Drive-In Dust Offs: STAGE FRIGHT

2016/01/23 20:15:21 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


The late ‘80s signaled the end of my first golden age of horror. Which is to say two things: adulthood beckoned, and horror films – especially slashers - were running low on inspiration (remember the early ‘90s wasteland? Brr.). However, looking across the waters, some veteran Italian filmmakers weren’t throwing in the towel yet. Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright (1987) stands apart from the crowd because it proved that not only was the beaten and flogged sub-genre alive, it was still capable of surprising fans with enough fresh blood pumping through its weary veins to make you sit up and notice. Just when you thought you couldn’t survive another hack ‘em up, Stage Fright made you a believer again.

Stage Fright, AKA StageFright: Aquarius, Deliria, and Bloody Bird, whatever you’d like to call it – is a triumphant call back to a half decade earlier when slashers were full of kinetic energy, muscular direction, and startling kills (let’s stay modest though – for every My Bloody Valentine, there’s also a Final Exam). And it may have seemed like premature nostalgia to pine for an era before the decade was even over, but slashers took a dirt nap fast as the new decade approached. There really was a saturation point – and as horror fans, we knew we’d seen enough.

So this film comes along, limited U.S. release in May of ’89, video release in October, and instantly perches itself as the last good slasher of the ‘80s – and in retrospect, top tier for the decade. Although this was Soavi’s directorial debut, other key figures were long time fixtures on the Italian horror scene. Producer Joe D’amato, purveyor of a thousand (for the most part) terrible sleaze and gore stories, and co-writer George Eastman (most well known for writing and portraying the title Anthropophagus creature in the D’amato ‘classic’) were not enough of a handicap to bring Stage Fright down. Miraculously, it manages to rise on the shoulders of Soavi’s eagerness and savvy.

A little set up, then: A theater troupe is rehearsing for a new murder musical, The Night Owl, replete with gratuitous sax and dance moves that would give the makers of Satan’s Alley pause. Lead dancer Alicia (Barbara Cupisti – The New York Ripper) hurts her ankle and sneaks off with wardrobe assistant Betty offsite to have it looked over. Of course the nearest facility is a mental hospital, and after Alicia is tended to, they head back to the theater. However, they have a stowaway – Irving Wallace, mass murderer and one time actor who has decided to release himself on his own recognizance. Back on the boards, Wallace manages to procure the costume of the Night Owl Killer (tights and a cumbersome owl head) from actor Brett (John Morghen – Cannibal Ferox), claim his second victim right in front of director Peter (David Brandon – The Blade Master) and the rest of the cast and crew, before fleeing for the wings.

After the police are called, Peter decides that the murder would be great publicity, and has everyone paid overtime in cash to stay, rehearse, and debut the show early to capitalize on the scandal. Peter, holding the only key for the entire building, locks everyone in so they can get down to work. Little do they know that Wallace is waiting for his turn in the spotlight…

Okay, that’s a pretty routine scenario, but there are a few things that help Stage Fright stand out. The Italian bloodline runs strong through the film, and while it is technically a slasher, the artistic sensibilities cannot help but be felt. Soavi worked as an assistant director for Dario Argento for years (Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera) and it shows – off kilter angles and lurid, garish lighting are staples of his former boss, and Soavi learned well. However, Stage Fright moves at a rapid pace uncommon to most Italian horror – there are some slack parts in Eastman’s script, but Soavi plows through them with a vigor that is refreshing. While Argento’s films tend to revolve around set pieces, S F has a focus on narrative (however blurry that can sometimes get) that helps it over the rough patches. The film also skips the most common tenet of the giallo – a mystery. There’s no big reveal as to the identity of our killer, we know it’s Wallace from the start right up to the floodlit finale. So while Soavi certainly has marinated in his Italian kin’s work, S F ends up having a unique flavor due to the melding of the differing styles. The look of the killer is certainly unique as well – a simple mask would be more practical, but it’s definitely a hoot seeing an oversized owl eviscerate someone (sorry).

Speaking of evisceration, Soavi doesn’t skimp on the kills, either. Beheadings (and rebeheadings – you’ll see), chainsaw ballets and drills all fill the splatterstage. Michele is not a shy boy, and always with an eye towards creating something a little different. He even manages to create some suspense (there’s a scene near the end where our hero(ine) has to retrieve a key nearby the killer), which has proved to be a rare talent indeed in the slasher field.

What can be said of the cast? Well, to Eastman’s credit (something I never thought I’d say) he doesn’t create the most annoying group in horror film history (although the dialogue leaves much to be desired), but really only Brandon and Morghen register in their parts. And that’s okay, because with slashers, we deal in the sum total – it’s extremely rare that a slasher will excel in every category, or even many, but Stage Fright soars on the wings of Soavi’s confident direction and creative kills.

Unfortunately, Soavi wouldn’t stay in the horror field for very long. Which is surprising, as this film received a lot of acclaim (Upon viewing, Terry Gilliam hired him to do 2nd Unit work on Baron Munchausen and later on The Brothers Grimm), and he gained worldwide praise for his 1994 oddball zombie masterpiece Dellamorte Dellamore, AKA Cemetery Man. From there, he has mainly worked for Italian television. What a shame, as I feel I’m experiencing my second golden age of horror – and it would be nice to see my savior from the first one come back to feel the warmth of the spotlight again.

Stage Fright is available on Blu-ray from Blue Underground.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BURN, WITCH, BURN
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.