Join me for a summer abroad as I check out a series of foreign films from countries that have made a big splash in the horror community. Of course, in the spirit of this column I’ll be taking a peek at movies that may not be as well-known as some of the classics from their particular country. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to find a few surprises together.
[Spoiler warning if you haven't seen StageFright.]
As I wrap up my international horror tour this summer, I’ve decided to make a return trip to Italy, the land of bloody black gloves and bad dubbing. A few months ago I tried to acquire a taste for giallo with a viewing of A Blade in the Dark, and while it didn’t fully win me over, I knew I wanted to keep exploring the subgenre. A recent episode of the podcast Exploding Heads covered Michele Soavi’s (credited as "Michael Soavi") 1987 film StageFright as a sort of giallo/slasher hybrid, so I figured it was my best shot at getting on the giallo wavelength. If you’re not familiar with StageFright, that’s because this is literally the movie of a thousand (or at least half a dozen) names. You might also know it as Deliria, Aquarius, StageFright: Aquarius, or Bloody Bird.
Whatever you call it, the plot is the same. A theater company is rehearsing for what looks like one of the worst, sleaziest plays ever produced. After injuring her ankle, leading lady Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) has stagehand Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) help her sneak out to get away from overbearing director Peter (David Brandon) and get some treatment at the closest doctor she can find. Said doctor happens to be at the local sanitarium, home to Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), a former actor turned psychopath, so naturally when Alicia and Betty return to the theater they unknowingly do so with Wallace in the back seat. He promptly murders Betty when she goes back to the car, and rather than send everyone home, Peter instead decides to lock everyone into the theater for the night to make some last minute changes that could use the Irving Wallace angle as a cheap gimmick to bring in a bigger audience (classy!). As you might expect, this plan does not go well for those locked in with Wallace.
In last month's Catalog From The Beyond, I focused on Don’t Look Up, a movie that portrays a film set in a generally positive light (murderous spirits notwithstanding). StageFright, however, takes the opposite approach and includes every possible negative trope of theater life. The director is a pompous ass who barks orders at the cast. The producer, Ferrari (Piero Vida), is a lech who constantly makes passes at the actresses. Supporting actress Laurel (Mary Sellers) is constantly undermining Alicia and gunning for her role, and we even get the prerequisite catty actor Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), whose main purpose is to throw out witty bon mots from time to time.
Given that the movie is at least in part a slasher and came out in the late ’80s, unlikeable characters certainly aren’t out of the norm. Most slasher casts in the latter half of the decade were merely placeholders for gory set pieces. What gives StageFright a bit of a boost is the fact that some of these characters at least have some level of self-awareness. Peter, in particular, shows moments of genuine vulnerability, particularly after young ingénue Corinne (Loredana Parrella) is murdered and he takes the blame for putting everyone in danger in the first place. Granted, he continues to be a bit of an egomaniacal prick, but he gives just enough humanity to make you care whether or not he gets killed.
While director Soavi didn’t leverage the theater setting very much to his advantage in terms of character development, he did squeeze every drop of atmosphere out of the location. This is one creepy place, with all kinds of nooks and crannies for a murderous former actor to lurk. Whether it be a closet, a trap door, or even in the scaffolding, the ever-dwindling cast can’t seem to find a safe place to hide. And, of course, we couldn’t have a theater setting without the obligatory “murderer hiding in plain sight” sequence, when Wallace manages to murder poor Corinne in front of the oblivious crew who think it’s all just part of the scene, until, you know, she doesn’t get up. I know this trope has been done to death (tee-hee), but it never fails to be effective for me.
If you’re wondering how Wallace pulled off such a feat without anyone realizing it was him, perhaps now is the time to mention that he raided the costume closet for a giant owl mask before going on his little murder spree. For me, this element plants this movie pretty firmly into slasher territory for me. Gone are the black gloves, and there’s also no real mystery element to the film. We’re not as concerned with who he is so much as how he’s going to dispatch his next victim, which he does in a variety of ways, as this theater is apparently equipped with all manner of deadly tools. Knives, axes, drills, even a chainsaw are used to appropriately gory effect, which begs the question: what the hell was going on at this theater before Wallace even got there?
Our owl-visaged killer plows such a fast swath of destruction that we actually find ourselves down to the Final Girl with almost a full half hour of the movie left. I was worried this would make for an overly drawn-out final chase, but in fact Soavi keeps the tension ramped up for the duration with a hell of a sequence that forgoes having our heroine hide in a closet for five-minute stretches. He also once again makes appropriate use of the theater setting, as most slashers tend to stage the corpses of their victims in some kind of gruesome display. In this case, Wallace has the opportunity to do so literally, posing his corpses as various actors in his all-cadaver version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Overall, while StageFright has some of the same issues that I usually have with Italian horror (have I mentioned that I hate dubbing?) it hits a lot more right notes than wrong ones. It’s a nasty little slasher that leans heavily into its setting to effective use. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of either giallos or slashers, as I think it’s got enough of what makes both subgenres to entertain everyone.