Phantom of Winnipeg
In December of 1974, 20th Century Fox released a film based in part on The Phantom of the Opera plus some bits of the tale of Faust and a dash of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Directed by Brian De Palma and starring William Finley, Jessica Harper, and Paul Williams (who also provided music and lyrics), Phantom of the Paradise provided a campy slice of nostalgia, glam, and light horror that was meant to captivate audiences hungering for a bit of fun.
Save for a few markets, it was a total flop.
One place where Phantom found life was Winnipeg, Manitoba, a prairie city in the center of Canada. After opening on Boxing Day, the film had a months-long engagement. The local residents were oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world thought the movie was terrible, if they thought about it at all. An entire generation of kids was raised watching the film, seeing it multiple times and inhabiting the world of Death Records as deeply as they could.
Decades later, documentarians Malcolm Ingram and Sean Stanley have brought many of these fans together to share their enthusiasm. In the talking-head documentary Phantom of Winnipeg, we meet a group of individuals who have kept the flame alive. Well into adulthood, they’ve found a deep connection to a movie that shaped them so significantly in their pre-teen years. As a testament to the power of fandom, the doc is highly infectious. The awkwardness of their adoration is buttressed by its deep sincerity, and Ingram and Stanley do well to present their tales with a sympathetic eye. The undercurrent throughout is the total lack of irony. These aren’t people who love something for being bad, or made the hipster decision to grab onto a gem that other communities had shunned. They individually, and without benefit of social media-driven groupthink, all fell in love with the same film.
The loquacious Paul Williams and an affable, reflective Kevin Smith are interviewed to contextualize the fans’ reactions. The film feels like more than just an outlet for fans to nerd out. Producer Ed Pressman, with numerous giant hits under his belt, is sanguine about the experience, talking with bemusement about how this small island of success in a sea of failure helped keep Phantom alive in ways that other films have faded from memory.
Phantom of Winnipeg may not break any new ground, but it’s presented with a tenderness that’s shared in the spirit of the fans it documents. In many ways, the film is a celebration, showing that we can’t always control or overthink who or what we love. This works as an antidote to the cynical or derisive responses that are often easier to lob at things that are different. I don’t love De Palma’s film, far from it, but I kind of love that this group does love it in the way that my own passion is exhibited for other (dare I say more deserving) works. To experience this kind of healthy obsession is a wonderful thing, a buttress against those whose immediate response is to distance rather than embrace.
Phantom of Winnipeg is about one tiny group of fans that help keep a film alive, but really it’s about first love, where you unabashedly fall for something so strongly that it affects you as deeply as any lesson from your life. The documentary reminds us of why we love these things in the first place – a pure version of love where one doesn’t reflect upon what others think, or get swayed about how we’re told to feel. Whether or not you can stomach De Palma’s bit of kitsch, that’s a lesson we all can embrace.