Manitoba

New documentary pays tribute to loyal Winnipeg fans of Phantom of the Paradise, a 'wild gem of a film'

Phantom of the Paradise is a movie that flopped almost everywhere on its release in 1974 — except Winnipeg, where it's been a fan favourite for decades. A new documentary, Phantom of Winnipeg, encapsulates the obsession of Winnipeg fans with the film.

Phantom of Winnipeg doc sees longtime fans of Brian De Palma cult movie share their love for the rock musical

A Winnipeg Phantom fan, Rick Carvalho, appears in the new documentary Phantom of Winnipeg, which explores the city's connection with the cult hit. Here, he shows off a Phantom of the Paradise tattoo on his right bicep. In the background is a Phantom of the Paradise mask. (Sean Stanley)

The fandom in Winnipeg for Phantom of the Paradise is as alive now as it was when the Brian De Palma film was released in 1974 — and that curious fact is the focus of a new documentary looking at the city's history with the 45-year-old movie.

Phantom of Winnipeg explores the city's obsession with the rock musical, which has gained a cult following in the decades following its release.

When Phantom of the Paradise was released in 1974, though, it was a failure in most box offices worldwide — but not Winnipeg. It ran for a remarkable 18 consecutive weeks in one Winnipeg theatre (and continued to run off and on at Winnipeg theatres for months after that).

Winnipeggers are so passionate about the movie that they caught the attention of Ontario-based filmmakers Malcolm Ingram and Sean Stanley, who decided to make Phantom of Winnipeg, their new documentary about the city's connection with the film.

Ingram describes it as a "love affair between the good people of Winnipeg and this wild gem of a film," which is a weird blend of horror, comedy and rock music, inspired by sources like Phantom of the Opera and the legend of Faust.

"There is definitely something in the water over there," said Stanley with a laugh, referring to Winnipeg.

See the Phantom of Winnipeg trailer:

Because of how poorly it was received around the world, many fans felt they were "outsiders" in their love for Phantom of the Paradise, says Stanley. Luckily, through conventions, screenings and efforts like the making of Phantom of Winnipeg, many of those fans have come together.

"These people who had this huge affinity for something found each other, and it's great when outsiders get that," said Stanley.

One of the most revered elements of the Phantom of the Paradise is the soundtrack. The movie's songs were produced and written by Paul Williams, a songwriter famed for hits like Rainbow Connection and We've Only Just Begun, who also starred in the movie.

Doug Carlson, a longtime movie fan and consulting producer for Phantom of Winnipeg, recalls how the music enthralled him when he first saw the film at the Garrick Theatre in Winnipeg decades ago, at the age of 10.

"I remember the entire audience being absolutely rapt and in awe of what we were seeing," he said. "It was the most amazing audio-visual spectacle that we had ever seen in our lives."

Inspired by fan convention

Phantom of the Paradise was so beloved by Winnipeggers that in 2005, a local group of fans, Carlson included, organized celebrations to watch the movie together. Dubbed Phantompalooza, the first event featured screenings and appearances by some of the cast members from the movie, and drew a reported 1,200 fans. Its success inspired organizers to put together another event the following year.

In 2006, they invited more original cast members to attend — including Paul Williams, who performed a concert in connection with the event.

"They all agreed and we managed to reunite the original cast of the movie," said Carlson. That proved to be a bit difficult since there aren't any direct flights from Los Angeles to Winnipeg.

Calrson called it "a surreal quest to bring everyone to Winnipeg in April, before the snow had melted."

Singer, songwriter and actor Paul Williams — who starred in Phantom of the Paradise and wrote the movie's music — talked with the documentary's filmmakers about Winnipeg's obsession with the movie. He performed in the city in 2006 during the second Phantompalooza fan convention. (Sean Stanley)

After the Phantompalooza event in 2006, Carlson published an article online titled Why Winnipeg? that described the city's "Phantom-mania."

"At the time I thought [publishing that story] would be my farewell to my involvement with Phantompalooza," said Carlson. The opposite happened.

Publishing that story became the catalyst for Phantom of Winnipeg — as it caught the attention of Ingram, who reached out to Carlson.

Ingram said he was blown away by the concept of Winnipeg's Phantom of the Paradise connection.

"An entire city embracing the movie on its initial release — it just seemed really unbelievable," he said.  

Carlson says the documentary is "a wonderful, uproarious, heartwarming journey," that captures what Ingram and Stanley call the "quirkiness" of Winnipeg.

The documentary, which took four years to create, taught Stanley a lot about fan culture.

"The limit of fandom has no limit," he said.

Phantom of Winnipeg is set to debut at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal on July 12.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kelsey Mohammed is one of the 2019 recipients of the CBC News Joan Donaldson scholarship. She has experience reporting at CBC Toronto and Winnipeg.

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