Tag: cult film


Posted on by Scott Delahunt

As mentioned during the History of Adaptations series, the Eighties were a strange decade for entertainment. Music videos entered their hey day. Music ran the gamut of genres. From New Wave to Heavy Metal, from Rockabilly to Hip Hop, Top 40 charts had a mix of them all.

Popular music filtered into other areas. Television shows, while never one to discount pop music, adopted more as characters listened to their radios. This wasn’t new; even older series like Peter Gunn worked in music. In the case of Peter Gunn, jazz music at a jazz club where some of the action occurred weekly was a natural fit. But most shows used a variation of their theme song for background music when a radio wasn’t in the scene. That changed thanks to one show, Miami Vice.

In 1984, the head of NBC wanted to get in on the popularity of music videos, not just the videos themselves but the esthetics. To this end, Anthony Yerkovic created and Michael Mann produced Miami Vice. Set in, naturally, Miami, the look reflected the scene there, with pastels and neons dominating. However, for the focus of the show, the nascent War on Drugs came into play. Miami was and is a natural port for bringing in illicit and illegal drugs from Central and South America into the US. Drug dealers and drug smugglers could make in a week as much as a vice cop made in a year*. The difference between what a vice detective could live on and the high life of people in the illegal drug industry made for a easily exploitable conflict.

With Don Johnson as Miami native Detective James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as New York transplant Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, the series delved into the Miami underground, the seamier side of the city. However, Crockett is seen with a boat, a fancy car, and an alligator. How can he afford that on his salary? Thanks to the War on Drugs, civil forfeiture and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 allowed law enforcement agencies to make use of items impounded as a result of a criminal investigation. Crockett’s boat and car belong to the Metro-Dade Police Department; one early episode involved an departmental auditor questioning his use of the equipment and threatening to take it all away.

Once the early episode oddities, including comedic elements, settled down, the series became a police drama. Popular music was used not just for radio but as background music, to set the mood of a scene. The pilot episode made good use of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight“, setting the mood for the climax in a way that a variation of the main theme couldn’t. One song, Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues“, was adapted into the episode of the same name, with Frey himself guest starring as a pilot smuggling drugs from Central and South America.

Miami Vice made its mark on television, lasting until 1989. Other series began to use techniques pioneered by the show, like using popular music to set the mood of a scene. Many singers and groups got a boost by being featured on the show. Having a song on Miami Vice was a sign of a singer making it big. Anytime a visual cue to the Eighties is needed in a movie or TV show, the fashion comes from Miami Vice.

Fast forward a bit to 2006. The War on Drugs has led to the militarization of American police departments. Drug dealers countered by getting their own heavier weapons. Miami is still a conduit for drugs into the US. Illicit drugs are big money makers at all levels. In this climate, Michael Mann brought Miami Vice to the big screen. The film version of the show starred Colin Farrell as Crocket and Jamie Foxx as Tubbs.

The film opens with Crockett and Tubbs getting a call from a former informant, now informing for the FBI, that he’s in trouble. One of the cartels threatened to kill the informant’s wife if he didn’t confess to the killing of Russian agents that tried to infiltrate the organization. Tubbs races off to try to help the wife, but is too late. The informant takes his own life by stepping out in front of a semi with Crockett watching. The detectives head to the murder scene, only to be called off by Lieutenant Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), which just piques their curiosity. The investigation leads to Crockett and Tubbs infiltrating the cartel to find who was responsible.

The movie version could fit in as a two-part episode of the original series, or a series of episodes spread out over the series’ run, much like the Calderone saga, which began in the pilot and appeared through to the third season. The difference is what could be filmed. Even in the watershed time slot of 10pm, television can only go so far. The MPAA rating of R allowed for sex, violence, and language that could not appear on even the most lenient broadcaster in the Eighties. However, the movie didn’t get self-indulgent with the freedom the rating provided. Michael Mann had a distinct vision in mind.

