in a nation of cat-lovers which doesn't make cat movies. I didn't know much about Gu Gu The Cat when I bought it, but I just fancied seeing a cat movie, figuring that if the Japanese are as cat crazy as the British, it could be fun. I was expecting something fluffy, trivial, with lots of cute cat action. Slightly right and mostly wrong.

If I was Japanese I might have known about Gu Gu from from its series of manga, which features a cat but centres around its owner. The story is actually autobiographical and leads us through a crisis point in the life of the artist/writer Yumiko Oshima.


In the story she's called Amiko and it begins with her finishing her latest manga. She supervises a team of four woman who help ink and correct all the final artwork at her home. After a late night deadline, when everyone's gone, she discovers that her 15 yr old cat has passed away while she was busy. Distraught at losing her companion, she completely stops writing, leaving her team out of work.

After several worrying weeks, her team are relieved when Amiko gets a new kitten, Gu Gu. But this new bundle of fun doesn't break her writer's block. On top of losing her old muse, her mum is pressuring her middle-aged daughter to go out and find a husband...

This is largely a lightweight comedy freewheeling along from day to day, portraying life well away from the centre of Tokyo in the district of Kichijoji, which is good for parks and creative types. It could be called a chick-flick, but doesn't conform to any Hollywood cliches, other than having a cast of mostly women. It's a little unconventional but not at all challenging. My favourite scene was a gently surreal dream sequence, where Amiko talks with her cat. This isn't done the usual Disney way, but far more mystically, serious and low key. A gentle comedy, it gets a little more serious when Amiko gets ill, just as the author did.


While the rambling plot establishes many characters and storylines, there are few payoffs. If the film wasn't called Gu Gu The Cat, you wouldn't even consider the cat was a main character. But this wasn't a problem as I was in an undemanding mood and enjoyed just drifting along with this slightly soapy slice of life, dreaming of living in suburban Tokyo. This an area renowned for writers and authors and it's interesting to see how Amiko is politely revered as a local treasure, and that the launch of a new manga is mounted as serious as any highbrow booklaunch. The ubiquitous Kazuo Umezo (who also popped up in Yaji & Kita) cameos in a couple of scenes - so that's where he lives!

It's a refreshing portrayal of the lives of several different modern day Japanese women, who are usually missing from the kinds of films that I usually watch. But I would still have liked to see more of Gu Gu the cat, despite his pivotal role. Throughout the film, a part-time narrator speaking in English and Japanese is slightly scary because of his faltering acting and his huge perm. Don't worry when he pops up to the set the scene at the beginning, he's not in it too much, and he improves as it goes along.

The Chinese DVD I watched had English subtitles on it, as does the Japanese release. In the extras it was also fun to see a TV ad tied to the film release, promoting a new sort of cat litter tray!

July 03, 2009

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974) - De Palma's rock horror show



PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

(1974, USA)

Another review from Brian De Palma's decade of horror.
Another favourite of mine - its images, dialogue and music are scored into my memory. I don't tire of it and I hope it will interest some of you. Phantom of the Paradise is almost unique. It's directed by De Palma, but with horror movie in-jokes worthy of Joe Dante. It's like Phantom of the Opera revamped as a glam-rock musical, with the legend of Faust and many other influences woven in. All presented in a style that mixes comic strip pacing, movie brat homage, and new wave film-making.

At the time, I even thought that further remakes of Phantom could only go forward musically, until Andrew Lloyd Webber sent it all reeling backwards, a couple of years later.


Winslow Leach is a meek composer who has his music ripped off by Swan, a powerful record producer. When Winslow persists in getting his credit, Swan has him disposed of. After being driven to the point of madness and being hideously disfigured, Winslow returns for revenge, hiding his face under a silver birdlike mask, to haunt Swan's new rock venue, The Paradise...


After seeing repeated exposes of the machinations of the music industry, I was staggered that anyone still wanted to get involved. Breaking Glass, Stardust, That’ll Be The Day, Tommy, Pink Floyd's The Wall all warned that you’ll stitch up your friends, get rolled over by your contract, lose all your money and be replaced by the next big thing, if you don't go insane first.



