I was a gangster. The pinstriped suit, wingtip shoes, felt fedora, and a heavy tough-guy accent in my final high school drama performance. On the closing night our interactive dinner theater show, where performers were expected to chat with the guests in the audience, was loose and freewheeling with cast members in heavy eyeliner and some with spirit gummed mustaches. The ensemble was excited and I, playing the villain who made a grand entrance with a gang of thugs, was ready to give one final performance before hanging up the black fedora and, ultimately, my short time as a stage performer. During the show, I found my target, an older gentleman with a wooden cane who also sported a brimmed fitted Panama. With an aggressive tone I called out to him just as the crowd quieted, I said, “What are you looking at old man?”. The older gentleman paused, stared me up and down, and exclaimed in his best 1920s New York gangster voice, “I used to know guys just like you, but they were taller, and they dressed better.”
Watching Michele Soavi’s exceptional giallo/slasher hybrid StageFright made me remember the feeling of being on stage in a theater, but also the adoring love I have for giallo cinema. StageFright is an interesting entry into the Italian thriller catalog. Coming in 1987, at a time when slasher cinema was well into its influential stage and the giallo aesthetic was a fading trend on the silver screen, StageFright seemed to have all the influences wrapped up into one nicely wrapped package. With a stalking killer wearing an oversized owl’s mask, killing off every variety of drama performer in numerous gnarly ways, the film composed a visual canvas that felt deliberately shaped in the vein of the 70s Italian thrillers. The influences are present, so aware that it would be easy to hear older cinephiles comment after watching StageFright, “I use to know gialli like you, but they were done by Bava, sometimes Argento, and they didn’t have so much gore.”
Still, there is something so intriguing and ultimately entertaining about Michele Soavi’s film. While the argument will be made of whether this film is more slasher or giallo, Soavi understands how to combine the characteristics of both and builds something that is authentically inspired by the Italian cinematic movement yet also completely inclined to indulge with the monster-in-a-mask motifs that surrounded horror in 1987.
StageFright, while brimming with creative features, also signifies the end of an exceptional era of horror filmmaking, where StageFright comes out for a final bow in early 1987 and Dario Argento’s Opera receives the standing ovation in late 1987. It’s a beautiful finale and StageFright, with one foot planted in the past and another stepping into the future, embodies the best of two different worlds and lives as an impressive example of the transitioning quality of horror filmmaking.
StageFright, sometimes alternatively known as Deliria, Bloody Bird, or Aquarius, is born with the heart of slasher film. Beginning in a theater with a group of performers rehearsing for a musical about a fictional mass murderer known as The Night Owl. Controlling director Peter (David Brandon) pushes his troupe hard towards their opening night performance. When Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) sprains her ankle, the closest place for her to receive medical treatment is a mental hospital housing a deranged former actor named Irving Wallace who committed murderous deeds in retaliation to the treatment received from the cast and crew of the performance he was in. Unbeknownst to anyone, Wallace escapes and catches a ride back to the theater.
The beginning of StageFright is completely a slasher, from the escaped lunatic scenario to the violent and gory syringe and pickaxe murders that lead off the carnage, and then, one of the greatest mask-donning moments in horror history, the revelation of a giant owl mask that the killer will wear for the remaining film. It’s all there, the list of characteristics that defined the slasher genre is methodically checked off. It’s in these early moments that Soavi demonstrates a clear understanding of the influence that gialli had on the creation of the stalking killer that would go on to influence American horror cinema of the late 70s and early 80s. Soavi ramps up the gore with decapitations akin to Friday the 13th, severed body parts resembling Pieces, and even the inventive use of a drill that’s an homage to Slumber Party Massacre. But underneath the fragments that define slasher cinema, the glow of giallo filmmaking grows stronger as the film progresses towards its climax.
Just as Soavi gives his killer the iconic mascot head, the film begins to lean heavily into the aesthetics of the giallo filmmaking process that inspires a piece of its design. While these characteristics don’t play prominent features much of the time, it’s impossible not to feel what Soavi is trying to evoke with the rich color palette of deep reds and stark blues, with the bright and gooey red blood, the sexual tension felt between characters and the point-of-view stalking perspective of the giant owl. Add the unintentional bad dubbing and StageFright echoes the sentiments found throughout the Italian thriller cinema.
Michele Soavi is an intelligent filmmaker, who would go on to more unique films like 1989s The Church or 1994s Cemetery Man. The artist utilizes giallo characteristics to make the slasher elements shine throughout StageFright. No matter how confused or incoherent the story might get, with its seemingly omnipresent killer who is endowed with the temperament of Jason Voorhees, StageFright remains impressively composed from a technical standpoint; photographed with flourishes pulled from gialli like The Killer Reserved Nine Seats and the slasher film The Flesh and Blood Show, both of which take place inside a theater.
And it’s also the theater that plays such an important character in the film. With its blind corners and maze-like design, the structure becomes a deadly playground for the killer to use against the drama troupe. The stage, in particular, is utilized brilliantly throughout the film to display the many forms of the Owl. The film begins on the stage, with a wild dance number featuring the acting Owl who utilizes the area with flair and flash. Later in the film, during a rehearsal, the new murderous Owl boldly introduces himself to the drama team with a knife in hand. And in the grand finale, the Owl uses the stage to display his bloody horror show. Soavi crafts all three of these moments, these three versions of the Owl’s stage appearance, with a perfect blend of both genres, the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the thriller complementing the visceral nature of the horror film that he is wielding throughout the film.
This is what StageFright does so well, displaying how giallo filmmaking and structure in the 60s and 70s would influence the progressive steps of the rise of the slasher in the late 70s and 80s. And StageFright, with its bizarre, bold, and brutal design nearly 35 years later, gives audiences today an understanding of the transformative power of genre film, and ultimately an understanding of why giallo film was such an important piece of history for horror cinema.