Mann realized there was a difference in how digital cameras picked up light compared to traditional film. Knowing the difference, he came in with an eye to how things would look when shot on location. The result is that Miami can be dramatic all on its own, with colours that would put the original series’ pastels to shame. The skies above the city added to the mood in ways even the soundtrack could not, and there was no way to plan for such ideal conditions yet they occurred. Mann shot on location; there was no way Vancouver or Toronto could be a stunt double for Miami.

Casting worked for the most part. The main quibble would be Henley as Lt. Martin Castillo, a role that Edward James Olmos owned. In the original, in a squad wearing pastels, Castillo wore simple black and white. He stood apart from his detectives. Henley’s Castillo may have been better as Gregory Sierra’s Lt. Lou Rodriguez, though that character survived only four episodes. This is more to the credit of Olmos, who brought an intensity to the character, then anything that Hanley did or did not do.

One thing Mann wanted to do was to separate the film from the original. Not even the original theme made an appearance. However, one song made a return. Mann used a cover of “In the Air Tonight” performed by Nonpoint. In the film released to theatres, the song is played over the end credits. However, the director’s cut moves it to just before the climax, where it fits in to set the mood of the characters, much like how the original Collins version of the song did.

The movie made its budget thanks to the international release. It came out strong in 2006, bumping Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest out of the top spot at the box office, but faded away. The film was an update to the TV series, moving it to then-modern times where the War on Drugs was entrenched. However, the movie is now becoming a cult favourite thanks to Mann’s cinematography. It’s not the TV series from the Eighties because it wasn’t made in the Eighties, it was made with the sensitivities of 2006.

* This was an issue during Prohibition in the Roaring Twenties. The high rate of corruption among Prohibition agents came about because bootleggers could slip them $50 or $100 and not feel the loss while giving the agents a large bonus. Eliot Ness and his team were called the Untouchables because they weren’t susceptible to bribes, making them rare agents.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

The Phantom of the Opera, or, in it’s original French, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, originated as a serial by Gaston Leroux, appearing in Le Gaulois starting in September of 1909.  Since then, it has been collected as a novel, translated, and adapted in many ways, including the 1925 silent film with Lon Chaney, the 1943 film with Claude Rains, the 1962 Hammer horror film with Herbert Lom*, the 1986 Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the 1974 rock opera horror comedy, Phantom of the Paradise.

Sort of.

Phantom of the Paradise didn’t just adapt The Phantom of the Opera.  Writer and director Brian De Palma was inspired by hearing a Muzak cover of a Beatles song in an elevator and wondered what it was like for the original artist.  From there, he went to the German legend of Faust, a story that has also been adapted often since Christpher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus in the very early 1600s.  Let’s sum up both stories.

Faust is the classic story about making a deal with the devil.  Unhappy with his life despite being a successful scholar, Faust calls upon the Devil to make a trade.  For knowledge and magic powers to let himself discover the pleasures of the world, Faust is willing to sell his soul.  Mephistopheles, representing the Devil, agrees but with one condition; Faust has only so much time, the amount varying by telling of the legend, and when time’s up, his soul is forfeit.  Mephistopheles performs the magic Faust wants and, time does run out.  Depending on the version of the legend, Faust is sometimes saved by striving to be a better man despite the deal with the devil.  Most versions, though, see the scholar damned to Hell for eternity, thus showing the lesson of what happens when one sells one’s soul.

The Phantom of the Opera is less about selling one’s soul and more about obsessive love.  The Paris Opera House is home to the story about the dangers of obsession and show business.  Lurking within the bowels of the Opera House is the near-urban legend Phantom.  The Phantom, very much real, hears a singer, Christine Daaé, and falls in love** with her.  Christine, though, loves another, Raoul.  The Opera House next production is a operatic version of Faust.  Christine, however, does not get the lead role.  Instead, La Carlotta, a prima donna in both senses of the term, gets the part, upsetting the Phantom, who has taught Christine how to sing.  The Phantom insists that Christine marry him, for no one else may have her.  Christine tells Raoul about the Phantiom, but the scoundrel overhears and kidnaps Raoul and threatens to destroy the Opera House.  It is only through Christine’s pity and empathy for the Phantom that she and Raoul are able to escape and prevent the explosion of the theatre.

