As someone whose only tattoo happens to be the iconic red lips from The Rocky Horror Picture Show poster, you could say that my interest in seeing the latest horror musical, Stage Fright, was a "sure thing." Written and directed by Jerome Sable, Stage Fright is a clever, gory and wickedly fun time that truly celebrates everything we love about horror musicals with an unabashed enthusiasm that you can’t help but fall in love with.
Wasting no time, Stage Fright gets gruesome with a stunning opener that finds Broadway star Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) celebrating the performance of a lifetime. Unfortunately for Kylie, that’s exactly what ends up being the case when she is savagely murdered by a masked killer that very evening, leaving her two children- Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) - in the care of her theatrical producer Roger (Meatloaf). Some years later, Roger opens a theater summer camp where Camilla and Buddy are employed to cook for the elite group of talented campers.
As he struggles to regain his professional credibility after what happened that ill-fated night, Roger does the unthinkable- he chooses the very same musical that Kylie died after performing as a way to stir things up in the theater world. Unfortunately, all Roger stirs up is a psychotic killer who has a thirst that only killing off campers will quench, forcing Camilla, Buddy and their guardian to come to terms with what really happened to Kylie all those years ago.
A little bit Rocky Horror meets Cannibal! The Musical meets The Phantom of the Paradise meets Scream, Stage Fright might feel like a loving homage to all those films. At its core, Sable’s story has a whole lot of ingenuity, heart and ambition rippling through its veins that keeps it from ever feeling like it’s trying to mimic its horror musical predecessors in any way. There also have been a few comparisons made between Stage Fright and Glee since the film’s debut last month, but it seems like Sable is playfully deconstructing all those theater geek references that the Fox television series has thrived more so than trying to become another formulaic look at awkward teenagers who can’t help but break out into song (and dance) whenever the mood hits.
Stage Fright’s musical numbers are definitely smart and often hilarious. I must applaud Sable and his co-composer Eli Batalion for how easy they made it look with their ability to craft a bunch of catchy ditties that should undoubtedly make for some fun sing-along experiences in theaters for years to come. It’s also worth noting that Stage Fright also could have easily ventured into parody territory but thankfully, Sable treats his characters as just that, REAL characters and never caricatures. This gives his talented cast an opportunity to bring to life some rather fun and enjoyable individuals, especially MacDonald who turns in an incredible performance as the shy underdog who only wants to make her mother proud and live up to her musical legacy.
Minnie Driver doesn’t have a huge part in Stage Fright but, for the screen-time that we do have with her, she’s just great and it makes me wish we had more movies with her these days. Meatloaf, a personal favorite of mine, is also pretty spectacular as the desperate and smarmy has-been producer and a tip of the hat to Sable for giving Mr. Loaf a lot to do in Stage Fright, using him for his acting and musical talents and not just because his name looked good on the keyart either (something a lot of indie productions are guilty of these days).
Sable clearly grew up a fan of ‘80s horror movies because he wears his love proudly on his sleeve with Stage Fright, giving us a near-perfect blend of comedy and horror, including a handful of inventive kills that go for broke in the blood and gore departments. It’s a wholly admirable approach because the film does have an air of innocence to it at the start, which almost made me fearful that Sable might play it a little safe. Thankfully the up-and-coming filmmaker does no such thing and, by the time the third act of Stage Fright gets rolling, that’s when the film’s infectious energy goes into overdrive. Brimming with a nervous vivacity that plays perfectly into Sable’s Shakespearean-esque conclusion, almost everyone is left with a bit of blood on their hands by the time the credits begin rolling.
A wholly ambitious celebration of a two genres that are near and dear to my heart (not to mention the fact I was a theater geek in high school), Stage Fright is truly a cult classic in the making that makes up for any imperfections with a sincere but gleefully subversive spin on modern slasher films and movie musicals that makes it almost impossible to resist.
Movie Score: 4/5