Written by: George Eastman and Sheila Goldberg
Directed by: Michele Soavi
Starring: David Brandon, Barbara Cupisti, and Domenico Fiore
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"He's enjoying himself! Do you realize he's enjoying himself?"
Even though I love slasher movies, I have to be real for a minute: many of them—well, especially that seemingly endless 80s horde—are essentially low-rent take-offs of gialli. This is not a criticism but merely an observation: essentially, a good number of slasher movies retain the desire to stage a madman (sometimes even a masked madman) committing gruesome murders but forego the Italian commitment to style, atmosphere, and labyrinthine plotting—and that’s fine, if not a bit bare-faced in the genre’s desire to pile up as many bodies as possible. There’s obviously a place for both, and, if my DVD shelf is any indication, there was actually a much bigger market for straight-up slashers. Occasionally, however, the two would collide in an ultra-stylish hybrid like 1987’s Stage Fright, wherein Michele Soavi marries the giallo aesthetic with the slasher’s ruthless, simplistic dedication to amassing a body count.
Which is to say it dispenses with an elaborate plot in an effort to get to the slashing post haste. Where a typical giallo will string audiences along with an intriguing murder mystery, Stage Fright gives up the ghost early: after two stage actresses visit a local hospital to treat a sprained ankle, notorious serial killer Irving Wallace kills an orderly, escapes confinement, and stealthily hitches a ride back with the two girls when they return to their rehearsal. A massacre quickly follows, as Wallace pummels a pickaxe right through a stage hand’s head, prompting the rest of the crew to call the police, who quickly arrive and set themselves to pursuing the killer. Sensing a financial opportunity, sleazebag director Peter (David Brandon) convinces his cast to stick around and rehearse a new version of their murder mystery play in order to capitalize on the crew member’s death. With promises of extra pay, the cast reluctantly agrees, and Peter is apparently so egomaniacal that he locks everyone indoors and has a crew member hide the key, effectively trapping everyone inside with the killer.
Stage Fright is an absolute bloodbath. Arriving at the tail end of the 80s and after innumerable slashers had staged an orgy of carnage, Soavi’s riff faced the challenge of hacking up yet another set of bodies for jaded audiences that would have pretty much seen it all. Soavoi meets the challenge tremendously by having Wallace completely savage this unsuspecting cast in gruesome, unflinching fashion. In many ways, it feels like the giallo-slasher cycle coming full circle, with the former returning to upstage the latter in their mutual enthusiasm for violence. In its quest to riff upon the giallo, the slasher especially looked to stretch the limits of creative violence, so much so that the genre practically degenerated into an exercise of inviting its audience to wonder just how a killer might dispose of the cast this time out. Instead of whodunits, slashers eventually became “howdunits,” and Stage Fright very much continues in that tradition since its only mystery involves just how fucking rad these death sequences will be.
The answer is “very fucking rad.” In staging his carnage, Soavi breaks out syringes, axes, chainsaws, electric drills, and more, allowing Wallace to plow through the cast with reckless abandon. He dwells on the violence, his camera effectively gazing on it like an eager rubbernecker unable to look away. His time spent on the sets of various Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Joe D’Amato (who produced Stage Fright) efforts are an obvious influence here, and there’s a sense of an enthusiastic apprentice looking to impress the masters with the film’s unhinged bloodshed. Not only does he stage a ton of it (thanks to a gore-soaked script co-written by Eurotrash staple George Eastman) , but Soavi has an eye trained for wringing the violence for maximum artistry. Stage Fright often dazzles, even when it’s awash in crass imagery, such as a man clutching the stump of his severed arm as Wallace approaches, brandishing an axe that will finish the job. Cruelty shouldn’t feel so alluring, especially when it’s so savage: when Wallace takes up his murder implements, there’s a weight to every stab of the knife or thud of the axe.
Stage Fright also takes on the tenor of the masters sending their latest protégé to reclaim the throne, so to speak. By this point, the Italian horror industry was sounding a death rattle amidst that sea of slashers, and Stage Fright represents one of the throatier, more defiant howls. Clearly guided by the aesthetics of Eurohorror’s glory days, Soavi's film is strikingly atmospheric: bathed in evocative stage lighting and accented by a Goblin-esque synth-rock score, it’s a feverish, unreal descent into violence and nightmarish imagery. Throughout the film, Wallace dons a freakish owl costume that cuts an indelible image, one that would be downright iconic if Stage Fright had managed the high profile of its American counterparts. In many ways, Soavi feels like he’s reminding those films—well, at least the lesser ones—of what the slasher genre can be: Stage Fright is bold in both its relentless violence and its style, making it the perfect blend of the giallo and slasher movements.
Inherent in that is the typically slipshod sense of logic associated with both genres. In fact, it might actually be more appropriate to refer to the entirety of Stage Fright as a bout of complete illogic, as it presents a slew of absurdities starting with the girls’ decision to seek treatment for a sprained ankle at a sanitarium. There’d be no movie without that of course, nor would there be one if the cast and crew did what any reasonable person would do after witnessing a colleague’s murder: get the hell out of dodge. Instead, this dopes stick around, lock the door, and throw away the key, almost as if Soavi and company were making a parody of these genres, which have often thrived on such bizarre character decisions.
That suspicion persists with the presence of a couple cops stationed outside the playhouse, both of whom do absolutely nothing but banter on, oblivious to the massacre unfolding right behind them, functioning either as a colorful wrinkle or a meta-joke about how ineffective the police often prove to be in these things. And just when you think Stage Fright can’t possible go out of its way to introduce more nonsense, the final girl dares to return to the playhouse a day after the massacre just so she can recover a fucking watch. Maybe just let someone else pass it along after police of combed the place, you know?
Of course, logic would prevent one final, incredible showdown that pushes the “killer’s not dead yet!” trope to an extreme. What Stage Fright might lack in logic or functioning characters (it follows that this is a largely disposable batch, after all), it more than makes up for with its relentless commitment to entertaining with suspense, violence, and striking imagery. Its climax here is among the more memorable in the slasher ranks, highlighted by an extended sequence where the terrified final girl lurks beneath the stage in an effort to recover the lost key. Above her, Wallace—himself revealed to be a former actor driven to madness—sits upon the stage, surrounded by the corpses he’s piled up.
That they’ve been arranged so delicately—if not painterly—speaks to Soavi's mission with Stage Fright, a film that dares to indulge the slasher genre for all its stylish potential. The result is one of the finest slasher efforts from the late 80s—if not the entire decade.
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