Phantom of the Paradise takes both tales.  The opening of the movie has a good summary of what it’s about; “This film is the story of that search, of that sound, of the man who made it, the girl who sang it, and the monster who stole it.”  The three main characters are Swan, played by Paul Williams, Winslow Leach/the Phantom, played by William Finley, and Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper.  Williams also wrote the music for the movie.  Winslow is a budding young songwriter hoping for his big break by following the band, the Juicy Fruits.  Swan, owner of Death Records, is looking for a new act to christen his soon-to-open cathedral to rock, the Paradise and hears Winslow’s work, “Faust”.  Swan, though, wants an ingenue, someone he can guide personally, not a songwriter who does his own work.

Swan isn’t one to have terms dictated to; he does the dictating.  Winslow’s “Faust” is exactly what he needs for the Paradise, so Swan acquires the song without letting Winslow know.  Winslow susses out that something’s up and goes to Swan’s mansion, where there is a line up of women who want to be Swan’s next big hit.  One, Phoenix, is singing “Faust”.  Winslow is impressed, and is willing to allow her and just her to sing his work.  Still, “Faust” is his, not Swan’s, so he tries to get in to see the elusive artist.  Swan, though, arranges for Winslow to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to get him out of the way.

In prison, Winslow is volunteered for experiments, thanks to Swan, and has his teeth replaced.  Winslow escapes, but in a freak record press accident, has half his face disfigured and his vocal chords destroyed.  He’s reported dead, but Winslow escapes into a theatre.  Unseen, he reaches the costume department and takes a costume, including a large bird mask that hides his disfigurement.  When the Paradise opens, the Phantom is there to sabotage the Beach Bums, formerly the Juicy Fruits.  Swan works out who the Phantom is, though, and makes an offer.  In return for re-writing “Faust”, Swan will have Phoenix in the lead.  Winslow agrees, and signs in blood.  Swan bring Winslow to the recording room and provides a voice box.  It works best when Winslow is plugged into the recording equipment at the studio, but gives him an electronic voice otherwise.  Winslow works hard to rewrite “Faust”.

Swan breaks the deal soon enough.  He replaces Phoenix with his newest act, Beef, played by Garrit Graham.  Beef. a glam rocker, doesn’t have the range Phoenix does.  The Phantom discovers the duplicity as Swan’s people brick up Winslow’s recording studio.  Winslow breaks out, his desire for vengeance.  Beef is the first to discover the Phantom on the loose.  He hears the Phantom’s anguish.  Worse, the Phantom shows up while Beef is taking a shower and threatens him, Swan, and the Paradise if Phoenix is not given “Faust”.  Beeef tries to flee, but is forced to stay.

“Faust” debuts, with the Undeads, the former Beach Bums, backing up Beef.  The Undeads are in make-up similar to that used by Kiss*** while Beef struts around like a glam Frankenstein****.  The Phantom, though, is ready.  He throws a neon lightning bolt at Beef, electrocuting the singer.  Swan’s assistant, Philbin, pushes Phoenix on stage to keep the crowd from tearing the Paradise apart.  Phoenix is a hit.

As Phoenix leaves the stage, the Phantom kidnaps her.  He reveals himself as Winston and implores her to leave before Swan can get his hooks into her.  Phoenix doesn’t believe him and runs away to Swan.  Swan seduces her, where he notices Winslow watching.  Winslow tries to kill himself, but, despite the deep stab, still lives.  Swan later explains that while he lives, Winslow will live, but once he’s dead, the wound will bleed as it should.  Winslow, seeing the loophole, tries stabbing Swan, but Swan has his own contract.

