‘Stagefright’ or — A Total Hoot?
Michele Soavi is generally considered the last great director of the Italian horror/Giallo boom. The genre seemed to have run itself dry by the mid/late eighties so could this young filmmaker, who had previously worked under Argento and Gilliam among others, wring a little more out of it all with his film debut ‘Stagefright’ (1987)? Oh, you betcha.
A director is rehearsing some actors in a theatre for a play when a homicidal maniac escapes from a nearby insane asylum, puts on an owl’s head and stats murdering them all. And that’s it! That’s the entire plot for ‘Stagefright’ right there and with nothing more to add. Now this might seem ridiculously simplistic (and it is) but this deliberate simplicity allows Soavi and his team to focus on a clear and linear story off which they can gleefully play with conventions, hang a load of style off of as well providing latitude for a wide range of consistently shifting, and gory, variation.
Not surprisingly ‘Stagefright’ has its roots in the Italian horror and slasher tradition, yet the overriding influence seems to be very much De Palma who, in turn, had been influenced by Giallo himself even more than he was Hitchcock so this feels like the genre returning home after being filtered through an American prism. So there’s flashes of ‘Phantom of the Paradise’ (1974) and ‘Body Double’ (1984) whilst Soavi’s handling of certain set pieces demonstrates a similar cheeky flair.
But that’s only part of what’s going on here as there’s also the influence of silent and pre-code horror, Grand Guignol theatre, the surrealism of Max Ernst, the films of Hitchcock, Carpenter and early Sam Raimi. And Soavi knows exactly when to pull each of these styles out in service of the overall experience which means, again, there’s a lot of inventive variation going on here.
There was one point, about an hour in, where I wondered if the film might suddenly run out of steam or ideas because most of the characters had now been disposed of only for the film to instantly turn into a game of cat and mouse involving an extremely effective, nerve-wracking and brilliantly executed scene involving a key so immediately — BLAM! — not only no loss of steam but the thrilling injection of even more.
The film is also funny, sometimes very funny, especially if you like your genre tropes mischievously goosed. There was one moment where I thought ‘Stagefright’ had gone too far (it’s a scene in a shower) and had totally lost me with what seemed an unnecessary burst of excessive brutality, only for the movie to redeem itself by going even FURTHER and leaving me thinking “Well, I can’t really complain about what I just saw if I’m now witnessing this!”
There’s also an excellent and effective use of sound which Soavi utilises to help augment the impressive visuals and provide additional impact which, again, keeps up the constant variation and jolting surprises, a couple of them sonic in nature.
‘Stagefright’ is great. It’s an excellent example of what can be done with an almost insultingly simple story, a small group of actors, limited locations and a bag load of style, energy and smarts. This was Soavi’s first film and you can kinda tell because this is a hungry movie, one where you can feel the director, writers and crew bristling with glee at the chance to grab the audience and present them with as much entertainment value as possible.
This is a gory, funny, inventive, stylish, perfectly paced slasher. It might have appeared towards the end of the heyday of Italian horror but it can hold its own against the best of the genre and its sly humour gives it a refreshing and appealing edge. This is a hell of a lot of fun.