When Brian De Palma’s rock opera/love story/horror film The Phantom of the Paradise hit theaters in 1974, it was a complete box office bust. Twentieth Century Fox had no idea how to promote the over-the-top genre-melding film, and nothing seemed to be catch audiences’ attention. Across the globe, no one was seeing the movie, and no one cared. That is except for in one singular city: Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Phantom of Winnipeg, directed by Malcolm Ingram (Small Town Gay Bar) and Sean Stanley, is a nearly perfect exploration into the super-fandom that took over Winnipeg in 1974 and 1975. Seemingly inexplicably, the children of Winnipeg (yes, children) flocked to the film in unheard-of numbers, keeping The Phantom of the Paradise in theaters for months on end and even outgrossing Jaws, which would come out the following summer. “I’ve probably seen it 40 or 50 times,” brags one of these super fans. “In its original release.”
The heart of Phantom of Winnipeg lies in these fans that supported the film from the beginning and who are now even more unwavering in their support. Their passion is so palpable it’s impossible to not smile along with them as they describe how it felt to be just eight or nine years old, sneaking into the theater for two, three, even four showings in a row. Perhaps unable to put their feelings into words as children to bewildered parents, the large cast of now-adult fans in this film have no such problems today.
The response Winnipeg gave to The Phantom of the Paradise, and still gives today, is endearing and affecting, managing to never cross the line into cringe-worthy fanaticism, despite detailing decades of obsession. Isolated in the dead center of Canada, many of the diehard fans didn’t know — and couldn’t fathom — the response from the rest of the general public, but the ‘Peggers didn’t care, they just knew the unbridled, incessant joy it brought to them and their city.
In addition to the fans’ fiercely eager testimonies, Phantom of Winnipeg features stars of Phantom of the Paradise Gerrit Graham, Peter Ebling, and Paul Williams (who also wrote the lyrics and music for the film, earning him an Oscar nomination). Even after all these years, none of the men can quite grasp the love Winnipeg has for their film. They are clearly honored and deeply appreciative, each speaking highly of their experiences with fans from Winnipeg. Writer-director Kevin Smith also steps in throughout the film, declaring this type of ceaseless love a filmmaker’s dream come true.
Nowadays, The Phantom of the Paradise is a revered cult classic. It may not be known by everyone, but those that have seen it are quick to recommend it to all their friends. It still plays in packed retrospectives today, including a sold-out screening at Fantasia Festival, where Phantom of Winnipeg premiered. This long-lasting reputation is without a doubt due to Winnipeg and the love this city always gave to De Palma’s film. Without Winnipeg, The Phantom of the Paradise likely would’ve been forgotten by the end of 1974.
Phantom of Winnipeg is so captivating and heartfelt that even those not familiar with The Phantom of the Paradise are in for a genuine treat. Those who are already fans will instantly connect with the lovable cast of oddballs who so vehemently and constantly express their love for this underdog film. Regardless of your personal connection to this exact film, though, it’s impossible to not reminisce on similar experiences with any of your own favorite films. A true testament to the power of fandom, Phantom of Winnipeg reminds us of the pure joy film can bring a whole community.