After cutting his teeth as an actor, writer, and second-unit director on many films, including several for Dario Argento, Michele Soavi makes a stunning directorial debut with STAGE FRIGHT, a beautifully lit and photographed slasher film that one can call truly lurid in its execution. It boasts a premise that is formulaic to be sure, but its very simplicity works. Plus, the idea of being trapped inside a building with no possible way out is one that anyone can find frightening, and it is, right up until the film's (sigh) derivative ending. STAGE FRIGHT calls to mind Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and the mammouth Metropol Theatre. In fact, Soavi played the metal-faced punk in DEMONS who handed out the invitations. He's also the young cop in the police car outside the theater in STAGE FRIGHT, redubbed dialog and all.
Out of all the Argento-inspired giallo films of the 1980's, this is one of the best, if not THE best, with it's quirky character banter, quotable lines, off-the-wall camera moves, and phenomenal musical score by Simon Boswell and Stefano Mainetti. I only heard about it thanks to home video because, disappointingly (but certainly not surprisingly), the film was never shown theatrically here in the States. And that, my friends, is a damn shame when you consider that DR. GIGGLES was distributed by Universal Pictures.
Shot in mid-1986 and released the following year, STAGE FRIGHT's opening credits play over some strange sound effects � slow footsteps, a door opening, someone forcing something into water, a car meowing and screeching, etc. The film then opens on a shot of Lucifer, the stage manager's black cat who happens to be running through a stage play that is in rehearsal. His appearance cannot go unnoticed. Before the dawn arrives, more bad luck than one can shake a stick at will befall the entire cast of this production. Lucifer seems to be the harbinger of bad luck all right!
David Brandon, the photographer in PHOTO OF GIOIA, stars as Peter Collins, the director of this theater troupe of amateurs rehearsing for the play that is opening much sooner than he lets on. Described by one of the young women as an intellectual musical, "The Night Owl" is the story about a murdered whore who comes back from the dead and rapes her own killer. Nice, huh? Peter tries to get his cast together and in synch with the music but they're all over the place.
Unbeknownst to him and the others, Alicia the leading lady (Barbara Cupisti) and Betty the wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk) sneak out in the hopes of finding treatment for Alicia's twisted ankle. Naturally, they go to a mental institution because "psychiatrists are doctors, too, aren't they?" Naturally, it's pouring. Naturally, the institution houses Irving Wallace, an actor who went crazy and killed 16 people. And naturally, Wallace manages to escape and find refuge in Betty's car! Alicia and Betty unknowingly bring Wallace back to the theater with them. Betty is killed just after Alicia returns to the theater, but when Alicia returns outside after having been fired by Peter for sneaking off, she hears Lucifer meowing, then stumbles over Betty's corpse and runs in to tell the others.
Amazingly, Soavi makes no effort to conceal Wallace's face from the audience � we know what he looks like. And he is frightening.
After the police interrogate everyone, Peter decides to use this horrible incident to his advantage. He tells the journalist of a change he's making to the play � he now gives the name "Irving Wallace" to the killer in the play and hopes that this change will make people line up at the box office for weeks.
Reliable Giovanni Lombardo Radice, aka John Morghen, plays Brett, the perpetual theatrical prankster with the effeminate voice. He meets his death brutally as well.
Naturally, Wallace (the real killer) is in the theater, and when the cast begins to rehearse a violent scene, the real Wallace, wearing the Night Owl costume, kills an actress in the play. Is this art imitating life, or life imitating art?
Once the cast realizes that the real killer is among them, they suddenly find themselves locked in because the key is now missing � the door can only be opened to the outside with the key. D'oh!
Each of the performers is killed off one by one until only one remains. The murders themselves are especially brutal and not for the squeamish. Especially Sybil's � her death is just plain WRONG!
Since Wallace was once an actor, it is assumed that he worked extensively at this theater because he certainly knows the layout of the building.
The ending is truly bothersome, because it throws in the usual tongue-in-cheek horror movie ending staple that became so prevalent in the genre's lesser offerings.
Don't, however, let this one disappointment stop you from seeing STAGE FRIGHT. What the ending lacks in the way of logic is more than made up for in mood � the music, the sound effects, the constant drone of thunder from outside the theater, all of these elements mix to make STAGE FRIGHT a terrific slasher film.