Michele Soavi, 1987
Starring: Barbara Cupisti, David Brandon, John Morghen, Robert Gligorov, Ulrike Schwerk
A group of starving actors and dancers are putting on a musical about a serial killer called the Night Owl, who rapes and kills prostitutes while dressed up like a giant owl. Their maniacal director (David Brandon) is an egotistical asshole and fires leading lady Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) when she sneaks off during her 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, 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. The police and reporters show up, inspiring the mad director to lock them in the theatre to finish rehearsal and get the show ready immediately. What they don't know is that Irving Wallace is locked in with them, ready for his breakthrough performance...
Arguably the greatest Italian horror director of the late '80s and early '90s, Michele Soavi's career took off with acting and assistant directing roles in the Italian horror scene. You might recognize him from role in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and New York Ripper, Argento’s Tenebre, Phenomena, and Opera, and Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark and Demons, among others. As a director, he worked with Argento, Joe D’amato, and Lamberto Bava until his directorial debut Deliria, also known as Stagefright, Stagefright: Aquarius, Bloody Bird, and Sound Stage Massacre. Though he became best known for Cemetery Man or occult horror favorites like The Church and The Sect, I think Stagefright is his best film — it’s certainly my favorite and you should in no way expect this to be a reasonable, unbiased review.
Gory, suspenseful, and cheesy as only a late '80s giallo can be, Stagefright is a ton of fun. None of the characters are particularly likable, thought it’s nice to see familiar faces like the great Giovanni Radice (aka John Morghen), Soavi-regular Barbara Cupisti, and Lamberto Bava-regular David Brandon. Most of the characters are on screen only because, sooner or later, they have spectacular death scenes lined up. Though much of the film errs on the side of ridiculousness, there are some effectively spooky and beautiful sequences. It’s also really difficult for me not to love any film — particularly a giallo, thriller, or horror movie — set up in a pressure cooker type of scenario, implausible though the whole thing may be. There are two doors to the theatre and when they are both locked, there is no way to escape. Really?
I can easily suspend by disbelief for the sheer fact that Stagefright is just so much fun. I mean, how can you argue with a troupe of dancers and actors getting butchered by a man in a giant owl mask? Over the years I’ve made at least a dozen people watch this, all of whom were nervous because it begins as an “intellectual musical” with dancing and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator with a saxophone (take that Lost Boys). There’s a sort of 1980s Times Square aesthetic combined with characters straight out of Flashdance, A Chorus Line, or RENT, who all have various romantic and financial struggles. Soavi skates past this pretty quickly to introduce — I’ll say it again — the serial killer who hides behind a giant owl mask.
This would make a great double feature with Lamberto Bava’s Demons — and maybe even Argento’s Opera — as all are awash with metatextual nods to the horror genre. Soavi has some fantastic scenes, including a great moment where a pretty young dancer — 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 horror. Horror favorite Giovanni Radice is involved in another of the film’s best scenes. He plays Brett, a gay dancer cast as the owl killer, but little does Brett or the cast realize, he’s not the only one walking around with the mask, causing both the audience and the cast to play a suspenseful guessing game.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the concluded set piece — involving the masked killer sitting on a state full of props and corpses — attempts to give Lucio Fulci a run for his money in the weirdness, nonsensical department. It’s fantastic. I’m sorry, maybe it wasn’t clear, but I love this movie. On a final note, I’ll tell you what really blows my mind. This fucking movie was written by George Eastman. If his name isn't ringing a bell it means you haven't seen enough Italian B movies. He stars in Baby Yaga, Rabid Dogs, Anthropophagus, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, The Bronx Warriors, 2019: After the Fall of New York, and so on. He’s also gargantuan, coming in at 6’9”. What can the man not do!? He was in some of the best exploitation films of the ‘70s and '80s and also wrote or co-wrote many of them, including Keoma, The Great Alligator, Terror Express, Anthropophagus, Porno Holocaust, Abusrd, etc. Dreamy.
Stagefright has been passed over too long, probably because of its generic name that is shared by a number of other films (including one by Hitchcock). It’s a true masterpiece and it comes highly recommended — just be sure to check any expectations of logic at the theater door. And get ready for the ridiculous. You really need to own this on Blu-ray and I am endlessly grateful that Blue Underground did it justice last year with this wonderful release. The only way it could be better is with an Eastman-Soavi commentary track.