Michele Soavi’s theatrical slasher film feels like an extravagant end-of-an-era production.
By the time Stage Fright was released in 1987, the Italian exploitation film that had outlasted most of its European counterparts was on its last legs. Italian filmmakers had been fairly consistently churning out horror, sci-fi, westerns, cop movies, sex films and other genre productions since the 1960s, and in the early years of the 1980s, this flood of work showed no sign of slowing down, unlike their rivals from the rest of Europe – but by the middle of the decade, the prolific output had been reduced to a trickle, and then very quickly more or less ground to a halt. The home video boom that had helped make Italian cult cinema so popular also killed off the international market for new titles. While movies were still being made, few of them were memorable and only a handful have achieved the lasting popularity of their predecessors from just a few years earlier. By the end of the decade, only the most determined and adaptable filmmakers like Joe D’Amato were still working regularly – and even they were struggling to have the same impact with their work as they’d had just a few years earlier. D’Amato saw the writing on the wall – within a few years, he’d switched to making glossy hardcore movies that maintained his reputation (albeit with a new audience) and in the second half of the 1980s he was working more as a producer than director, nurturing new talent that would invariably struggle to find work beyond his productions.
One of those directors was Michele Soavi, who had worked his way up from being an assistant and second unit director on films like Tenebrae and Demons to making a documentary about Dario Argento (a director who would continue as Italy’s leading horror director for decades to come but who had already lost his mojo by 1985). Soavi was seen as the great hope for a new generation of Italian horror directors, though in the end, his film career was brief and – with the exception of the critically acclaimed Dellamorte Dellamore in 1994 – fairly undistinguished, with him languishing in TV since the mid-1990s. However, Stage Fright suggested a potential new talent emerging. It’s not that the film is particularly original or exceptional, but Soavi brings a definite visual flourish to the rather basic story – and compared to everything else coming out of Italy by this point, it’s pretty impressive – and certainly Soavi’s best movie as far as I’m concerned.
Often seen as a late-era giallo film, Stage Fright (aka Deliria; Aquarius and Stagefright just to confuse things) is actually closer in style to American slasher movies of the 1980s, replacing the traditional black-gloved killer and whodunnit approach of the giallo with the established 1980s idea of the masked maniac, freshly escaped from an asylum and terrorising a group of young people. However, the film offers its own twist on the concept.
The film opens deceptively – viewers might groan, expecting the worst, as a cliched looking 1980s hooker walks down a stagey-looking street and is attacked by a maniac who is, bizarrely, wearing an owl head mask. As people run to see what is happening, things suddenly become very odd. Is the killer dancing? The camera pulls back to reveal that this is, in fact, a theatrical performance, the rehearsal for a genuinely dreadful-looking dance musical that just isn’t coming together. Director Peter (David Brandon) is a dictator who has ego and ambition, but no talent (I wonder if Soavi and co-writer George Eastman – a veteran of Italian sleaze – modelled this on anyone that they had worked with), and his cast of hapless nobodies in search of their big break seems equally lacking in ability. When leading lady Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) hurts her ankle, wardrobe lady Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) breaks the director’s rules by leaving the building and taking her to a hospital. OK, so it’s a psychiatric hospital, but they still have doctors, right?
This somewhat laughable contrivance allows psycho killer (and former actor) Irving Wallace – not to be confused with the author of The Seven Minutes and The Chapman Report, but a name unusual enough that you think it could hardly be a coincidence – to escape and hide in their car, travelling back to the theatre with them and then killing Betty as Alicia goes inside to face her director’s wrath. As the police arrive to investigate the crime, Peter has a cunning idea – if they change the name of the killer in their play to ‘Irving Wallace’, they can cash in on the murder (he tells the press that Betty was an actress in the play) and attract massive crowds. He locks the doors of the theatre and prepares to rehearse his cast all night. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, the real killer has slipped inside too, and he is soon offing the performers using the sort of handy tools you often find lying around backstage in theatres – axes, power drills, chainsaws and so on are put to use in a frantic second act where the deaths come thick and fast. Soavi delivers these murders with a sense of grandeur and plenty of gore, showing the influence of Argento in his extravagant setups and a touch of Lucio Fulci in his use of graphic violence. The killer – for no good reason when you think about it – has donned the owl mask previously worn in the stage show by ultra-camp Brett (Italian cult stalwart Giovanni Lombardo Radice, here performing under his John Morghen pseudonym), and once he’s killed everyone except the Final Girl Alicia, the film takes an odd turn. As she desperately tries to find the keys, the killer positions the corpses on stage in a grotesque tableau and then plays baseball with the severed heads. Yes, really. It’s a weirdly ridiculous moment, and definitely eerie in a strange way, the masked murderer sitting in a chair waiting, feathers flying in the air, dead bodies surrounding him. It briefly suggests that the film might have more deliriously absurd ideas going on that the average slasher, but it eventually gets back on track and ends in classic slasher style, complete with an unstoppable killer who is never quite dead.
Soavi gives his film a visual polish and sense of grandeur that is missing from many a slasher movie, and it’s this, more than the narrative, that ties it to the Italian giallo thriller tradition, where style often overrode substance. He certainly wears his influences – Italian and American, horror and theatrical – on his sleeve, and that’s no bad thing. Luckily, he also manages to keep the story moving along and a good pace and the screenplay by Eastman, while certainly chock full of cliches, wastes no time and keeps the action centred within the theatre (we get occasional cuts to a pair of useless cops – one of whom is Soavi – parked outside the theatre, but this isn’t damaging in the way that, say, the sudden cut to exterior action in Demons is). Soavi certainly knows how to get the best out of the basic story, and brings – suitably, given the plot – a Grand Guignol sense of the grotesque to the action with a series of grisly, if not especially inventive killings. Simon Boswell’s score is interesting – at its best, it’s a neat variation on the electronic rock of Fabio Frizzi and Goblin, at its worst ultra cheesy, though this is presumably a deliberate decision as it is the soundtrack music of the equally cheesy stage show being rehearsed.
Stage Fright is far from perfect. The acting, even allowing for the problems of dubbing, is variable, the dialogue terrible, the plot full of contrivances that are hard to swallow and there are several moments that are likely to induce unsolicited laughter. There’s no escaping the fact that the owl mask is a ludicrous disguise, though once you get used to it, it becomes more effective. And clearly, all the effort has gone into making the film look great rather than hold together as a story. But seen years later, it stands up rather more effectively than you might expect for a film so thoroughly wedded to Eighties imagery. It might ultimately be little more than fluff, but it’s entertaining fluff.
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