Friday, March 25, 2011

A Bloodthirsty Killer is a Good Reason for “StageFright”

Michele Soavi’s 1987 StageFright (original Italian title: Deliria) opens with a woman being attacked in an alley. As onlookers gather, a man donning a giant owl headpiece leaps from the darkness and begins to dance to sax music. It’s all a rehearsal for The Night Owl, a trashy and rather vulgar theatrical production set to open in a week. The director, Peter (David Brandon), desperately tries to polish the show, while a financier, Ferrari (Piero Vida), nervously stands by, hoping to protect his investment. When one of the crew is murdered just outside the building, Peter decides to work the tragedy in his favor.

Crazed actor-turned-killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) has recently escaped from a nearby institution. Believing that the murder was committed by Wallace (which the audience knows is true), Peter reworks the play to give his anonymous killer a name. The director convinces Ferrari to invest additional funds, pushing the opening by several days to fully take advantage of the headlines. Peter furthermore persuades the remaining cast to stay all night, promising more money and, for good measure, locking them inside the building. Unfortunately, one of Wallace’s first victims is the actor who’s hidden the key, trapping former lead actress, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), and the others with a homicidal maniac.

Soavi’s feature film debut is an energetic and thrilling cinematic venture. A fan of Dario Argento’s films, Soavi asked the director for a job and worked as assistant or second unit director on movies from Argento and Lamberto Bava, occasionally appearing in small roles. He made a documentary, Dario Argento’s World of Horror, in 1985 and was then offered the chance to direct with the help of producer/director Joe D’Amato (born Aristide Massaccesi), with whom Soavi had previously worked. Despite frequently working with other directors, Soavi displays a fresh, original style and directs a film that thrives on its claustrophobic setting.

Though StageFright does have its share of gory moments, many sequences boast a high level of suspense. The cast and crew are often searching for weapons or means of escape, and one scene is particularly well done, as a set of keys is finally discovered, and each key is tested in the deadbolt. Wallace’s face is initially shown, as he is rolled in a gurney at the hospital. Once at the theater, he’s only seen in shadow, behind a mask, or with just an arm or hand(s) visible. He begins as a man but ultimately becomes a presence. Even when he’s clearly shown (at one point literally in the spotlight), he’s still in costume and seems less than human.

Soavi intensifies the film by proficiently fusing the stage and theater into the plot. During a rehearsal, Wallace walks onstage dressed in the owl costume, and Peter, yelling directions, unwittingly demands a killer to kill someone. Wallace then moves from actor to director, shutting off the lights and turning up the music. The survivors hide in the dressing room, emerging later to face Wallace, almost as if he were awaiting their performances. One of the most terrifying scenes is near the end, when only one person is left alive, and Wallace poses all the bodies onstage like props. Then he simply sits and taps his foot, having jammed the missing key into the stage’s floorboards. It’s a revealing moment, a reminder that, not only does he quite literally hold the key to freedom, but also that he has spent much of the film simply waiting for the people to come to him (like an audience to a show).

Soavi manages comic relief with a gleefully cynical view of the authorities. When the police arrive to investigate the first murder, they leave a couple of officers to watc
h the theater, oblivious to the fact that Wallace has already gained entrance. The comedy comes in the form of the two cops, seated in their patrol car, having trivial conversations, from their late-night dinner to the younger officer expressing his belief that he looks a little like James Dean. In the pouring rain, and with the theater walls so dense, the cops are unable to hear the people screaming for help. What’s even more amusing is that Soavi plays the young officer, so while the narrative’s director locks everyone inside, the director of the film won’t unlock the door.

While a number of Italian horror films have multiple titles and various running lengths due to edits, StageFright is an anomaly. Firstly, most such movies, in spite of the many alternate titles, generally have just a title or two that fans know best. StageFright, on the other hand, is commonly known as Aquarius, StageFright: Aquarius, Deliria, Sound Stage Massacre, and Bloody Bird (its title in France). Even StageFright is written as one word or two, or with only the first letter capital. (In Germany, it was released as Aquarius: Theater des Todes (“theater of death”), and its Brazilian title was O Pássaro Sangrento, which can be translated as “bloody bird.”) Italian horror features, such as Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971), were often released in the U.S. initially in censored form. Soavi’s film, in contrast, was released domestically in an edited version and uncut in other countries, such as America. Soavi blames the editing, dubbing and score’s mix on the lackluster returns during its Italian theatrical run, and he has stated that he prefers the English version.

Soavi followed StageFright with The Church (La chiesa/1989), originally conceived as a second sequel to Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), The Sect (aka The Devil’s Daughter; La setta/1991), and Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore/1994), a zombie horror/comedy starring Ruper
t Everett. His films have found little success in his native country but have garnered him international acclaim, especially Cemetery Man. Soavi left the film industry to be with his family, but, by the end of century, returned to direct Italian TV productions and, more recently, theatrical films.

