Stage Fright aka Aquarius aka Sound Stage Massacre aka…Bloody Bird? Okay, so that last title is perhaps just a little silly, as is typically the case with the kind of grue-laden European horror that found its way to American shores back in the 1980s. Stage Fright was produced by schlock guru Joe D’Amato, a producer/director/cinematographer who pushed every exploitation button imaginable in a career that saw him direct and co-direct more than 200 movies, low-budget post-apocalyptic flicks such as Endgame (Bronx Lotta Finale) and controversial ‘Video Nasties‘ Absurd and Antropophagus proving his commercial bread and butter. Absurd would be subjected to a plethora of titles as the filmmaker looked to market his product overseas: Rosso Sangue, Anthropophagous 2, Monster Hunter Horrible, The Grim Reaper 2, and in order to try to present the movie as a sequel to the Zombi series, Zombie 6: Monster Hunter. It should be noted that Absurd is actually a slasher flick.
Another familiar face involved with Stage Fright was D’Amato go-to writer/actor George Eastman, here adopting one of an abundance of pseudonyms in the role of screenwriter, but the movie is a far cry from cynical, dead-eyed affairs such as Absurd, favouring technical panache and visual storytelling over blunt, systematically controversial slaughter (though it isn’t afraid to go there either). It should come as no surprise that first-time director Michele Soavi is the long-time protege of one Dario Argento, nor should it shock you to discover that Soavi acted as assistant director on the sublime giallo/slasher Tenebrae, as well as the hugely cavalier but charming Phenomena. He would also act as second unit director on the notoriously explicit Opera, another performance-based giallo released the same year. What we have in Stage Fright is an audacious, broadly appealing crossover which sees the giallo and its bastard offspring meld together to create a cacophony of brutal murder, beguiling imagery and the kind of ethereal unreality mastered by Argento.
Such a tone is achieved by blurring the lines between fiction and reality, giving us a performance within a performance. Much like Lamberto Bava’s rampant gruefest Demons, which acted as an affront to censorship hysteria by painting a gross picture of distinct unreality, the movie rides that tenuous line in-between, and in doing so unleashes all kinds of madness. The story is a familiar one: an escaped metal patient stalks a modern dance troupe who, under the tutelage of their demanding director, are preparing for opening night. It’s basically Michael Myers in a giant owl mask stalking a cast of underdeveloped and horrifically dubbed characters, but the storytelling is all in the visuals, which are often rather stunning, and the dialogue is never less than witty and self-referential. Sometimes the movie looks like an acrylic painting sprinkled with the neon cocaine dreams of the MTV generation — perhaps a byproduct of Soavi’s experience as a pop promo director for Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones. Stage Fright is both erudite and vacuous, cheap yet blessed with instances of aesthetic wealth.
Italian award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Cupisti plays the movie’s final girl, Alicia, and her natural grace only emphasises the film’s dreamlike aesthetics. Visually, it is all very Argento, drenched in primary swathes and packed-full of technical prowess (there is even a moment in which one of the movie’s characters bows before a mirror to reveal another standing directly behind in a transparent nod to Tenebrae), but a lack of mystery and an abattoir of blunt and brutal deaths puts the movie very much in slasher territory. It’s an interesting hybrid — one of the most effective I’ve seen, in spite of the movie’s obvious budget restrictions — and is further driven by a wonderfully eclectic soundtrack that is one part pop fantasy, one part ethereal synth nightmare.
Once our cast become trapped in the theatre, which acts as our killer’s claustrophobic hunting ground, the line between fiction and reality is all but erased. Particularly inspired is a scene in which an actress is attacked by a masked individual who appears to be the show’s fictional killer. The impatient director urges the man to attack, and eventually he responds, only the throttling gets a little too rough, the repeated stabbing just a smidgen too real. This is one of a host of self-reflexive moments that puts the movie firmly in the realms of dreamlike fantasy, one that allows us to bask in Stage Fright‘s technical expertise and enjoy events on a level beyond the suspension of disbelief. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” I never imagined myself quoting Shakespeare when reviewing what is essentially a cheapo splatter flick, but here we are.
The movie’s finale is equally potty, featuring a veritable mausoleum of victims lined-up and positioned like mannequins in a boutique window, our thoroughly satisfied bird-man basking in his psychotic handywork. It is somewhat reminiscent of a scene in madcap Canadian slasher Happy Birthday To Me, the one that sees former Little House On the Prairie princess Melissa Sue Anderson arrange the corpses of her victims around the dinner table as she attempts to get the birthday celebrations going, but the often inspired visuals never allow affairs to become so grim in Soavi’s airy nightmare, and above the madness and macabre violence it is the snowstorm of feathers and strains of classical music that stay long in the memory, along with a killer whose very disguise belongs in the rich tapestry of a surrealist painting. By incorporating the lowbrow traditions of the slasher genre, Stage Fright manages to uncover art where there really shouldn’t be any.
Ultimately, the movie is one that you experience. Its setting is more than just a cute plot device. Oftentimes you feel like you’re sitting in the front row of a real-life theatre, drenched in the movie’s striking colour palette as if burning under the intense glow of the coliseum spotlight. It is lavish and exuberant and often elegant, but dressed in enough grue to fulfil the needs of those unconcerned with such delicacies. It also features some truly divine photography and a sense of visual wit that would provide a shot in the arm to the flailing slasher genre, which by 1987 was truly on its last legs. Soavi may be more synonymous with subsequent features Cemetery Man and The Church, movies that would almost single-handedly continue the traditions of Italian horror during the barren 90s, but this underseen, late-’80s slasher should not be overlooked.