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“What a disaster, and just a week from opening night.” By 1987 the slasher movie was in rapid decline, having dominated the popular cinema of the 1980s with masked murderers slaying their way through camp grounds and holidays alike with gore-drenched abandon. However, if there's still some juice left in the squeeze, you could be sure the Italians will find it, and in this case Michele Soavi (Dellamorte Dellamore) made a name for himself by injecting a fairly standard slasher flick with an invigorating sense of energy and a love for the horror genre...
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“Can you imagine the effect on the public? The victim rapes her own murderer. It'd be sensational!” What begins as a typical giallo/slasher slaying of a street walker is quickly revealed to be a rehearsal for a new stage play: The Night Owl. Concerning a serial killer who wears a giant owl head for a mask, and accompanied by a saxophone-blasting Marilyn Monroe lookalike of all things, it's shaping up to be a mere bit of lurid fluff from the hungry and desperate performers and their demanding, cravat-wearing, ponce of a director Peter (David Brandon, Delirium). However, when their costumer is brutally slain by an escaped mental patient, Peter and his sleazy producer Ferrari (Piero Vida, Who Saw Her Die?) chance upon an opportunity.
“You know that people have a morbid curiosity about murder and they're going to line up for blocks to see a show in which one of the actresses has been murdered by the real-live maniac in the plot … can't you understand that?!” The killer, previously locked-up at the conveniently local mental asylum, is – even more conveniently – former actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who went beserk and snuffed out sixteen people. With his cynical senses tingling, Peter lies to the press and claims the murdered woman was in fact an actress, starring in a play inspired by Wallace's actual killing spree. Seeking to rush the re-jigged production in front of an audience as soon as possible, Peter insists on his cast staying overnight to continue rehearsals, even going so far as to have one of his actors hide the door key. Unknown to them, however, the psychotic killer has infiltrated the building and is now posing as the owl-faced murderer.
“I think you've pushed the erotic angle as far as you can.” Written by George Eastman (Anthropophagous), who also sometimes played the masked killer on-screen, and Sheila Goldberg, Stage Fright doesn't set out to do anything particularly fresh with the slasher genre, but Soavi is able to build upon the sardonic wit laced throughout the story. One of the stand-out scenes occurs with the second murder, witnessed by the troupe as their director – unaware that this is in fact a real murder taking place – instructs the maniac to kill his actor more emphatically. The sequence becomes increasingly twisted as they all realise that not only has an actual murder taken place in front of their eyes, but that the secret to where the hidden door key is about to die with the actor bleeding out before them. Desperate to save their own hides, she has barely slipped loose this mortal coil than everyone's digging around in her things to try and find the precious key.
“Was I called?” / “Every name in the book, honey.” Indeed, the film is riddled with this kind of dark humour and weary actor's wit, lending an air of authenticity to the otherwise ramped-up stereotypical characters. Laurel (Mary Sellers, Eleven Days Eleven Nights), the second lead, has the reputation of shagging her way through the cast, while her character's costume is a cartoonishly puffed-up outfit that's like a cross between Cinderella and Tralala from Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit To Brooklyn. Another riff on slasher movie stereotypes comes later, in a scene which finds Sybil (Jo Ann Smith) screaming her head off as the killer attempts to slay one of the group, only for the other women in the scene – actively trying to save a life – yell at her to shut up and do something useful. Similarly, the tension is eased on occasion by cutting away to two policemen stationed outside in their patrol car on guard duty in the wake of the first (and, to them, only) murder. Unable to hear the chaos unfolding inside the locked theatre due to a heavy storm, while blood-soaked chaos rages inside, these two cops are having a thoroughly easy and boring night as they eat their spinach and preen their hair to look more like James Dean.
“A disaster for that poor girl alright, but not necessarily for us.” Michele Soavi brings a rich visual flair to the film with the aid of Renato Tafuri's cinematography, and Kathleen Statton's tight editing. One of the most visually impressive sequences comes as the killer, believing his work is done, sets about organising his tableau of death upon the theatre stage, littered with feathers as a black cat named Lucifer purrs quietly in his lap (the Italians love a bad-luck feline). Meanwhile, final girl Alicia (Barbara Cupisti, The New York Ripper) has spotted the key to her escape and she has to sneak beneath the stage – all raining feathers and shafts of white light – and steal away the key. Such moments lend a dreamlike quality to the film, a feeling that is also evidenced in some of Soavi's other work like Dellamorte Dellamore and The Church. With each kill ramping up the gore quotient to include decapitations, bisections, and chainsaw-assisted limb lopping, Stage Fright delivers as both a solid slasher flick and as a sly riff on the genre itself, going so far as to literally wink at the audience after another of the film's delightfully sharp-tongued moments, which feels like the whole film was a wish upon a monkey's paw come to fruition.
“This time we stick together.” Shameless Screen Entertainment have, in recent times, moved into releasing Blu-Rays. This 2021 HD release comes from a 4K scan restoration, so the film looks and sounds the part (with your choice of English or Italian audio tracks, with optional subtitles and closed captions). Extras wise there's a lengthy and informative interview with Michele Soavi, as well as candid interviews with Giovanni Lombardo Radice and David Brandon. There's also a reversible sleeve to go along with the slipcase. Fans of Soavi's other work in the genre should find plenty to enjoy here, while slasher fiends looking to broaden their genre horizons beyond the United States could do far worse than to start here and get a taste of how the Italians do it. Stage Fright – otherwise known as Deliria and Aquarius – illustrates Soavi's talents in the director's chair, marshalling a stylish, bold, and bloody affair, amplified more-so considering the tight budget constraints Soavi had to work with (needing some last minute shots to complete the climactic sequence, the director performed a dangerous stunt himself – with no safety measures!). Well worth checking out.
N.B. Screenshots are sourced from a low resolution SD source as I'm unable to capture from a Blu-Ray disc.