A review requested by Travis Neeley, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

By 1974, Brian De Palma had seven features under his belt, with the seventh, 1973's Sisters, having kicked off his legendary run of Hitchcock riffs. So we cannot possibly call Phantom of the Paradise, the director's eighth feature, made when he was 33, the work of a fresh and untried voice. But that's kind of exactly the way it feels: like an explosive volley from the id of some mad, unfocused genius who wanted to puke up some kind of incredibly personal and idiosyncratic new cinema onto the screen without formal training or any sense what he could and couldn't get away with. When that kind of untrammeled creativity meets with the relative classicism and polish of someone with De Palma's professional background, the results are formidable indeed: it's one of those miraculous "only in the '70s" movies that required the full faith and backing of a major studio despite how transparently the massively strange product was going to be a flop. Which it was, everywhere, except for the city of Winnipeg.

The title clues us in that this is to be, at some level, a dressed-up adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera; it's also clear within minutes of the film's start that it's going to combine that story with the evergreen Faust legend (and this is does fairly well, though there's a stretch in the second act where the Phantom elements feel rather indifferently tacked-on). We are told in an opening narration by none other than Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame that the music world, circa 1974, is totally dominated by the machinations of Swan (Paul Williams), a genius label owner and manager with the power to create or destroy any music artist he wants. His current favorites are the immensely popular '50s throwback boy band the Juicy Fruits, whom he plans to use as the main act at the opening of his extraordinary new club, the Paradise. And one day after a Juicy Fruits rehearsal, he hears exactly the piece of music he wants them to play at that most august event: an ambitious cantata adapting the Faust legend into the modern day, written by earnest nerd Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan has his hatchet man, Philbin (George Memmoli) promise a recording contract to Winslow, in order to acquire the music, but this is a fake-out; when Winslow shows up demanding an audience with Swan, he's framed as a drug dealer and sent to Sing Sing.

Eventually he escapes, and in an attempt to disrupt Swan's plans, he falls afoul of a record press, mangling his face and vocal cords. This doesn't slow down his attempts to stop the Paradise from opening; he steals a costume and skulks around, sabotaging whatever he can from the shadows. Swan quickly assumes it's easier to join forces than fight this phantom, and offers Winslow a contract, larded up with curiously Satanic passages about the ownership of souls. Given the chance to regain control of his Faust, Winslow leaps for it, and also uses it as an opportunity to give the pretty back-up singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper) a chance to have her wonderful voice give life to his music. But Swan, being the Devil, has plenty of double-crosses left to play, and the opening of the Paradise will still be on his terms, no matter what control Winslow thinks he has.

Recasting Phantom - or at least the 1943 Universal adaptation of the book - as a satire of the 1970s music industry is already a bit batty, and it's the most levelheaded thing that De Palma's film ever does. Phantom of the Paradise is equal parts compendium of the director's interests as a cinephile - Touch of Evil and (naturally) Psycho are among the classics to be explicitly referenced - and showcase for the young Turk's visual flair. That same Touch of Evil homage doubles-down on Orson Welles by including two long tracking shots, presented side-by-side in split-screen, and occasionally showing the same action from different angles; it's the moment that most expressly looks forward to the De Palma of the future in a film that otherwise feels more like some unimaginable combination of Ken Russell and Peter Bogdanovich. Throughout, the director and cinematographer Larry Pizer favor extravagantly wide lenses, giving even the most innocuous moments a bulbous exaggeration that leaves the whole thing feeling utterly demented.

It doesn't take camera trickery to make Phantom of the Paradise look demented, though; the film's design is, as a whole, thoroughly crazed, creating a world of weird interior spaces that have one foot in reality and one foot in an acid trip, populated by some dazzlingly colorful make-up and costume designs slapped onto the game actors. And some of the actors don't even need that: in the central roles, Finley and Williams look like caricatures come to life, with the former's wild-eyed expressions and the latter's compact build and scrunched-up facial features (not to mention his snake-baby voice) making instant, profound impressions even before the plot kicks in.

The oddball imagery fits perfectly with the loopy sense of humor that De Palma uses to bring his unclassifiable hybrid of horror, parody, satire, and head comedy to life. It's probably not fair to say that Phantom of the Paradise is as-such funny; the closest it comes to outright jokes are the songs generously scattered throughout it, all of them written by Williams in a series of pastiches on '50s dead boyfriend anthems, surf rock tributes to cars, theatrical glam rock, and moony singer-songwriter ballads (and then there's the matter of the end-credits tune, "The Hell of It", a menacing combination of acerbic character assassination and jaunty piano riffs from out of the Old West) - a delightful soundtrack all told, one that's proudly campy and sly.

But I was about to talk about the comedy in the film, or anyway the lack of it. Phantom of the Paradise isn't really comic; but it's unstintingly absurd, far too random and lighthearted to function as any sort of horror, no matter how hard the images and plot nudge us in that direction. It's impossible to pin it down to genre, so even as the plot clicks out in exactly the way you assume it will (until it goes Surrealist in the last third), there's never a chance to get out ahead of the film. It always darts in its own direction, and watching it is a constant effort to keep up with its inventive insanity.

It's bravura cinematic spectacle with just enough literary antecedent and social commentary that it doesn't come across as shallow as the word "spectacle" implies. But the spectacle is still pretty wonderful: it's as wild and yet consistent in its aesthetics as anything I've seen of De Palma's (which is, to be fair, not very much), and certainly more exhilarating than some of his more iconic but also more containable efforts. It is silly and stylish in exactly the right measures, a hugely fun exercise in demented excess that launches acidic critiques at everything it can, without ever feeling the slightest bit sour. If it sometimes allows its twitchy weirdness to serve as its own justification, well, it works hard to earn that weirdness, and it's enormously satisfying to watch it sprawl out over the film's unrelenting 92 minutes.