Overlooked & Underseen: Stage Fright (1987)
What do you get when you cross an Italian slasher film from a Dario Argento acolyte with a killer wearing a full head Owl mask? One awesome fucking movie, that’s what.
Michele Soavi might not have the most prolific career as a director but most of the films he’s made, including this one, The Church (1989), and Cemetery Man (1994) are definitely worth watching. Prior to becoming a director, Soavi was an AD or Second Unit Director for Dario Argento on Tenebrae (1982), Phenomenon (1985), and Opera (1987). He’s also worked with Lamberto Bava on Demons (1985) and for Terry Gilliam on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Brothers Grimm (2005). With that kind of pedigree, it’s easy to spot the influences while watching Soavi’s films. Stage Fright was written by George Eastman and produced by Joe D’Amato, both names to conjure with.
Although Stage Fright shares the same type of killer as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) (a masked escaped mental patient and a high body count), the similarities pretty much end there. All of the action, apart from one scene, takes place in one location; a theatre. A group of actors are rehearsing a play/art piece (and a weird one, at that). The director is stereotypical: arrogant, mean, controlling, and spiteful. He lays down the directive that no one is allowed to leave the theatre, no matter what, and takes pains to actually lock the doors and hide the key (yes, you know where that’s going, don’t you?).
The cast of actors/dancers features Giovanni Lombardo Radice AKA John Morghen, the journeyman of Italian extreme cinema. If you’ve watched any Italian horror from the 1980s, you’ll recognize him instantly. In the piece being rehearsed, Morghen is the person wearing the ever-present Owl mask. Or is he? We get little back stories on everyone (even if it’s only one or two lines to tell us who they are): the shy costumer, the put-upon stage manager, the pregnant couple, the beautiful lead actress who fucked the director and is now paying the price, etc. My husband says it’s one of the most accurate portrayals of what goes on backstage during rehearsals that he’s ever seen on film. Once the killer gains entrance into the locked theatre, the slaughter commences.
And what glorious kills are presented in Stage Fright! Yes, this may be a slasher film, but Soavi borrows heavily from his experience with Argento in both the manner of the kills and the film’s direction in general. There are some downright beautiful shots/sequences in this film. Some may say he’s stealing from Argento (who stole any number of his own stylistic shots from Hitch) but, to me, it doesn’t matter.
One of the film’s most gorgeous shots is near the end when the killer is onstage. You’ll know it when you see it. Feathers floating through the air, dead bodies artfully arranged, an Owl’s head and a curious pussy cat. It’s a sequence that both betrays Soavi’s influences and reinforces his future as a director who is willing to take the most interesting aspects of his experiences and improve upon them. Stage Fright is a marvel of a directorial debut and it’s a suspenseful, beautiful, and majestically gory treat.