(AKA Aquarius; AKA Bloody Bird; AKA Deliria)
(Michele Soavi, 1987)
(essay by Kevin)
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; in addition to the glossy execution of horror tropes, Soavi’s film is ultimately a sardonic work, riffing (and reworking so they’re better) on tired old slasher motifs. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s why I really wanted to showcase this particular Italian horror film higher than all of the other great entries showcased on this countdown. In fact, my overall hope is that this leads film buffs to the work of Michele Soavi – a man I believe to be the most talented Italian horror filmmaker.
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 craft.
Familiar plot aside there are some real striking images in the film. Soavi has a great eye for framing scary shots as his mis-en-scene is always taut, frightening, and (paradoxically) beautiful to look at. We’re not slapped in the face with any kind of baroque or garish aesthetic a la Argento, Bava, or Fulci (and that aesthetic is a good thing don’t get me wrong…), so we kind of get wrapped up in the story of Stage Fright and just how damn good and entertaining a “hack and slash” it is that we forget that the film is also on a par visually with any of the aforementioned maestros best work. 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, and it’s one of the creepiest and most affective murder scenes I’ve ever seen in a slasher.
The ending of the film (an unbearably suspenseful scene where the Final Girl must retrieve a key that will lead to her escape from the theater, the only problem is the key is under the stage where the killer sits) 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.
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 a script that he was working on with the actor George Eastman (who worked on D’Amato’s Antropophogus). 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, and with Stage Fright he created an Italian slasher/giallo hybrid 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.
Stage Fright premiered at a French film festival with one of the festival’s later showings. However, at that showing was Terry Gilliam, and he was so impressed with Soavi’s skill as filmmaker that he immediately offered him a job to work on his upcoming The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Soavi accepted and after joining the production team immediately began to work on over 200 special effects scenes. After the ordeal was over Soavi longed to be back in Italy making films with a close-knit crew, rather than on large, impersonal sets where Hollywood producers mettle in the day-to-day operations. Soavi stated that he liked the intimacy he experienced being First AD for Argento’s Opera, Tenebre, and Phenomena; and that the hugeness of Gilliam’s production just wasn’t fun for him (although he was thankful for the opportunity, and eventually worked with Gilliam again on the 2005 film The Brothers Grim as an AD). This led to Soavi returning to Italy and making some successful films (my favorite being The Church) including the hugely popular cult zombie film Cemetery Man (sandwiched between the two is an uneven, although still extremely entertaining, horror flick called The Sect – which is filled with all kinds of Soavi madness). After this impressive fun of horror films Soavi quit filmmaking to care for his sickly son. He’s recently returned to filmmaking with a lot of mob films (for TV, which is popular right now in Italy) and a film about the life of St. Frances Assisi. It’s doubtful we’ll see him make another horror film per an interview he gave with Fangoria stating that he’s not interested in making the same movie over and over, and that if he started to do that he would just quite filmmaking altogether. Lucky for us the Italian Horror auteur left an indelible mark on the subgenre and gave us four memorable horror films to always look back on.
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, displacing 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. In an era when the horror film was on the brink of becoming obsolete (especially Italian horror) 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 hybrid when both genres had been dead years before Stage Fright‘s 1987 release. Despite its tired premise, Stage Fright remains one of my absolute favorite horror films, Italian or American, I’ve ever seen.