Thursday, October 22, 2009

HORROR EPICS: Stagefright (1987)

Just when Italian horror seemed to be on its last legs, along came Dario Argento protégé Michele Soavi to breathe some new life into the industry. Stagefright is Soavi’s directorial debut in feature films after the documentary Dario Argento’s World of Horror. The story combines elements of good old-fashioned slashers and the older giallo films that originally put Italian horror on the map. A group of actors are busy rehearsing a musical about a mass murderer known as the Night Owl, with a director who embodies all the stereotypes you’d expect—he’s an obsessive bisexual bitch with a coke habit and little regard for his actors’ well-being. So when his leading lady twists her ankle, it’s natural that he doesn’t give a shit. But the wardrobe director talks her into getting the ankle checked out at the nearby hospital. Turns out it’s a psychiatric hospital, and one of their patients is a former actor who went nuts and killed a bunch of his fellow actors. If you really think he isn’t going to escape and hitch a ride in the back of the car, you’ve obviously never seen a single horror movie in your life. The wardrobe director eats a pickaxe, but is that enough to convince the director to wrap up for the evening? Hell no! He’s got a play to direct, and no mad-dog killer is going to stand in his way. In fact, he sees an opportunity to cash in on the wardrobe girl’s death by re-tooling the play to match current events. Renaming the Night Owl character after the ex-actor turned murderer, the director forces his cast to continue their rehearsal. To ensure that nobody decides to leave, he orders the doors locked and the key hidden. You may guess that there is a fatal flaw to his plan: he’s also locked a madman in the theater with him and everybody else. Nice going, champ! Despite not taking direction very well, the killer is determined to book himself in the leading role no matter what anyone has to say about it. A lot of Dario Argento’s style is appropriated for Stagefright, and Michele Soavi at least demonstrates that he can tell a coherent story, unlike some of his better-known horror counterparts. There are also some good death scenes, including one where a woman is dragged down from under the floor and then cut in half. But when the plot holes thicken and the acting becomes noticeably bad (even for Italian horror), Soavi is all too willing to rely on the same cinematic tricks as his mentor to distract the viewer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Stagefright was a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s an interesting enough take on two horror sub-genres. What I would call it is a fair effort from a new director who had yet to step out on his own. Though, I’d gladly take this one over Soavi’s next film, The Church. Also known as Deliria, Bloody Bird, Aquarius, and Sound Stage Massacre.

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