This is the story of Swan (Paul Williams), a record industry mogul who had his first hit single at the age of fourteen, and went on to huge fame with the chart-topping band the Juicy Fruits. Since then, his fortune has rocketed, and his talent at finding the right song for the right person at the right time is as keen as ever. Why, it's almost as if he has sold his soul to the Devil such is his success. On the other end of the scale is struggling singer-songwriter Wiinslow Leach (William Finley) who has poured his life into his cantata which he hopes to sell to Swan. He is interested all right - only he doesn't want Winslow around to reap the benefits...
Writer and director Brian De Palma really showed off his knowledge of not simply classic horror fiction but the filmmakers who influenced him in his barnstorming rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, and he wasn't shy about letting the viewer appreciate his breadth of understanding of the media. Yet at heart this was an attack on the cynicism and bad taste of showbiz which ironically were exactly what he used to make his point: the film is gaudy and sick, but brimming with energy, colourful and in some respects muddled, but never short of ideas.
Even if those ideas were somebody else's: it's odd how Swan is set up as the bad guy for appropriating others' material when De Palma does the same to create his film. The difference is that he is paying tribute, while Swan is a crooked operator. Some see Phantom as the immediate predecessor to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there are similarities with the same homage-driven horror musical conventions throughout (if there never were such things before, there certainly were after). But there's more glee in this film, less sorrow in its nostalgia.
Winslow becomes the Phantom more by accident than by design. The Paradise is Swan's newest venture, a rock venue that will beat all the others with its glittering acts and dramatic staging. When Winslow tries to get credit for writing the songs that have been poached, he is thrown out of the mogul's mansion and framed on a heroin dealing charge, which lands him in prison (where he is given metal teeth, bizarrely). When he hears one of his works on the radio, he flies into a rage, escapes and heads to the record-pressing plant to stop production, but alas is caught in one of the machines, leaving him disfigured and without his voice.
So what else to do but don a costume and wreak revenge? Installing himself in The Paradise, he attempts to terrrorise the place, but Swan catches him and offers him a Faustian pact: write the songs and Swan will ensure Phoenix (Jessica Harper), the love of Winslow's life (after meeting her for about five minutes) will perform them. Of course, Winslow didn't read his contract properly and Swan hires flamboyant shock rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham, almost walking away with a very loud film) to be the star. Not that this will stop The Phantom having his way... For a comedy, it's not all that funny, and for a horror it may be slightly queasy but it's not scary, yet Williams' songs show versatility even if they do make the movie sound like a paean to easy listening when Phoenix's stylings are lifted onto a pedestal over the far more enjoyable outrageousness that Winslow despises. As an experience, though, the film easily sweeps you up with its vitality.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.