Ferrari (Piero Vida) is producing, and Peter (David Brandon) is directing the most low-rent and desperate dance theater production ever to hit off-off-off-off-off-Broadway. It’s the story of an owl-headed serial killer who preys in the slums, raping hookers and Cinderalla alike, while Marilyn Monroe serenades the scene with a saxophone from above.
Such is the setting for George Eastman and Sheila Goldberg’s (writers) and Michele Soavi’s (directing his first feature) film StageFright. The film is a classic slasher, featuring a limited cast in an isolated environment, who are chopped to bits at regular intervals, before the whole thing is wrapped up in a bow at the end. There’s not much to set this film apart from the many, many slashers that populate the horror genre. The good news for viewers is that StageFright is a good film, with a swift pace, plentiful gore, believable characters, and a setting that works. Little foibles of Italian cinema show up here and there, mostly involving the motivations of the bad guy and the unlikely coincidence that introduces said bad guy to the plot, but, whatever. This is a fun flick.
The bad guy is Irving Wallace, a former actor who went on a murderous rampage and is now incarcerated in a mental hospital. He escapes when one of the troupe, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) sprains her ankle in rehearsal and seeks emergency care at the hospital. As she leaves, Wallace escapes and hitches a ride back to the theater where the troupe is carrying out frantic rehearsals before previews begin.
Yep, that’s right. Alicia sought, and received, treatment for a sprained ankle at an in-patient psychiatric hospital, that just happened to be housing a psychopathic actor/killer, who just happens to decide that’s an opportune moment to escape, and who is then led right to a fertile killing ground that relates to his past crimes. Italian cinema, ladies and gentlemen.
Wallace, played by Clain Parker unmasked, and Eastman while masked, wastes little time, notching up a gory kill in the parking lot. The death is discovered, cops and reporters arrive, somehow everyone knows who the killer is, and Peter, desperate for a hit, takes the opportunity to change the floundering production into a story about Wallace. He rushes key cast and crew inside, makes hasty changes to the script, and sets up an all-night rehearsal to prepare this new material for what is sure to be a packed house, now that one of the troupe has fallen victim to the subject of the production. It’s a slimy thing to do, but everyone goes along because their showbiz dreams are fading just as quickly as Peter’s. Of course, Wallace did not flee the scene. He is somewhere in the locked theater, waiting to add to the body count.
It doesn’t take long for the players to realize they’re stuck inside with a killer, and the movie becomes a cat and mouse game between Wallace, now donning the owl head, and the rest of the characters. There is pickaxing, stabbing, drilling, axing, chainsawing, decapitation, disemboweling…really, just about everything the bloodhounds in the audience could ask for.
Wallace is a wonderful slasher. He has all the requisite slasher superpowers. He can be anywhere the plot requires, and nowhere. He displays ridiculous amounts of strength and stamina. He’s invincible, right up to the end, when baddies always get dispatched. And he plies his trade in silence, never offering word or motivation for his actions. That also means that the heavy lifting in this flick was left to the cast of victims.
Good news! The theater troupe is wonderful. Soavi and producers Joe D’Amato and Donatella Donati hit the lottery with this group. They are all believable as struggling actors and crew. Brandon gave the standout performance as an affected highbrow theater director. At first, his character appears to be just a shallow representation of a stereotypical theater guy, but Brandon, in one short scene where he pleads with his cast to take on the revised script, betrays that Peter is a man with a litany of failures behind him. Then everything about the character makes sense. This is also the scene where viewers will see that despite the boilerplate slasher stuff, this was not a film that was just thrown together out of parts from the horror recycle bin.
Soavi had been directing second unit for Dario Argento for years before directing this feature. That apprenticeship shows through, but this is very much a film with its own style. It doesn’t have any of the dreaminess or color that one associates with Argento. This is a bare bones movie — almost a proving ground for Soavi to show everyone what he could do. Turns out, what he could do was direct a fine addition to the October Horrorshow.