Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Stage Fright (aka Deliria, aka Bloody Bird, aka Aquarius, aka Sound Stage Massacre)
[We kick off the blog-a-thon today with a quickie review of one of my favorite Italian horror flicks made by one of my favorite Italian horror filmmakers. Don't forget to send me the links to your posts via email or in the comment section for any of these posts. I will make sure and link to it in a post tomorrow or Wednesday (I've been battling what suspiciously looks like the H1N1, so I apologize), and then I will continue to update that post throughout the two weeks. Enjoy! I look forward to reading all of your Italian horror thoughts for the next couple of weeks]
Stage Fright is a lot more fun than it has any right to be. By that I mean Michele Soavi’s debut film is nothing original – in fact it was about this time that the entire slasher genre was declared dead on arrival as not even big franchise sequels like Halloween, Friday the 13th, or A Nightmare Elm Street could rake in the cash they once did. Most of that was due to the fact that audiences were no longer interested in the tired old clichés this particular subgenre leaned on. Soavi, however, made Stage Fright’s rather familiar premise more than tolerable by employing a number of eerie images and ratcheting up the tension seldom seen in such a familiar subgenre.
The story revolves around a cast working some kind of musical show where there is someone in an owl suit who murders a girl, and then she comes back from the dead to seduce him…uh huh. The members of the show are your basic cliché 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.
We also come to find out that the director of the play is the one who locked them in. Not because he is some diabolical killer himself, after all this isn’t a giallo where the motives of every character are under suspicion, but because once he finds out one of his actresses has been murdered by an escaped psychopath who just happened to be a disgruntled actor the director decides to change the story to his play and base it around the story of the escaped killer. That's what we call dedication to your script.
Familiar 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 was from the killers point of view and all we saw was the blood spewing on the walls (which does happen more than once – Soavi doesn’t skimp on the blood). 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, or any other slasher movie I can think of.
Soavi’s ability to elevate these tropes into the realm of tolerable (and visually striking) is something that shouldn’t be sloughed off. There is one scene in particular towards the end where the killer has amassed all the bodies (except the “final girl”) on stage and has blocked them just-so. His arranging of the bodies, the music that accompanies the scene, and the way Soavi shoots the scene is genuinely unsettling as we watch – along with the “final girl” – the deranged killer making his own play of murder and mayhem.
The other thing Soavi does well is take the conventions of both the American slasher film and the panache of 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 and other films). These moments include the bizarre scene where nobody realizes that the person in the owl costume isn't the actor, but the killer who has escaped. They are rehearsing a scene, and the director tells the person he thinks is the actor in the suit to “get on with it already” and kill the female character. What's creepy about this scene is something I’ve already mentioned: the idea that the director isn’t aware that his actor is not in the costume.
The ending of the film (what I refer to as the scene with the key) is a tremendous example of pacing and keeping the viewer as tightly wound as possible. That's all I'm going to tell you. The ending makes Stage Fright so much more than your ordinary slasher film; the 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, and first time director Soavi is more than up to the task in delivering the goods.
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 his 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.
The idea for Stage Fright came from the most unlikely of sources: Aristide Massaccesi (most famously known as Joe D’Amato…the man with a thousand pseudonyms). Soavi was working on one of his films when Massaccesi suggested that Soavi direct his script. Soavi didn’t think he was up for it, but couldn’t turn down such an opportunity. After re-working the script a bit Soavi finally felt like he was ready to start filming his feature film. A protégé of Argento’s, Saovi clearly knew what he was doing as with Stage Fright he created an Italian slasher/giallo that rivals Argento’s Opera and Tenebre (Soavi worked on Tenebre, too, and there is even a visual nod to that film – the same “killer appears behind the victim” scene that De Palma has used in Raising Cain and Femme Fatale). The film, despite its rather ordinary plot, was an outlet for Soavi’s creativity and unique élan that we come to associate with his films today, and it allowed him to make the surreal, non-linear films he wanted make down the road (like The Church and Cemetery Man). Soavi even gets a dig in on the slasher genre at the end when he has his killer get shot in the head and then when we think it’s over, turn to the camera and smile – an obviously sardonic wink and nudge to the auto-pilot nature of slasher films in the late 80’s.
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 Italian horror film that doesn’t suck. 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 someone’s 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, illusory images (seriously, the killer is a guy inside a giant owl mascot head, how is that not creepy?) and moments that make Italian horror so unique.
Yeah, it’s a “been there done that” story, but the visuals, and Soavi’s control of the style, more than make up for the familiar elements to this story. In an era when the horror film was on the brink of becoming obsolete (especially Italian horror post Fulci’s success with the “gates of hell” trilogy) Soavi breathed new life into a dying subgenre proving that he would be the filmmaker to resurrect Italian horror and carry the torch into the 90’s. Despite the tired premise Stage Fright remains one of the best horror films, Italian or American, of the 1980’s.
*Willy is a character everyone should acquaint themselves with. His diatribe at the end of the film is hilarious, and his explanation for why our heroine didn’t kill the killer with a gun is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie. You’ll never think of the phrase “right between the eyes” the same again.