Based on The Phantom of the Opera and Faust with overt references to Frankenstein, A Cask of Amontillado, and other classic horror tales, Brian De Palma’s 1974 fantasy-horror-rock opera Phantom of the Paradise tells the tragic story of Winslow Leach (William Finley), a young singer, and Swan (Paul Williams), a mysterious record producer.
The two become connected when the diabolical Swan begins searching for the perfect act to christen his new music venue, The Paradise, and Winslow, a talented composer willing to do whatever it takes to show the world his music, presents it to him. Throughout the film, a motif of distorted mirror images recurs, revealing the characters in their lowest moments as they become separated from any morals and their deep-seated desires take over.
Perched in an office high up above the stage, Swan scrutinizes his clients. Hidden behind a one-way mirror, the nefarious record producer is unseen, but his presence is known to all. The band on stage at the beginning of the film is a retro-greaser threesome called The Juicy Fruits, and once they finish their performance, they immediately turn to the mirror above them. Their warped, desperate reflections wait for Swan’s feedback with bated breath.
Like all who work for Swan, The Juicy Fruits are willing to do anything for his approval. As the introductory voiceover informs us just minutes earlier, Swan’s “past is a mystery, but his work is already a legend.” He does not need to be seen to be revered, and The Juicy Fruits are the first to be shown through this recurring motif of mirrors. They are no longer people, just reflections of pure desire for fame and notoriety.
Following The Juicy Fruits’ performance, Winslow takes the stage and begins his passionate cantata. He sings the story of Faust selling his soul to the Devil, and Swan takes immediate notice from his mirrored cove — finally, something truly good enough for The Paradise. Faust may not be enough to convince Swan to leave the safety of his hideaway, but he sends his trusted number two to talk with the performer and acquire his music.
A month passes, and Winslow has heard nothing more about the opportunity to open The Paradise with Faust. Desperate, he arrives at the aptly named Death Records and finds Swan “auditioning” young women for the lead. Unable to make it past security, Winslow dons a dress and sneaks into the mirror-paneled audition room to find a sea of scantily clad women floundering around a large bed.
Their images distort on the walls, each of the girls so willing to do anything it takes to be famous by Swan’s hand that they become unrecognizable. The camera lingers on what appears to be Swan swaggering into the den before it sweeps across the room, revealing the previous image of him to be yet another reflection.
This confusing perspective indicates how Swan ceaselessly shrouds himself in mystery — his fans and clients think they see and know him but in reality, he reveals to them only an image of himself. Swan is a deceptive shell of a human, luring young talent to his venue under a litany of false pretenses, especially about himself.
It is here, though, that Winslow meets Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful yet naïve singer who happens to escape Swan’s casting couch. He falls in love with her and, following the tragic loss of his voice and subsequent descent into madness, convinces Swan to hire her for the lead role. Winslow tries to help Phoenix achieve her dreams of becoming a singer without having to exchange sexual favors. Unfortunately, Swan is a step ahead of Winslow, and Phoenix falls into his trap.
Thrust onto the stage at the opening of The Paradise, the crowd’s adoration instantly intoxicates Phoenix. Following the success of her performance, Swan meets Phoenix backstage, where he finally convinces her to abandon any of her remaining morals and join his label. Throughout this sequence, he is shown speaking to her only in the mirror; the camera pans away to show Phoenix’s true body, but Swan remains out of frame, existing only in the mirror. Phoenix can’t see it, but his reflection tempts her only with false promises.
Winslow loves Phoenix, and when she chooses Swan over him, he sets out to destroy the producer. When sneaking around Swan’s archives, Winslow discovers a haunting tape. Despite it being dated 20 years prior, Swan appears physically the same. He sits in a bathtub facing a mirror with a razor blade pressed against his wrist and announces he is about to kill himself.
Winslow watches in horror as the reflection in the mirror becomes saturated in deep red light. An ominous voice echoes from behind the mirror, offering Swan eternal youth. Just as Faust did, Swan gives his soul up to the Devil for his truest desire. He signs the contract in blood.
Much to Winslow’s dismay, he finds a similar tape labeled with Phoenix’s name. Unlike Swan, she is not being tempted by the Devil in the form of her own reflection but by Swan himself. Still, she lays against a mirrored wall as she laughs and signs away her soul.
As she becomes the property of Swan and in turn the Devil, the reflection splits her in two. Phoenix has abandoned any semblance of humanity, choosing instead a soulless life of excess and fame.
Phantom of the Paradise is both a story about and of Faust. Standing in for the Devil, Swan continually asks various performers what they will give up for eternal success. Winslow’s Faust sings as cautionary tale, but by the end of the film, multiple characters have fallen into similar deals with the Devil.
After Swan gives up his soul for an eternal reflection of youth, he spends his career enticing young and talented performers to do the same, including Winslow, Phoenix, and presumably The Juicy Fruits. Throughout this film, De Palma uses mirrors to capture the liminal moments when characters cast aside morals for promises of desire come true.