For my money, Michele Soavi is the greatest Italian horror director of the late ’80s and early ’90s (sorry Lamberto Bava) and the last really outstanding directorial talent to come out of the prolific giallo wave that ruled European genre cinema in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Soavi was a product of this system in more ways than one, and got his start as an actor — on films like Fulci’s Paura nella città dei morti viventi (City of the Living Dead, 1980) and Lo squartatore di New York (New York Ripper, 1982), Joe D’Amato’s Rosso sangue (Absurd, 1981) and Caligola: La storia mai raccontata (The Emperor Caligula: The Untold Story, 1982), Argento’s Tenebre (1982), and Lamberto Bava’s La casa con la scala nel buio (A Blade in the Dark, 1983), among others. He also worked as an assistant director for D’Amato, Lamberto, Argento, and Terry Gilliams, before dazzling the world with his largely ignored and still neglected directorial debut: Deliria (1987), also known as StageFright, Stagefright: Aquarius, Bloody Bird, and Sound Stage Massacre. Though he became best known for Cemetery Man (1994) or occult horror gems like La chiesa (The Church, 1989) and La setta (The Sect aka The Devil’s Daughter, 1991), I think StageFright is his best genre film — it’s certainly my favorite and you should in no way expect this to be a reasonable, unbiased discussion of the greatest film to feature a serial killer wearing a giant owl mask.
A group of young, struggling actors and dancers are rehearsing a musical called The Night Owl, about a serial killer who rapes and kills prostitutes while — yes — dressed up like an owl. Their egotistical, even maniacal director (Lamberto Bava and D’Amato regular David Brandon) fires leading lady Alicia (Soavi regular Barbara Cupisti) when she sneaks off during a break to get medical attention for a sprained ankle. Unfortunately the closest hospital is a psychiatric facility, where she attracts the attention of Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), a psychotic serial killer. Unbeknownst to Alicia, he breaks out of the hospital and follows her back to the theatre, brutally killing the wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk). Police and reporters arrive, inspiring the mad director to lock them in the theatre to finish rehearsal and get the show ready immediately, as he plans to capitalize on the murder to draw crowds to opening night of the play. What they don’t realize is that Wallace is locked in with them, ready for his breakthrough performance…
It’s really difficult for me not to love any film — particularly a giallo, thriller, or horror movie — primarily set in a confined space, where a series of characters are trapped with an unknown killer who picks them off one at a time, and this device was a staple of not only giallo films, mysteries, thrillers, and old dark house movies from The Cat and the Canary (1927) to The Lady Vanishes (1938) and And Then There Were None (1945), among many more. While any number of giallo films followed a Gothic influence and stranded their protagonists on islands, at rural getaways, or in manor houses (like Elio Petri’s The Quiet Place in the Country from 1968, Mario Bava’s 1970 film Five Dolls for an August Moon and 1971’s Bay of Blood, and the absolutely terrifying The House with the Laughing Windows from 1976), few barricaded their characters inside a building to which there was no obvious escape. While Argento played with this theme in films like Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Opera (1987), StageFright’s most obvious parallel is to Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), where Soavi served as an actor (in the film-within-a-film) and assistant director.
But unlike the equally great Demons, where characters are trapped in a movie theater being overrun by human-demon hybrids while they’re watching a horror film, StageFright has the slight edge — at least in my eyes — because even though it lacks Demons’ character actor Bobby Rhodes, it’s also a musical. While there are a handful of cinematic musicals, operas, and ballets that explore darker themes — everything from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) to De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Zuławski’s Boris Godounov (1989) — there are just not enough of them in the world. StageFright isn’t a proper musical in the sense that characters spontaneously break into song or dance numbers — which is a real shame — but it has a great trick opening sequence; it begins as an “intellectual musical” with dancing and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator playing the saxophone (take that Lost Boys). There’s a sort of 1980s Times Square aesthetic combined with characters straight out of Flashdance, A Chorus Line, Fame, or even a bit of the later RENT, who all have various romantic and financial struggles. Soavi skates past this pretty quickly to introduce — I’ll say it again — a serial killer who hides behind a giant owl mask.
I mean, how can you argue with a troupe of dancers and actors getting butchered by a man in a giant owl mask? If StageFright is anything, it’s quite a lot of fun and takes obvious jabs not only at the earnest ‘80s musical/dance films about down-on-their-luck kids just trying to make it in a tough world (like Flashdance or Footloose), but, in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, is awash with metatextual nods to the horror genre and manipulates tropes from the Italian giallo and North American slasher films. For instance, none of the characters are particularly likeable and most are on screen because, sooner or later, Soavi has spectacular death sequences lined up for each of them and, despite the moments of ridiculousness or comedy, he takes the gore and eerie set pieces quite seriously. Soavi has some fantastic scenes, including a great moment where a pretty young dancer (Jo Ann Smith) — the film’s goody two shoes — is rehearsing a number where she seduces the killer and is then murdered. Except the escaped, real-life serial killer actually slaughters her, revealing himself to the rest of the cast, much to their shock and horror. And genre favorite Giovanni Radice (aka John Morghen), who is wonderful everywhere but particularly so here, plays a bitchy dancer who has been cast as the owl killer; little does he or the cast realize, but he’s not the only one walking around with the mask, causing both the audience and the cast to play a suspenseful guessing game.
The owl mask is certainly an unorthodox choice, particularly compared to other masked killers of genre cinema, such as the stocking-faced, fedora-clad killer from Blood and Black Lace or Jason’s absurd hockey goalie get up. It adds a surreal element (one of many) that probably intentionally invokes Georges Franju’s serial Judex, also an inspired for Jean Rollin’s La vampire nue from the previous decade. The trope of an insane killer is certainly far from new, but there’s a delightful twist to the fact that he escapes the psychiatric prison (motivated by the sight of a beautiful girl) with seeming ease, as if he’s been there of his own accord all along, and then follows the actress to find a theatrical troupe elbow-deep in rehearsals for a play clearly meant to glorify the crimes of such killers. Can you blame him for wanting to have a little fun?
Said homicidal antics go full tilt in the concluding set piece — involving the masked killer sitting on a stage full of theatrical props and posed corpses — which attempts to give Lucio Fulci a run for his money in the nonsensical weirdness department and can be compared to similarly grotesque and operatic death tableaux found in films from the period like Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and, to a different degree, Tenebre (1982). While the script’s cracks begin to a show a bit in the last act — Cupisti as a sort of Italian rendition of the slasher’s “final girl” is unable to support the weight of the finale on her slender shoulders — the completely bonkers conclusion (rivaling a moment where a dead character seems to rise again in Pieces) is utterly delightful. Though there is a fair amount of insanity in Cemetery Man, it never manages to quite reach this level.
On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that the film was written by George fucking Eastman, who Soavi became acquainted with during his time on D’Amato’s film sets. If Eastman’s glorious name isn’t ringing a bell it means you haven’t seen enough Italian B movies. He’s starred in everything from Baby Yaga, Rabid Dogs, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, The Bronx Warriors, 2019: After the Fall of New York, and so on. He was in some of the wildest exploitation films of the ‘70s and ’80s and also wrote or co-wrote many of them, including Keoma, The Great Alligator, Terror Express, Anthropophagous, Porno Holocaust, Absurd, etc. He’s also gargantuan, coming in at 6’9”, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen him crammed in the back of a getaway car for nearly the entire running time of Mario Bava’s great late period film, Rabid Dogs (1974). My fondest wish for the immediate future would be to see Eastman and Soavi collaborate on a new project together, as StageFright is a highlight of ‘80s Italian cinema and one that deserves a much wider following.