Though of you who didn’t live through the 1980s may not realize just how prevalent slasher films were and how frequently they were churned out. After the success of such classics as Halloween and Friday the 13th, it seemed like literally every other film that occupied the screen at a cinema was a slasher flick as they generally had a foolproof plan for success: they could be made pretty cheaply, so that it wouldn’t take much money at the box office for them to make a profit. Of course, the downside is that the formula for these slasher films got really monotonous and repetitive after awhile, and by the late 1980s, there were very few of them that stood out. A slasher flick would need very stylish and inventive director in order to make an impression, but for that, horror fans could always look across the pond to Italy. Dario Argento is probably the most popular Italian horror film director of all time and during the eighties, he had a young protege working for him named Michele Soavi, who generally functioned as an assistant directors on Argento’s film. In 1987, Soavi finally got the opportunity to direct a horror film of his own called Stage Fright (which was released in some circles under alternate titles such as Deliria, Aquarius and Bloody Bird). The film was very well-received amongst horror fans and Soavi would go on to become one of Italy’s most prominent horror film directors with such efforts as The Church, The Devil’s Daughter and Cemetery Man. However, I still consider Stage Fright to be his best work and for genre fans who don’t follow Italian horror too closely, it remains a very underrated gem.
Stage Fright is actually a bit of a self-referential slasher film from a time period when the genre didn’t often poke fun of itself. The movie opens with a really artsy and pretentious dance number where a guy wearing a giant owl head is trying to kill a woman. It turns out that this is the rehearsal of a musical stage production about a mass murderer called “The Night Owl”, which is helmed by a very pompous director named Peter (David Brandon). The show’s leading lady, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), sneaks out of the rehearsal to seek treatment for a sprained ankle and winds up at a nearby mental hospital. The institution just happens to be housing a former actor named Irving Wallace who went insane and killed several people, and sure enough, he breaks out of the asylum while Alicia is there and hides in the back of her car to hitch a ride back to the theater. A murder soon takes place and Peter makes the decision that the show must go on, as he believes a lot more people will be inclined to see a musical about a mass murderer once word hits that someone on the production was actually murdered. He arranges an all-night rehearsal and locks the theater’s only door, so that no one else on the production can sneak out. Of course, the maniacal Irving Wallace just happens to be locked in the theater with him and no points for guessing that he will don the giant owl head for his next murderous rampage.
As I’m sure you’ve already read, Stage Fright contains more than its fair share of its plot contrivances. I still don’t understand why Alicia would need to visit a friggin’ mental hospital in order to seek treatment for a sprained ankle, and what are the odds that an escaped homicidal actor would hitch a ride with another actor and wind up at a theater? The idea of Peter locking the theater for the night and hiding the only key is also pretty silly, but you get the sense that Stage Fright almost relishes these silly contrivances. One of the funniest running gags in the film involves two cops who sit in their car outside and carry on the most mundane conversations, unable to hear all the carnage going on inside the theater because of a massive thunderstorm. The story also contains some of the usual cliches (the overbearing director, the feuding actresses) from your typical “let’s put on a show” movie which, of course, are completely turned on their head when a mad slasher enters the plot and starts brutally murdering people. In the hands of a lesser director, Stage Fright might have just been another run-of-the-mill slasher film, but Michele Soavi’s tremendous visual style shows that he learned well from his mentor, Dario Argento. The film looks terrific and is skillfully photographed and edited, and Soavi also delivers the goods in the gore department, staging some incredibly inventive and gruesome (yet sometimes hilarious) death scenes for his characters.
Even though the idea of a killer in a giant owl head sounds ridiculous, Soavi does a very good job at using the claustrophobic theater setting to generate some genuine tension and suspense. Even though he spends the early portions of the movie poking fun at the pretentious artsiness of the theater world, the director uses this idea for unsettling effect during the film’s creepy climax. In a very tense and well-staged sequence, the killer decides to take the decapitated remains of his victims and specifically arrange them across the stage as a form of artisitic expression while Alicia slowly crawls underneath the stage trying to retrieve the key to her escape. Stage Fright represents one of the reasons that Italian horror films became so popular to begin with as it adds new life to a familiar genre that had become very stale in North America. In fact, by 1987, even the Italian horror film industry had become a bit stale and needed a shot in the arm, which is exactly what Michele Soavi delivered, allowing him to become arguably the country’s premier horror filmmaker for the next several years. Even though it is not as well-known as many of the other popular horror films to come out of Italy, Stage Fright is still one of the best and is a must-see for fans of the genre, delivering a great deal of scares, gory moments and laughs at the same time. It may sound like a very standard slasher flick on paper, but Stage Fright has enough style, wit and energy for a dozen slasher movies.