The Aquarius title is not so much a reference to the astrological sign as it is, most likely, to its meaning of “water bearer.” Early in the film, at the hospital, a nurse is feeding small fish to a much larger lionfish. It almost foreshadows the people confined to the theater building with a killer inside. Some of the promotional materials for StageFright (as Aquarius) featured an axe smashing into a glass box (perhaps a fish tank) with the victims’ faces inside.

John Morghen (born Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who stars in StageFright a
s one of the actors, is well known among Italian horror fans for a number of his characters having memorable deaths, such as Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981) -- StageFright isn’t one of those films. Screenwriter Lew Cooper’s real name is Luigi Montefiori, but he is better known under the pseudonym of George Eastman, best remembered as the lanky man with the visceral denouement in Joe D’Amato’s Antropophagus (1980).

At face value, Michele Soavi’s StageFright belongs to a subgenre of horror known as slasher films. Slashers are typically written off as exploitative rubbish, but one should not forget that renowned directors have made slasher films, such as Alfred Hitchcock (1960’s Psycho) and Michael Powell (Peeping Tom of the same year). These movies are at their best when they rely on suspense. Viewers may witness a killer’s work, but the most frightening scenes are ones of anticipation, knowing that he/she is out there and is prone to seek more victims. The varying titles of Saovi’s film reference the location (Sound Stage Massacre or trapped like fish in Aquarius), the killer (Bloody Bird) or his insanity (Deliria). Perhaps the best title, StageFright, refers to anxiety or fear. The murders are over quickly. But the trepidation of the claustrophobic theater and the panic of knowing that there’s an insane killer somewhere in the building -- these are feelings that don’t go away so easily.


  1. Sounds horribly creepy! I will have to put this on my movie list to watch :P Thanks!

  2. Sark, you are really coming out with great reviews -- you should be so prolific more often! As usual withi foreign films, I've never heard of this one. I am really becoming a fan now, and have seen more in the past year than ever before. I am looking for others I have read about, including Lady Snowblood, one of your reviews that interested me.

    This one sounds like a good one! I also want to see The Church and Cemetery man. I am writing down all the verious names and hoping that maybe Netflix will offer at least one! Thanks again for another well-researched, fascinating and descriptive post.

  3. Sark, Netflix has all of the movies you mentioned! Most of them require their membership that includes mailed disks, and I only have instant streaming -- I may have to change that. Right now, I can watch Soavi's The Church, and some Argento films, Stendahl Syndrome, The Card Player and Do You Like Hitchcock. Do you know about the Argento films, if they are good ones?

  4. Becky, the bulk of Dario Argento's films are usually called giallo films (or gialli), the name given to Italian thrillers -- what we yankees might call slasher films. THE STENDHAL SYNDROME is atypical for Argento, but it's well made, an atmospheric piece with a great performance from the director's daughter, Asia Argento. THE CARD PLAYER and DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? are both gialli, and they're both okay, but neither film is representative of his best work. Have fun in Italian horror territory!

  5. Sark, what a perfect review to read on a Friday night! (I associate Friday nights with horror films from when "The CBS Late Movie" specialized on Friday frights in the early 1970s.) Of course, STAGEFRIGHT is more suspense than horror...though it is pretty darn scary. I love the idea of a killer hiding in a theatre disguised as a cast member. It's an ingenius conceit and Soavi makes excellent use of it. As if the setting wasn't clever enough, there's that marvelous twist of having the police guarding the theatre to keep the killer from entering. I love your metaphor about the killer literally holding the key to his potential victims' freedom. I also wonder if it's happenstance that his costume is an owl...because the killer is much wiser than the cast, crew, and police. I've also seen THE CHURCH and the funky CEMETERY MAN--they're interesting, but I think STAGEFRIGHT is the best of the three Soavi films I've seen. I had no idea about the incredible number of alternate titles for STAGEFRIGHT. Your reviews always an abundance of bodacious background info. This was an excellent read!

  6. It was a spelling mistake I couldn't live with...
    That owl costume would freak me out, Sark! There is some symbolism in it, I'm sure. You really did your research with this one--great job. I think you and I are the big foreign film watchers, but I think you have the more eclectic taste. No doubt, you see that I'm getting around to saying I haven't seen this one. Sounds suspenseful. I especially think I would like when he starts using corpses as porps.

  7. Sark, I don't know if I have seen this film. If I have, I don't remember any of it. The plot does sounds chillingly good. This is one movie I just have to watch. I love a good crazed-killer movie. I am also a fan of Dario Argento's films so this means...thanks to your superb review...that I need to find and watch this movie..sighing because your reviews keep me watching more and more films!!...and I am getting more behind reading my books!!

  8. Sark, this is a fascinating post about a movie I probably would not enjoy seeing. But, I did enjoy reading your intriguing analysis!