Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Stage Fright (1987)

... aka: Aquarius
... aka: Bloody Bird
... aka: Deliria
... aka: Sound Stage Massacre
... aka: StageFright: Aquarius
... aka: StageFright: Theater des Todes
... aka: Théâtre de la peur, Le (Theater of Death)

Directed by:
"Michael" (Michele) Soavi

The same year he was second unit director on Dario Argento's similarly-themed OPERA (1987), Michele Soavi made his own stage theater-set slasher flick called Deliria. For the American release it was re-titled Stage Fright, which caused a little confusion with another 80s slasher flick with a theater setting from Australia called Nightmares (1980), which had also been issued on VHS as STAGE FRIGHT. Regardless of what title people saw it under (Aquarius, The Bloody Bird and Sound Stage Massacre were just a few of the other titles), it was the film that put the director on the radar of horror fans worldwide. Prior to this, he'd been mentored by a whole host of notable Italian horror / exploitation filmmakers; serving as an actor, writer and / or assistant director on films made by Lamberto Bava, Lucio Fulci, Joe D'Amato and others. It was the Argento connection though that echoed strongest; the two men had worked on over half-a-dozen projects throughout the 80s, and inevitable comparisons were drawn between Soavi's visual style and Argento's. Argento however was not at all involved in the production of Soavi's feature film debut. He'd actually been recommended for this job by D'Amato, who also produced the film. The screenplay was from "Lew Cooper;" an alias for sometimes actor / sometimes writer George Eastman, who's probably best known to horror buffs for playing the cannibal-killer in THE GRIM REAPER (1980); another D'Amato film.

The action centers around a minor stage production at a small theater called "The Night Owl," which is being put together by director Peter Connors (David Brandon). Peter is desperate for a hit (and money) and has concocted a "controversial" story line about a killer in a giant owl headdress who is raped by one of his resurrected female victims. He's also a pretentious prick who constantly screams at and berates his cast and crew and demands more "Sex... S-E-X!" from his nubile lead actress Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), who's at her wit's end with him. Other expected theater types are around, including sleazy / pushy producer Ferrari (Piero Vida), backstabbing diva Laurel (Mary Sellers), Peter's harried assistant Mark (Martin Philips), bitchy queen Brett ("John Morghen" / Giovanni Lombardo Radice), dancer Corinne ("Lori Parrel" / Loredana Parrella) and Sybil (Jo Ann Smith) and Danny (Robert Gligorov), a couple of actors dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. After Alicia injures her ankle, she and wardrobe mistress Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) sneak off to the nearest hospital to get it treated. They end up at a mental asylum instead, where psycho Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who murdered sixteen people and chopped them up into little pieces, is being temporarily housed. Irving manages to kill an orderly, escapes the building and hides out in the backseat of Betty's car when they head back to the theater.

Not long after they return, Betty is found outside with a pick-axe through her head. The police are called in to investigate but there's no trace of the killer anywhere, so the show must go on. Peter decides to make some alterations to their play to cash in on the publicity of both the escaped murderer and Betty's murder, and rushes to get it all started. With a few police officers (played by Mickey Knox and the director) stationed outside just in case, Peter organizes an over-night practice session with his chief cast and crew. Naturally, the killer hasn't really gone anywhere and is just hiding out inside the theaters waiting to strike. He murders the guy playing the killer in the play, steals his owl mask and then begins bumping everyone off one by one. No one can get out of the building because there's just one exit (gee, talk about your fire hazards); an impenetrable steel door that can only be opened by a key that has turned up missing.

Though the film has its fans, and its moments, overall it's mostly just an average, watchable, unexceptional film in its category. For the entire first hour we're treated to little of interest: the plot is ordinary, the dialogue is terrible, the characters are annoying / unlikable stereotypes (not helped any by the awful English dubbing) and the whole thing plays out in an extremely predictable fashion. There's a great music score (from Simon Boswell), decent cinematography and art direction and some blood to help us along, though. Numerous victims are stabbed, a few are axed, an eyeball gets gouged, an arm and head get chopped off, a body is sawed in half, someone is set on fire and, since the theater also happens to have a woodworking shop inside, the killer even manages to get his hands on an electric drill and a chainsaw. Once everyone but our heroine is killed off, the film begins to improve significantly, with nicely stylized and composed shots and some suspenseful cat-and-mouse moments. Particularly good is a sequence where our heroine is under the stage trying to quietly retrieve a key wedged in a crack while the killer sits in a chair right above her with the theater's feline mascot Lucifer sitting on his lap.

Other scenes in the final half hour are lessened somewhat by idiocy. A good example is when the killer corners Alicia up on some scaffolding, gets knocks off and is left dangling from a wire and trying to climb back up. Our heroine, who has an axe in her hands, frantically begins chopping the wire when she could just as easily chop him and end it all. After the killer falls, she just drops the axe for no reason and walks back down to where the psycho is,  completely unarmed. A final "shock" scene was also grafted on at the very end that's really lame.

Though Stage Fright cost less than a million dollars to make, it was a theatrical flop in Italy. Here in the U.S. it received a very limited big screen release in 1989 before being issued to VHS later that same year by Imperial Entertainment. Anchor Bay was the first to get it out onto DVD and it has since been released on numerous other labels. Soavi went on to make La chiesa / The Church (1989), La setta / "The Sect" (1991; U.S. title = The Devil's Daughter) and the cult favorite Cemetery Man (1994), but has since pretty much bowed out of the horror genre. He even passed up the opportunity to direct From Dusk Till Dawn in 1995 during his hiatus and now mostly directs Italian TV movies.



Anonymous said...

And there's yet ANOTHER slasher called Stage Fright (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGriHLjtXxQ) about to be released.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Lawd! I can't keep up.

BW said...

This holds pretty firm as my favourite slasher, I appreciate how from almost the earliest moments it actively treats the slasher genre as a form of theatre, bound by convention and audience expectation, but then seeks out art rather than the insipid post modern humour that seems to be a mainstay of such metagenre fare.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

You know, it never crossed my mind while watching this that it was striving to be anything other than a straight-forward (albeit stylish) slasher flick. The wink at the very end does hint at some playfulness but I actually found it awkward and a bit jarring in contrast to how seriously the film took itself up until that point. Trying to deconstruct and then put a fresh spin on a worn out, predictable formula without also becoming one of those films and falling prey to the same issues is a tough thing to pull off.

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