The story is about a cast for some kind of musical show where there is someone in an owl suit. The members of the show are your basic cliche dance types and Soavi really shows no interest in developing characters; I mean after all the whole point of the movie is to scare you. This isn't Rent! So when one of the dancers is missing some of the crew catch on that there are odd goings-on, and decide to try and leave....ah but they can't because the person in the owl costume is the killer and wants them all dead so he can place them on stage in an order he deems artistic.
Clunky plot aside there are some real striking images in the film. Soavi has a great eye for framing scary shots. For instance when the owl-masked killer is approaching one of the actors we get a POV shot from the victim, which makes the scene much scarier than if it were from the killers point of view and all we saw was the blood spewing forth. This sense of dread and waiting for the horrible inevitability of death is something that Soavi taps into and makes the film more intense than its contemporaries.
The other thing Soavi does well is take the conventions of both the American slasher film and the Italian giallo and tweaks them just a bit to create a nightmarish, ethereal experience often associated with Italian master Dario Argento (who Soavi did work for as an assistant on Opera). These moments include the bizarre scene where nobody realizes that the person in the owl costume isn't the actor, but the killer. They are rehearsing a scene, and the director tells the masked "actor" to really make it look like their killing the female character. What's creepy about this scene is that it really is the killer and he really is killing the actress, but the director and the rest of the cast aren't aware of it right away; so they are impressed by the realism of the scene. Also, the ending of the film or "key scene" is a tremendous example of pacing and keeping the viewer as tightly wound as possible. That's all I'm going to tell you....that scene is worthy of comparison to the old Hitchcock adage about the ticking bomb underneath your seat. It's as tense a scene that I've seen in a horror film.
It's not just Soavi's control of film techniques that's amazing, but the way he is able to create an innovative and creepy slasher/giallo film when both genres had been dead years before Stage Fright's 1987 release. Sadly after some successful films including the zombie film Cemetery Man, Soavi quit filmmaking to care for sickly son. He's returned recently with a lot of Italian crime films made for TV. I hear he hasn't lost his artistic touch.
I highly recommend Stage Fright for those looking for an innovative take on the American slasher film and for those who are dying to see a decent post-Tenebre giallo film. There are many insane deaths in the film: pick axe's through the mouth, torso's being torn in half, drills, chains saws, and one of the most hilarious explanations of a bullet going through someones head. If you've never seen an Italian horror film before try Stage Fright, it's a good place to start. It contains enough of the popular American slasher elements, but has those odd, dream-like images (seriously, the killer is a guy in a giant owl mascot head, how is that not creepy) and moments that make Italian horror so unique. I highly recommend Stage Fright, one of the best horror films of the 80's.