aka Sound Stage Massacre aka Bloody Bird aka Aquarius aka Deliria
Directed by: Michele Soavi
Starring: David Brandon, Barbara Cupisti, Mary Sellers
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Easily one of the best slasher movies of all time, Stagefright is as close as you will get to a perfect juxtaposition of the trappings that had created their own specific sub-genre throughout the seventies and eighties.
Born in 1957, seventeen-years after his idol Dario Argento, Michele Soavi experienced first-hand the golden period of the Italian Giallo in theatres. His love for these thrillers made-up his mind to move away from his mother and stepfather’s profession of art and he quickly developed a passion for cinema. After a chance meeting with the director who had inspired him, Soavi’s ambition impressed Argento so much that he took him under his wing and gave him the opportunity to be his second assistant on the 1982 hit, Tenebrae. Lamberto Bava, who had also worked on that picture and shared the belief in Michele’s ability, went on to hire him for a similar position on A Blade in the Dark. For the next few years, Soavi continued to build his knowledge by accepting roles either within crews or as an actor until he finally had the confidence and the opportunity to shoot his own feature.
By 1987, the slasher genre, which was unarguably an Americanisation of the Giallo, was no longer only an enemy of critics but a failure with audiences too. This was the case almost everywhere except for Southern Europe, where there remained strong interest and popularity at box offices and on VHS. Soavi had been expected to shoot his début in the style that he had not only grown up with, but worked upon; however he surprisingly chose to create an effort that owed much more to Halloween than it did Blood and Black Lace. Stagefright delivers no mystery as to who is the movie’s antagonist and instead we are given a real bogeyman that much like Michael Myers has no motive outside of a lust for violent murder. The thing that perhaps separates this from almost all of its colleagues from that period is that it’s shot with the panache found more predominantly in European efforts and is by far the best crossbreed of those visions. The filmmaking heritage of the man in the hot seat means that the combination feels natural and takes the best of both methodologies to make an entry that succeeds on every possible level.
A group of amateur stage actors are rehearsing for a production of an ambitious musical. The director is frustrated that his cast are so far behind and one of the financiers is getting hot under the collar with the lacklustre effort from the people he has hired. That all changes however when one of them turns up dead in the car park outside; brutally murdered. The Police arrive and it is believed that the maniac has taken off into the night. After heavy persuasion, the actors decide to stay and continue with their preparation knowing that the events will bring people from far and wide with morbid curiosities. Before long there’s another murder and they realise that they are now locked in the theatre with the killer. How will they survive until morning?
Being that I have worked in sales for over ten years, I have been on many courses and learned from lots of different professionals. I have picked up a great deal of advice, but one of the most prominent messages that has stayed with me is ‘treat everyday like it’s your first.’ When you initially join a new company, you are brimming with motivation to prove that your boss has made the right decision in hiring you. You don’t take five minutes to check Twitter at lunch time and you can’t stop typing and hitting the phone. Soavi, as a first time director shows that he has that same bug for exuberance and every shot feels like it comes from a filmmaker who is absolutely brimming with flair and innovation.
Stagefright is a wonderful blend of stylish imagery and energetic ideas and it is this abundance of mastery that makes it an adept example of bringing the best out of an overused formula. Due to some well-thought out scripting, intriguing personas and witty dialogue, you can enjoy the moments when the killer is not on-screen almost as much as when he begins stalking. There are various notions explored that viewers can relate to, including each of the characters being broke and desperate for money, especially the young couple who discover that they are about to be parents for the first time. David Brandon is absolutely outstanding as the vainglorious and cowardly director and the players are split between those you immediately dislike and the few that you hope will survive. Mary Sellers’ Laurel is a great demonstration of a horrible personality and even with her final breath she illustrates a trait of selfishness that you will come across only too often in reality. I can’t think of any scene more symbolic than when David Brandon’s aforementioned director mistakes the real psychopath for an actor that sports the same disguise and eggs him on during a rehearsal with lines like, ‘Go on, kill her!’ as the maniac lingers close to a female member of the crew. He then realises far too late that he has just rooted for the slaughter of one of his colleagues. This results in another great twist when Brandon’s character comes across what he thinks to be the nut job sitting in the attic. I won’t ruin what happens, but the film is riddled with a large amount of false shocks and rule bending.
In fact it’s the knowledge of the genre’s typical values that allows Soavi to experiment so wildly. Even though this is by no means a parody, it does enjoy realigning your expectations and catching you out with its off-key hop-scotching through what you think that you know will happen. I like the way that the victims, upon realising that they are locked in with the psycho, decide to grab some weapons and fight back. The screenplay handles all the emotions you can imagine that there would be, including paranoia, fear, anxiety and panic. Even though some bonds are built between the characters, they are quickly broken if they find a chance to push the person next to them ahead in the queue to be slaughtered and the final girl only gets that opportunity because she is knocked unconscious by one of the people who is fleeing alongside her. This flaw in human nature seems to be something that Soavi has much interest in and there’s another sequence where the survivors begin violently shaking a girl who is bleeding to death because she knows where a hidden key is located. It’s an intriguing comment on how high some people value themselves over the lives of others. There are few heroes here, which to be fair seems much closer to the true nature of mankind than Hollywood would like us to believe.
The photography is marvellous and is only bettered by a great use of sound. It is more than a gimick that the killer is stalking a musical, because Soavi attempts successfully to use his fantastic accompaniment to assist in the delivery of the change of moods from scene to scene. Included are some smart opportunities for suspense and a handful of very good jump scares and the owl mask starts out almost comically, but seems to get creepier as it gets more splattered with blood. I can’t think of many better postcards of the slasher craze than the shot of the killer listening to classical music in an armchair on the stage with a black cat on his lap and the corpses of all of his prey lying around him like trophies. It’s so good that it’s almost artistic. The film is filled with enough blood to satisfy gore fans and the killer works with almost all the most notorious tools including, an axe (Friday the 13th), chainsaw (Pieces), drill, (Pranks), pick-axe (My Bloody Valentine) and every psychopath’s favourite, the bread-knife (Almost every slasher movie ever). Upon consideration, Stagefright could well be just a collection of elements from the following features: Whodunit? (the sleazy producer), House of Death (gut ripping scene), Halloween (the escape), Tenebrae (the ‘look who’s behind you’ trick) and Demons (the location). Then again, maybe it’s just a coincidence.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of Michele Soavi’s stalk and slash effort. Even if he never became anywhere near as prolific as his contemporaries, he kept the quality levels high throughout his following filmography. This is by far my favourite of his work and I believe that you will rarely find a better genre movie. It has everything from moments of extreme creepiness (like when the killer and final girl come face to face for the first time) to hilarious dialogue (some of the one-liners are electric). Put it this way, style like this doesn’t come around very often. Not very often at all…
Final Girl: √√√