By ANDY MAURO
Starring Paul Williams, Ed Pressman and Gerrit Graham
Directed by Malcolm Ingram and Sean Stanley
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I was born and raised there. A place colder than the surface of Mars, where people have died waiting for a bus in the winter. In the all-too-fleeting summer, you can barely go outside without being feasted on by swarms of rabid mosquitos. It’s the geographic dead center of the continent, and to the rest of the world a cultural wasteland. I left almost 20 years ago, and never looked back.
So it was with some amazement that I found myself choking up with nostalgia during the world premiere of PHANTOM OF WINNIPEG at Fantasia International Film Festival. On the surface, this is a movie about the strange, and in the wrong hands potentially derisive, fact that despite bombing literally everywhere else in the world, Brian De Palma’s 1974 film PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was a smash hit in Winnipeg, outperforming pop-cultural phenomena like JAWS and THE EXORCIST AND playing to full houses for over a year.
While Malcolm Ingram and Sean Stanley’s documentary never truly unearths the reason for this freak occurrence, the theories range from Winnipegers being natural obsessives to there simply being more musicians and artists in the city to appreciate the film’s elusive charms. This is, after all, a place where they drink two and a half times more Slurpees than the rest of the country combined, and where harsh winters keep people indoors, alone and inside their own heads, where creativity or loneliness can set in.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, because PHANTOM OF WINNIPEG uncovers something even more quirky and delightful than any pat answer would ever be. Much like the film’s protagonist Winslow Leach, who is so inspired by his passion for his music that he will stop at nothing to ensure it gets produced, the individual “Peggers” featured in the documentary are so motivated by their love of the characters, actors and music of their favorite movie that they almost magically manifest their own participation in its larger story over 40 years after its release. Via a series of one-on-one interviews, Ingram—best known for such heartfelt and illuminating LGBTQ films as BEAR NATION and SOUTHERN PRIDE—and Stanley reveal how PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE has influenced people to become singers, musicians, collectors and prop-makers, often overcoming their lives’ adversities through identification with this one particular movie, and the sense of belonging and community that rose up around it.
The bulk of the doc details how the various fans became aware of each other, eventually made contact and then pulled off the impossible: being able to not only meet but even befriend the likes of William Finley (Winslow), Gerrit Graham (Beef), Jessica Harper (Phoenix) and of course the inimitable Paul Williams (Swan and the film’s composer/lyricist). In the genuine awe and enthusiasm each side has for the other, PHANTOM OF WINNIPEG showcases the special alchemy that occurs when films transition from being owned by their creators to being stewarded by their fans. As one of the documentary’s subjects said in the Q&A after the packed screening, “I can’t believe that after all these times I’ve watched Paul in this movie, that now he’s here to watch me!”
While similar studies of obsessive genre fans like BEST WORST MOVIE (TROLL 2) and BRONIES (MY LITTLE PONY) had no compunction about lightly poking fun at their subject matter, PHANTOM OF WINNIPEG is a heartfelt take on, as interviewee Kevin Smith says, “people finding themselves and their religion.” It is hilarious while also being respectful, and is a love letter less to De Palma’s film than it is to a special, easily overlooked city and its people.