Michele Soavi a former assistant director to the likes of Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Joe D’Amato (the producer here) created this hit and miss pastiche of the slasher and one of that sub-genre’s main innovators the Italian giallo. In this his directorial debut Soavi recreates all the common characteristic traits of a slasher film both good and bad with the latter being displayed here in the massive gaping flaws in logic. ‘Stage Fright’ also fails to elicit the mystery of the gialli thriller.
Taking place in the single late night setting of a theatre a troupe of struggling young actors are rehearsing a bizarre musical about a serial killer called the night owl as he wears a large owl head to cover his own. They are working with perfectionist arsehole director Peter (David Brandon) and the production’s investor Ferrari (Piero Vida) is overseeing the rehearsals. The leading lady of the show Alicia (Barbara Cupist) sprains her ankle so her and the wardrobe mistress Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) sneak out of the back entrance to go see a doctor. Unfortunately and very implausibly, the nearest medical centre is a mental asylum. One of the on duty psychiatrists happily agrees to treat Alicia. While waiting Betty notices a male patient restrained to a bed behind bars. The doctor tells them that he just so happens to be a former actor (I am rolling my eyes as I write this) named Irving Wallace who went bat shit crazy and killed sixteen people. Before they leave and without their knowledge, Wallace kills one of the orderlies who were attending to him with a syringe and hides in the back seat of Betty’s car (groan!).
When they arrive back at the theatre Peter is most displeased at Alicia’s disappearance from rehearsals and fires her. While this is going on the escaped Wallace murders Betty outside (I am leaving how she is killed spoiler free). After Betty’s body is taken away, the police leave two ineffective officers outside in the car park to keep a look out (the younger of the two is director Soavi in a cameo). Peter has one of his actresses hide the key so nobody can leave and cashing in on Betty’s murder, he alters the script. The once anonymous killer is now named after Irving Wallace. The director demands that the entire cast stay all night to rehearse with the new material with the vast amount of that just being the ingenious change of the play’s title. Back stage during the late night rehearsals the real Wallace kills the actor playing him and dons the owl head. When he is called onto stage to rehearse a death scene with the actress who hid the key the only one who knows where it is he viciously murders her for real (another kill I will leave free of spoilers for you). Now trapped in the theatre Wallace picks them off one by one in numerous gruesome ways as they struggle to find a way out.
As you might gather from my sarcasm in this synopsis, it was easy for me to poke fun at the ridiculous amount of illogical dumb plot points. However, to be fair to the movie it does have its tongue in cheek but it is just not so obvious for us to notice. It plays out like a prototype ‘Scream’ with Michele Soavi taking a stab (terrible pun) at the slasher film. Having worked with Argento one of the most prominent auteurs in influencing this style of horror Soavi has a firm grasp of the conventions of this sub-genre but he does not differentiate for the audience between what is a satirical nod to slasher elements and what we the viewers are supposed to take as serious plot developments. We know from the off watching Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ (1996) that it deconstructs those elements. It serves as a survival guide for the self-aware characters as they try to avoid the fatal mistakes made by the victims in these movies as they defend themselves against the horror film obsessed killer who is trying to make their very own feature. There is nothing here as a nudge and a wink approach to its source material. Except for the ending and more specifically the very last shot of the movie do we see this satire brought to the surface. Other than that though it all just seems like immense stupidity.
The mystery of the giallo is shot in the foot with the reveal of the killer early on and for that, the film is more just slasher territory. The director does though show off stylistic touches with visuals that would make Argento proud of his former stalwart. Aficionados of this movement of Italian cinema will have a fun time pointing out the homages Michele Soavi makes to the very movies he served as assistant director on particularly Dario Argento’s fantastic ‘Tenebre’ (1982).
Plus points are scored for entertaining stalk and slash set-pieces incorporating solid tense suspense and goretastic kills that are truly memorable (again, I am not spoiling any). While I feel the musical score does not fit in with the unsettling action of the horror in this isolated setting of a darkened theatre it is quite atmospheric. Apart from Cupist as the likable final girl Alicia the rest of the characters trying to survive the night are just so unlikable in that they are either annoyingly stupid or just overbearingly obnoxious.
All in all ‘Stage Fright’ is a mixed bag that shows off the promise of the talented Soavi who would go on to make a much loved genre classic with his trip into zombieland with ‘Cemetery Man’ (1994). The reason I chose not to ruin any of the tight taut suspense and eye-popping kills for any genre fans who have yet to see the film is that it is well worth watching just for those very reasons if you appreciate the slasher sub-genre. With some lovely visuals to boot, it is at least worth a one-time investigation.
** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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