Written by: George Eastman (yes, that one), Sheila Goldberg
Directed by: Michele Soavi
David Brandon as Peter
Barbara Cupisti as Alicia
Clain Parker as Irving Wallace
I was helping hetero life partner Bob start work on a fence for his new house today, and on the way to pick up some more tools we drove by the old gymnasium/theater where we spent many hours during high-school working on plays. Lots of great memories in that place, from blasting Monster Magnet and White Zombie over the PA while we were building sets, to scaring the shit out of fellow cast members in the shadowy backstage area with my fairly gruesome makeup as Jonathan in Arsenic and Old Lace (I do so love telling people I once shared a role with Boris Karloff). Fortunately for us, we never got locked in the place at the mercy of a lunatic. The most danger we faced in there from shop tools was playing mumblety-peg with a power drill. In hindsight, perhaps not the wisest choice we ever made.
Tonight's feature is the directorial debut of the great—if not terribly prolific—Michele Soavi. After serving various roles on productions by Italian horror heavies like Joe D'Amato (who was one of the producers on StageFright) and Dario Argento, Soavi spread his directorial wings and lensed a script by George Eastman (there's a photo of him made up as the monstrous killer from Anthropophagous in one of the dressing rooms if you're looking closely) and, at a time when the slasher flick was in its death throes in America, showed the idea-starved yanks how it was done and turned out one of, if not the best examples of the genre ever made.
The movie opens during rehearsal for a play called The Night Owl, about a killer of prostitutes who stalks the streets wearing a seriously unsettling owl mask. Oh, and it's a sort of ballet/musical hybrid production. It doesn't sound all that strange on paper, but it's very surreal when you see it. The director of the piece is a temperamental visionary named Peter, who keeps insisting on making changes in order to up the sexual ante and create a piece of challenging and shocking art. Money man Ferrari isn't so sure about adding a scene where the corpse of a murdered hooker played by leading lady Alice comes back to life and gives the owl man a simulated blow job during a saxophone solo by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (see, I told you it was weird), but for the most part he's happy to leave Peter alone to create as long as he's seen a return on his investment when the last curtain falls.
During a scene where a bunch of other street people toss her corpse (adding to the strange atmosphere, the body is a seemingly intentionally obvious mannequin when it's tossed and slams into the stage and reverts to being Alice when the camera focuses on her again) into the air and watch it crash back to the ground, Alice injures her ankle. Betty the wardrobe girl talks her into ducking out to get her ankle looked at by a doctor since she doesn't have another scene coming up for a while, and with a logic that you only find in Italian horror flicks, takes her to an insane asylum since it's the closest place with M.D. on the door and a doctor is a doctor, right?
While they're at the clinic, they happen to walk past the room of Irving Wallace. Well, it's not so much a room as an old-fashioned jail cell similar to the ones you see on The Andy Griffith Show. You wouldn't think being displayed like Otis the town drunk would be very conducive to recuperation from a psychotic break, but what do I know? Anyway, Wallace is also an actor and went insane a few years ago and killed a bunch of his co-stars, and unbeknownst to Betty and Alice, he kills an orderly and slips out of the clinic to follow them back to the theater.
Shortly after their return, Betty is found in the parking lot with a pickaxe buried in her face and everyone is understandably freaked out. Rather than let everyone go, Peter demands they lock themselves in the theater to continue work on the play. It seems like a crazy demand at first, but in a surprising bit of character development for a movie like this, Peter shows that his drive isn't the single-minded mania it appears to be at first. Yes, he wants to make great art and be famous for it, but he also knows that this ragamuffin band of losers he's directing may well be eating out of Dumpsters by the end of the month—himself included—if he can't make the show a success for them. Of course, the idea to change the identity of the killer from a monstrous but anonymous owl man to none other than Irving Wallace could prove to be an unfortunate bit of irony.
While there are some unexpected moments of thought put into the script, such as the reveal that Peter isn't entirely the cold hearted bastard we're first led to believe (at least until we see again later that yeah, he really is), it's really the visual aspect of the movie that makes it stand out from the crowd. Soavi clearly paid attention during his time with the masters, Argento in particular. There are a lot of visual cues that wouldn't look out of place in a movie from Argento's heyday. And of course, no great Italian horror movie would be complete without ripping off some of Bava's insane lighting schemes.
There's also a surprising amount of gore for a slasher flick. Even the European ones usually weren't too terribly gruesome compared to, say, cannibal or zombie flicks. It's even more shocking here because the movie's more than half over and several people are already dead by the time the gore really starts flying, so you're not expecting it any more by the time the power tools come out.
Perhaps the one aspect of Italian horror cinema that works against this particular movie is the use of dream logic to make the movie seem more like a nightmare. Sure, the whole thing is dripping with rich and bizarre imagery, but none of the events we see suggest the rules of reality don't apply to what's going on. At least, that holds true until the very end. The last shot of the movie diminished some of the impact of what had come before. Well, it did for me anyway. I know other people who love it, so your mileage may vary.
Even so, the ending is but a minor misstep. If you're a fan of horror in general, and slasher movies in particular, you definitely need this one in your collection. It's not terribly obscure and it's been available on DVD for a while, but Blue Underground's Blu-ray release is definitely the way to go to see this one. There are far shittier slasher movies that are far better known than StageFright, and that's a damn shame. It's definitely in the top echelon of the genre, even if that does seem like damning with faint praise.