Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stage Fright (Italy, 1987)

More Italian cheese. Oddly enough, this cheese is actually imitation US cheese, but for what it's worth, this cheese is better than a lot of the real cheese it imitates – it must be that the fine Eurotrash veneer adds a needed spice that makes it all the more palatable.
Stage Fright – also known as Deliria, Aquarius and Bloody Bird – is the debut film of actor turned director Michele Soavi; he had actual speaking parts films such as Alien 2 (1980 / trailer) and City of the Living Dead (1980 / trailer) before going on to hone his directorial skills assisting the Italian masters Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento, back when they were still in their prime, by doing second unit direction on great cheesy films like Bava's A Blade in the Dark (1983 / trailer) and Demons (1985 / trailer) and Argento's Tenebrae (1982 / trailer) and Phenomena (1984 / trailer). In 1987, Soavi was finally given this Italian version of a US bodycount film to direct just when the psycho-on-the-loose genre was beginning to lose popularity. The flick didn't do too well when it was released, but over the years it has gained some cult popularity.

Although credited to one "Lew Cooper", the script to the film is by no one less than the great cult actor George Eastman – star of such Italo trash classics as 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983 / trailer), Metropolis 2000 (1982 / trailer), Porno Holocaust (1981 / theme song), Anthropophagus (1980 / trailer) and Rabid Dogs (1974 / trailer), to name but a very few of his mention-worthy films – with some dialog help from Sheila Goldberg, who also plays a small role in Stage Fright as a nurse. (Ms Goldberg is hardly a cult name, but prior to falling off the face of the earth, her writing "skills" were used by Umberto Lenzi for Ghosthouse [1988 / trailer], Ruggero Deodato for Body Count [1987 / trailer] and Claudio Lattanzi in his only feature film, Zombie 5: Killing Birds [1987 / trailer ].)
That said, in all honesty, likes so many Italian films the script is a mess. But then, does one really expect any common sense or understandable logic in a film from a country that elects someone like Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister three different times? Face it, they tick differently down there, and if you keep that in mind, then maybe it does actually make total sense for a dancer with a hurt ankle to go to a psychiatric hospital to get it treated – after all, much like a rose is a rose is a rose, a doctor is a doctor is a doctor. Luckily, a bodycount film isn't a bodycount film isn't a bodycount film. (The last line was inspired by a lovely recipe for a desert supplied by Gertrude Stein's husband, Alice B. Toklas, which you can find here.)
Stage Fright tells the non-Shakespearean tale of a group of desperate thespians taking part in a typically 80s avante-garde dance piece entitled "The Night Owl". The opening scene plays with this by starting with a tracking shot mid-rehearsal during a scene which involves a real (!) cat walking past the movie's final girl Alicia (the delicious Barbara Cupisti of The Church [1989 / trailer], Opera [1987 / trailer] and Dellamorte Dellamore [1994 / trailer]). Before the scene becomes an obvious "staged" event (and breaks into bad 80s innovative dance), the obviously cardboard backgrounds and odd make-up really causes the viewer to wonder what weird piece o' cheap-jack shit he just put into his DVD player. But by the time the saxophone-playing, imitation Marilyn Monroe starts blasting bad sax music, the viewer knows that that the film isn't cheap shit as much as it is real cheese.
During the rehearsal of a scene Alicia is not in, Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) convinces Alicia to get her ankle treated at the nearest hospital, a nut house. While there, they pass the room of the crazed killer actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who just slaughtered 16 people and is awaiting trial. As is required by the genre, Irving chooses that night to escape and, hiding unnoticed in the back of their car, follows the ladies back to the theater. Betty is the first to go in the most spectacular kill of the film: a pickax through the mouth. The director of the piece, Peter (David Brandon of Joe D'Amato's Caligola: La storia mai raccontata [1982 / trailer] and the infamous Ator The Invincible [1984 / trailer]), is a total asshole who sees the chance of unlimited publicity, so he convinces the financer Ferrari (Piero Vida, the fat journalist in The Child [1972 / trailer], who died in real life the same year this film was finished) to cough up more dough and demands the continuance of rehearsals; to make sure no one leaves, he has the actress Corinne (Lori Parrel) lock up the theater and hide the key. So guess who is the first to die next? Now the rest of the cast is stuck in the locked theater without a key, pursued by a bloodthirsty killer...
As a slasher, Stage Fright is an old standard dressed less in new clothes than in a European cut. Thus, though it treads no new ground, it at least looks different enough to be enjoyable. To the movie's advantage, it is also not a dead teenager film played by over-aged actors: the early-to-late twens that populate the film are all entirely believable in their shallow characterization(s) of young, unsuccessful and broke thespians desperate to make it further.
Also, as is often the case with Euro films, the director at least films the events as if he is making a film of greater gravity and artistic intent than a simple trash flick; thus many a scene has an added aesthetic glow – the feathers falling like snow, the unnatural aura exuded by the long hallway to the shower room, the tableau of dead on the stage, etc. The gore varies between extreme (the pick-ax scene, drill through the chest and severed torso are the true highlights) to skimpy (the chainsawed hand), but most of the murder scenes are very well staged. (The irony of the death of the dancing babe in her sexy nighty is also particularly effective.) On a visual level, the film really does look good.

That said, there are also a few true what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking moments as well – for example, if you're wielding an ax with a very long handle and some killer half-blind in an owl mask comes charging at you with a chainsaw, are you gonna go squealing ind prancing into a corner and make it easier for him to kill you (and not even think of your ax until after your hand is cut off) or are you going to go out swinging? Likewise, the McGuffin to get Alicia back to the theater for the final scene is truly stupid, as is the "second" ending tied to it – are Italian cops really so stupid as not to be able to count? Furthermore, though (according to the director – who can be seen in Stage Fright as the young cop of the two stationed outside the theater) the ending is a "wink-wink" joke satirizing the genre staple of the un-killable killer, the joke fails and comes across as the real thing.
In short, as a cheesily 80s Euro-version of the bodycount slasher, Stage Fright adds nothing new to and suffers from some of the common defects of the genre, but it also makes up for its unoriginality with some pleasing directorial touches, a nicely European visual feel, a couple of effective kills and a variety of babes with beautiful eyes.
There is worse Mozzarella out there, but any and all Mozzarella is much better than Cheez Wiz.


Sister Wendy Beckett said...

I was originally cast in this film, but told by the producer NOT to fly to Roma from L.A. at the last second possible, very disheartening... Particularly when watching the film now... I'm sure it would have been loads of fun to do! Caught it on a double bill with Argento's OPERA at the Cinematheque on Hollywood Blvd.'s Egyptian Theatre back around the turn of the new millenium.

Abraham said...

Yeah, despite my reservations regarding aspects of the film, it is indeed a film that one would have reason to be proud of. Like cheese, it keeps getting stronger with age.