The theatre of death.
By the late '80s I'd dare say that the whole slasher film genre had pretty much burned itself out. Certainly Hollywood was still making Friday the 13th, Part 96: Jason Applies for Social Security but how fun could these movies still be? We were still nearly a decade away from the genre-bending Scream and we were deluded with a glut of low budget films in which directors basically tried to outdo each other with their fake blood expense reports. Not too different from this trend Michele Soavi's Stage Fright, a cult classic lesson in bloodletting that Anchor Bay has rescued from a vault, restored to its full length, and brought to DVD.
Facts of the Case
A troupe of struggling actors are working to put the finishing touches on a musical about a murderer/rapist dressed in an owl costume who will in turn get raped and murdered by one of his victims. Set to an '80s style musical score, something like that would be sure to bring audiences flocking in, right? One problem (other than the stupid premise of the play) is that the star actress, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti—The Church), has a bum ankle and she needs to have it treated. Since the director, Peter (David Brandon), is a bit of a perfectionist and an egotistical jerk, Alicia finds it necessary to sneak out to a hospital which also doubles as an asylum. Coincidentally, this is the same asylum where a serial killer named Irving Wallace is being held, albeit not very well since he escapes and kills Alicia's friend when they return to the theater.
After the police haul off the body, Peter decides that to fill the seats he'll turn the musical into the story of Irving Wallace, who takes offense at this and begins slaughtering everybody while wearing the owl costume. Unfortunately, Peter had had someone lock all the doors and throw away the key to make sure nobody left during the rehearsal, so everyone is trapped in the theater with a psychopath. You know the drill after this and you can probably recite what happens next without even seeing the movie.
• People get separated and killed.
If you hadn't already guessed from the plot synopsis, Stage Fright falls right into the "Been There, Done That" category. In this case, it's pretty much been done before and much better in films like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street. This was Michele Soavi's rookie attempt at a feature length film, much less a slasher movie, and there's really a lot he could have learned from the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven instead of the dozens and dozens of B-grade horror directors. The first lesson would have been in shot selection. For instance, there seemed to be too many instances where there wasn't enough action for all the characters, so we were treated to annoyingly long shots of actresses simply screaming. There are a couple instances where Soavi tries to do some sort of artistic camera motion, but this falls flat when it breaks the 180-degree rule and manages to confuse the viewer. And there's yet another case when the cast is rehearsing the play that Alicia's "body" is thrown skyward a full ten feet (it's obviously a dummy) but yet in the next shot she's really Alicia. I'd really love to know how they were going to pull off that bit of trickery during a theatrical play in front of a live audience. Bad move, folks.
Another great lesson to have used in this film was to have had characters with more intelligence than a potted fern. Sure, slasher movies always have a bunch of really dumb people that you expect to be slaughtered like sheep, but at least some intelligence would have been helpful. For example, the guy holding the axe shouldn't have been trying to negotiate with the chainsaw-wielding killer, he should have been swinging wildly and hoping to hit an artery. (And if you're wondering where they would have gotten axes and chainsaws inside a theater, I'd like to point out that there was a workshop loaded to the brink with all sorts of sharp and pointy implements.)
My comments above pretty much hit 95% of all horror movies. Throw in some rancid acting and some really bad dialogue and some mind-numbing situations and that pretty much sums up Stage Fright
Anchor Bay has provided an anamorphic transfer that capably preserves the colors (especially red). Keep in mind, however, that this is a low budget film that's been sitting in a vault in Rome for several years, so you'll need to excuse the graininess and occasional scratches that also get showcased in the film. The audio transfer is also decent, but this is only a two-channel surround presentation, so there's nothing really to get overly excited about. For extras Anchor Bay has provided the theatrical trailer and a biography of Michele Soavi, which shocked me when I discovered Michele is a guy's name.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's really only one universal appeal to slasher films, and that would be the gallons and gallons of fake blood that get spewed, dribbled, poured, and shot across the screen. There's nothing like a good arterial spray to get things going. When you can couple this with flying limbs and/or heads, then you're really on to something. In this regard, Stage Fright delivers in spades. Naturally things start slow (the first death comes quick and with little gore) and by the end we get chainsaw dismemberments.
The other appeal of slasher films (okay, there's two universal appeals) is the unique ways that the killer manages to off his hapless victims. While a chainsaw isn't particularly inventive, though the scenes it's used in throw a nice nod and a wink to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the more creative death involves an industrial grade handheld drill. So Stage Fright pretty much delivers on this count, as well.
The next universal appeal of slasher films (okay, three; there's three universal appeals) is the young starlets taking off their clothes. Well, this didn't happen a whole lot in Stage Fright and when it did, it was met with cries of "don't do it!"
I guess two out of three isn't bad.
Stage Fright is loaded with buckets and buckets of fake blood and scream queens doing their thing in sound ranges only dogs can hear. If you like this sort of thing you'll probably get a real kick out of this movie. If you don't like slasher films, you really ought to give this one a miss.
Stage Fright is guilty of being a pretty simplistic and overall dumb slasher film, but I'll let it off with probation because fans of the genre will enjoy it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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