Swan announces, through the cover of Rolling Stone, his upcoming wedding to Phoenix.  Winslow, trying to make use of the loophole Swan revealed, goes digging through Swan’s collection of film.  One reel gets the Phantom’s interest.  On playing the film, Winslow discovers the Swan once tried to commit suicide twenty years before, so that he wouldn’t age.  Before he could slice his wrists open, his mirror image talks to him, promising eternal youth for as long the film is safe.  On another monitor, Winslow discovers Swan is planning on becoming an early widow, with Phoenix being killed just after the ceremony is complete.  The reason?  As Swan puts it, “An assassination live on television coast to coast – that’s entertainment.”

The Phantom destroys Swan’s collection of film, including the one that keeps him young, in a fire, then rushes down to stop the sniper from killing Phoenix.  The wedding turns into chaos.  As Swan’s film succumbs to the flames, Swan ages twenty years in mere moments before dying.  Winslow has his masked knocked off, and the self-inflicted wound bleeds out.

As mentioned earlier, Paul Williams wrote the music for the movie.  To give an idea of the range of styles involved, the Juicy Fruits were a greaser band, the Beach Bums were in the style of the Beach Boys, and the Undeads were proto-death metal with a goth element mixed with glam.  Williams has cited “Our Souls” as his favourite piece of all that he’s written.

Phantom of the Paradise opened to decent numbers in Los Angeles, but flopped everywhere else except Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The film remained in theatres in Winnipeg for four months straight, then made regular returns for over a year.  The soundtrack went double gold in Winnipeg alone; a gold record in Canada at the time represented 10 000 sales.  Winnipeg’s population in 1976 was over 560 000.  In 2005, the fan-organized Phantompalooza was held in the theatre where the movie first opened, getting Gerrit Graham (Beef) and William Finley (the Phantom) out for it.  The following year, Phantompalooza had as many suriving cast members inviited as the organizers could find and had Paul Williams in for a concert.

Despite being a flop outside Winnipeg, the movie was still influential.  Without Phantom, there would be no Daft Punk.  The two men who would become Daft Punk met at a showing of Phantom when they were 12 and 13.  Their costumes were inspired by the Phantom’s.  Guillermo del Toro was also inspired by the movie and would have named a daughter Phoenix if his wife hadn’t vetoed the suggestion.

The movie was ambitious.  De Palma used both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera as inspirations, and borrowed from other literary works including Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey.  During the wedding scene, De Palma had cameras in the crowd just to capture the action happening to make the scene feel more chaotic.  Swan’s office and home are filled with mirrors, all the better for him to see the one he loves most.  Likewise, the voice Swan gives to Winslow through the voice box is Swan’s own, the perfect voice.  The movie reached high, and even with the stumbles, succeeds more than it fails.

For what is now known as a cult film, the movie has a pedigree of award nominations.  It was nominated for an Oscar, Best Music Scoring, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation for Paul Williams, who lost to Nelson Riddle and his score for The Great Gatsby.  There was a Golden Globe nomination, Best Original Score, which was won that year by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their work on The Little Prince.  The movie was nominated for Best Horror Film for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, losing to Young FrankensteinPhantom and Brian De Palma lost to the same movie and its writers – Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, and Mary Shelley – for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.  The film also got a nomination for the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, losing to Blazing Saddles.  Not bad for a film popular only in Winnipeg.

Phantom took a huge risk, adapting both the legend of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera and turning them into a rock opera.  As an adaptation, it melds both well.  It’s a matter of taste on whether the movie is successful.  It’s biggest drawback is that it is not clearly of any one genre.  At the start, I called the movie a rock opera horror comedy, the sort of movie that leads to becoming a cult hit.  The result, an ambitious, very 70s film that treats its origins and inspirations with respect underneath the outrageous costumes.

Next week, the history of adaptations continues with the 50s.

* The Hammer film used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, creating a trope for that piece of music.
** Love, lust, it’s blurry from the Phantom’s view.  Not so much from Christine’s.
*** Kiss revealed their make-up first in 1973, but Phantom had been filming since 1972.  It looks like parallel development happened, where both the movie crew and Kiss came up with the idea independently.
**** I’d compare Beef to Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter or his creation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but Phantom came out a year prior.

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