I don’t like slasher movies. I don’t see any appeal in the formula. A psychopath goes around killing teenagers, sometimes for several days, before someone puts two and two together and realises that the murders are committed by the same killer. And they usually happen in public places like colleges, which only demonstrates the police’s worthlessness. And once enough people have died to fill a feature-length movie, a sole survivor, usually a young woman, defeats the killer. And then he comes back in the sequel.
I don’t like slasher movies, but as a film viewer I try not to go out of my way to watch movies I’ll hate. Life is too short, the movies are too many, so I only watch movies I think (hope) I’ll enjoy. Stage Fright had been on my radar for a while as a rare exception that I’d probably enjoy watching, and indeed I did. In fact it’s a pretty awesome horror movie, a pure cinematic experience. But before I extol its virtues, a few words about the director, Michele Soavi.
Michele Soavi, Italian filmmaker, got involved in horror early in his career; before becoming a director, he worked as an assistant for several famous horror directors: Lamberto Bava, Joe D’Amato and the great Dario Argento, who made Soavi his protégé. He hasn’t had a prolific career and his fame rests largely on the 1994 cult movie Cemetery Man. Stage Fright was his directorial debut and it was a pretty good start.
On a stormy night, a group of awful thespians, badly in need of money, rehearse a play called The Nite Owl inside a creepy theatre. Alicia, the main actress (Barbara Cupisti), hurting from a sprained ankle, sneaks out against the orders of the dictatorial Peter, the stage director (David Brandon), and goes to a mental clinic to see if they can give her something to ease the pain. There a lunatic escapes, hides in her car and follows her into the theatre. In a situation worthy of classic suspense movies, the actors unknowingly lock themselves in with the killer and then lose the key. From here on the movie follows the formula to its predictable conclusion. But Soavi, with ingenuity and unusual camera angles, turns it into a unique experience.
Where to start with my love for this movie? Let’s start with the play within the movie. It’s about a killer in an owlhead mask killing women. It’s sensationalist (victims seducing their own killer), gory and sexy, like slasher movies. But the actual movie isn’t. Soavi surprisingly keeps the nudity to a minimum, moving the characters away from irresponsible horny teenagers who are punished for being teenagers to working-class people with bills to pay. By making an artistic setting integral to the plot also seems like Soavi is saying that the genre can be more ambitious without losing its identity. His mentor, Argento, had already shown a propensity for protagonists involved with the arts – musicians, novelists, etc.
Next the killer is memorable. He has zero personality, he’s not charismatic, he doesn’t talk. But once you see him you won’t forget him. He’s a mixture of the creatures we see in our bizarre nightmares and mythology; dressed in an owlhead mask, we quickly forget we’re watching a man and not some evil spirit beyond human reason.
Although the dialogue is poor, the movie has its share of twisted, original scenes. In one of my favourites, the actors are rehearsing a scene where the owlhead killer murders one of his victims. The runaway lunatic enters the stage, dressed in the mask. Peter, thinking he’s the actor, urges him to kill the victim, which he easily does, and no one realises what has just happened until a few moments later. Here the movie pokes some fun at horror fans’ morbidity. I forgot to say gallows humor is part of the movie’s charm too.
The camera work and sound take this movie up another notch. Soavi is no Argento, but you can clearly the latter’s influence in his use of colors and the attention given to the sets and lighting (perhaps at the expense of the actors) The movie takes most of its place inside a theatre and Soavi fills it with strange objects and films it from several angles to accentuate its strangeness. The music, mostly diegetic, is cleverly used here, sometimes by the killer to taunt his victims, and in one of the tensest scenes noise to distract him while Alicia tries to get the theatre’s key.
Although it’s pretty low-key, I’m prepared to say that Stage Fright uses the art of cinema better than many so-called serious movies. It may not have complex characters, emotionally-engaging stories or powerful messages, but there are many movies out there that are little more than animated novels, that prefer to do things that novels and plays can do too instead of using the uniqueness of cinema to their advantage. Stage Fright may not have a lot of food for thought but it’s unmistakably a movie in love with its medium; the effect it has on the viewer comes from a clever manipulation and mixture of sound, image and movement. Many moments of awe and terror exist in this movie that couldn’t be reproduced by any other medium. I can’t pay a movie a finer compliment.
Director: Michele Soavi
Screenplay: Sheila Goldberg, George Eastman
Cast: Barbara Cupisti, David Brandon, Clain Parker, James Sampson
Runtime: 90 min