Throughout the film there's a trio of singers who get recycled and relaunched by Swan in different musical genres. First as rock n rollers, then as beach boys, finally as glam rockers. They're always new, but they're the same guys. Swan manipulates the whole game through bribery, sex, drugs, legal fineprint, and the promise of immortal fame.

I saw it in a UK cinema, once on a double-bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the only film with which it could possibly be compatible, but I'm sure I saw it before that paired with a different film.

This was also one of the first films where I could read behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, that added an extra layer of understanding and appreciation, thanks to in-depth articles in Cinefantastique and Photon magazines. Until then, few serious interviews were done for horror films, and only the biggest movies would get 'making of' publications. At the time I can only remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Exorcist and Earthquake having such books.



The film hasn't been widely celebrated as a cult, and never had a special edition in the UK or US. But there was a recent French 2-disc release, which includes a wonderful 50 minute documentary with all the key cast members, director De Palma, producer Ed Pressman and editor Paul Hirsch (who soon after cut a little film for George Lucas called Star Wars). It's loaded with interesting stories and some juicy theories - Finlay reckons that his chest-mounted voice box and black leather-clad costume (with cape) directly inspired Darth Vader's outfit! A great documentary, like a reunion with old friends. There's also a spoiler-filled trailer that includes a censored shot of Finlay's face emerging from the record press, freshly scarred and smoking.

The movie starts off with a mysterious voiceover, delivered by none other than The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, who's not credited. One of his last jobs before he passed away. Most of the rest of the cast live on...



The songwriter turned Phantom was written for William Finlay, a role he makes completely his own. A great, great performance. He was also memorable in De Palma's Sisters, but after these, I only spotted him briefly in The Fury and Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse. Again, I felt that all the main actors would only get bigger parts after this. I feel that Finlay's talents have subsequently been wasted.


Jessica Harper plays the seemingly innocent Phoenix, a new singer that Swan is cultivating. Harper reveals in the documentary that while she was a confident singer and dancer, her first scene in the film was also her first time in front of the camera. After Phantom, she got the starring role in Dario Argento's opus Suspiria, and replaced Susan Sarandon as Janet in the Rocky Horror sequel misfire, Shock Treatment.




Besides starring as Swan, the mysterious producer/Svengali, Paul Williams also composed the many songs for the film (before his hit soundtrack for Bugsy Malone). The music has recently been commemorated in two 'cast reunion' concerts - Phantompalooza! The soundtrack is still available on CD, though I'm still listening to my original vinyl copy. Williams' lack of stature is barely noticeable in the film, where it could easily have been exploited (as it usually is, in the comedy roles he normally gets). There's a subtle gag where everyone else has to duck to get through one of the doors in his mansion. In the documentary, Williams reveals that his character was inspired by record producer Phil Spector.


Gerrit Graham is another memorable character as Beef, the outrageous bisexual rock star. While it's a familiar lisping queen sterotype, Graham keeps it funny, confusing the audience with his butch onstage persona. You won't forget Beef in a hurry. His grand stage entrance, to the opening night at The Paradise, is to be stitched together from body parts harvested from the audience!

De Palma's direction includes the customary split-screen sequence (also used in Carrie, Sisters and Dressed To Kill) showing a musical number simultaneously from the front and behind the scenes (the suspense coming from a bomb planted in the set). But he uses many other techniques. Furious handheld chases, some steady circling single takes,
a classically composed optically composited montage, and the climax is a long musical number filmed with multiple cameras in a one-take event.


The end credits music is a cruel elegy called 'The Hell of It' (written by Williams for an unused scene) for which editor Paul Hirsch creates an impeccably edited 'highlights' reel that replays the key scenes from the film, perfectly timed to the song.

It's all very rich cinema, but hard to categorise. Horror, comedy, musical, satire, tragedy, romance - take your pick.


The US DVD release looks much the same as the French transfer, presented in widescreen anamorphic, but is of course missing the second DVD of special features, only available in France. Which is a shame, because it's almost entirely in English (Gerrit speaks briefly in French at one point). France has also released this edition as a blu-ray.




Be sure to also check out The Swan Archives - a Phantom of the Paradise fansite.