Stage Fright (1987) is a rare gem for its time and place; a slasher/giallo hybrid, which draws the best parts from both sub-genres, mixing in a large dose of the director, Michele Soavi’s flamboyant visual style. The film is a shining star, in amongst some real sludge, given the film was made during the period when the ass began to fall out of the Italian film industry, and even the top genre names were struggling on with super low budgets and lack of resources. It is a true shame that Soavi has not been more prolific, because the film really is something special (like all his genre films). It also makes you wonder if the director had been born ten or twenty years earlier (in line with the Italian heyday of horror) would he be considered one of the great masters now? Sadly, Soavi was forced to move into television by the rapidly declining Italian film industry before he really got a chance to get properly started.
As it is, for now at least, we will just have to settle for the small but tasty legacy Soavi left to late eighties, early nineties horror. In line with the period in which it was made, Stage Fright is a film that successfully establishes a feel for the decadence of the era; the erotically charged synthesised sax score, and neon eighties glamour, mix in effortlessly with sublime scenes of murder and carnage. This is horror for the then newly evolving MTV video generation, and as such Soavi captures the vibe perfectly. With a strong sense of slick production values that defy budget limitations the film also escapes the confines of the 80s slasher, thus falling more in line with the artistic violence of Italian giallo cinema. The use of hued lighting and long tracking shots contribute heavily to constructing a giallo aesthetic.
The story– the screenplay written by actor/writer George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori, who also takes a small role in the cast) –takes place inside a theatre, thus providing the perfect setting to have a gang of egotistic and gregarious luvvie type characters to focus on. While working on an ‘intellectual musical’– this involves plenty of dancing around on stage to sleazy sax pop, and costumes that mainly consist of lingerie; apart from Giovanni Lombardo Radice as Brett who gets to wear a magnificent Owl costume, and slinky lycra bodysuit– director Peter (David Brandon) and his team find themselves the target for a murderous escaped mental patient Irving Wallace (Clain Parker ) Unbeknown to the theatrical troupe, when heroine Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) sprains her leg and has to visit a local hospital, she brings back more than a fresh bandage with her. When one of the crew is found dead in the car park Peter decides the show must go on. Even better, he thinks it would be a great idea to lock the cast in for the night and continue rehearsing. The cops are placed outside to protect them, so what could go wrong? Well, someone has stolen Brett’s owl costume for a start, and now cast members are apparently going missing too.
Using the theatre as a hunting ground in hack and slash based horror was something that had been touched upon before Soavi’s effort. Pete Walker’s proto-slasher used the same setting for his Flesh and Blood Show in 1972. While the offbeat giallo The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974), again takes a similar approach with a group of people locked inside a theatre for the evening — in fact there is a scene in Stage Fright apparently inspired by the aforementioned Italian number. The theatre is the perfect place to summon tension and atmosphere too; all those little nooks and crannies to hide in, rows of old costumes to creep about behind, rafters, and dark corners. Soavi exploits the setting to its full potential, and some.
Drawing on his previous experience of working with Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Joe D’Amato, Soavi was already a talented craftsman by the time it came to start making his own films. Stage Fright was his directorial feature film debut, and was co-produced by his old mentor D’Amato (aka Aristide Massacessi) and Donatella Donati . Even though there has been an obvious attempt to put an Americanised slant on this feature, the outstanding practical effects, and generous attitude to letting the grue just hang out for all to see, aligns this film with the Euro crowd of like minded features, with some Stateside offerings of the period seeming a little more tame in comparison. As the story picks up steam, it rushes into a highly entertaining furious climax that reaches a taught and impressive show-down.
For the casting, there are some pretty solid Italian names in amongst the lesser known actors. Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen takes one of his most gregarious roles to date as prankster actor Brett (complete with some hilarious dubbing), adding in some glorious camp value to the proceedings. Lead Barbara Cupisti as Alicia is suitably wide-eyed, and sympathetic, making for the perfect final girl. While David Brandon as over-wrought director Peter seems to revel in the melodramatics of his part. The rest of the supporting characters all put in solid turns, with no obvious weak links. Watch out for a generous cameo from director Soavi as the donut munching cop, who is set up alongside cult favourite Mickey Knox as his partner– there is some great comedy in the dialogue to come out of their handful of scenes. Last but not least, mention has to go to James Sampson as caretaker Willy for his memorable offering to the finale.