The slasher has frequently been accused of, amongst many other things, being a stale and predictable genre and, objectively, it is easy to see why. The concepts and plot points that give fans warmth and reassurance can also provide the uninitiated with ammunition for that argument; despite some excellent examples throughout the years slashers do, in fairness, operate within the same constraints. It is difficult then for filmmakers to produce a movie that offers something fresh beyond increasingly graphic or creative kills; director Jerome Sable attempts something different with ‘Stage Fright’ by mixing together the classic slasher elements with ‘Glee’ style musical numbers. There are precedents for this of course – Richard O’Brien’s ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ being arguably the most famous, but cases can be made for ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and the excellent ‘Cannibal: The Musical’ from South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker – but it is certainly not something that appears with regularity. By taking camp, in a musical sense, and transposing it to camp, in a familiar horror sense, has he created something fresh and exciting or one of the year’s big disappointments?
When twins Camilla and Buddy Swanson lose their mother in violent circumstances after the premiere of musical ‘The Haunting of the Opera’, they are taken under the wing of theatre producer Roger McCall. Ten years after her murder the siblings are working at Camp Centre Stage, a summer retreat for musical children, but when the annual performance is announced to be a kabuki-style retelling of the play their mother died performing, it brings old tensions to the surface. Ignoring her brother’s advice, Camilla auditions for the lead role that made her mother famous a decade earlier, and history looks to repeat itself in more ways than one…
‘Stage Fright’ impressively walks the fine line between two very different genres. The musical numbers are great in a deliberately cheesy way, skewering the glee club culture in good-natured and occasionally brutal fashion. Many act as both musical numbers for the production of ‘The Haunting of the Opera’ and also as self-referential plot points; with one or two slight mis-steps, they are all generally well structured, written and performed. The killer also has their own musical numbers but, in keeping with the fun tone of the whole piece, they contrast dramatically; whilst the main cast all have faux-Rogers and Hammerstein style bouncy, stage school tunes, the killer gets wailing guitar shredding and soaring falsetto rock. Whilst, on paper, this sounds like a very awkward match, it works brilliantly in practice. The slasher aspect of the story is equally well judged; clearly director Sable knows the genre well and uses many of the expected tropes liberally throughout.
The characters are drawn from the gamut of both slasher and musical stereotypes but it is the talented cast that helps them to shine. Heroine Camilla, played by Allie MacDonald (the daughter in 2012’s reasonably creepy ‘The Barrens’), is immediately both vulnerable and likeable; she gives a real sense of emotion to the final act in particular and her scenes with ‘Haunting’ director Artie Getz, played in fantastically sleazy fashion by Brandon Uranowitz, are convincingly uncomfortable and grubby. Douglas Smith, as twin brother Buddy, is on decent form giving his character a sense of isolation and sadness beyond what is necessary for the character, and Kent Nolan is excellent as stereotypical ‘is-he-isn’t he’ character Joel, giving a manic but soft performance. Headline name Meat Loaf Aday appears as Roger McCall, the twins’ guardian, who oddly gives a better performance as an actor than a singer; in fact, my one criticism of the casting here is that Aday is not asked to use his musical talents to a greater extent. The super-camp David is one of the big standout characters, and is played with real humour and energy by Thomas Alderson; a scene near the end he shares with snarky Liz, played by Melanie Leishman, is genuinely funny at a time the film takes its darkest turn. The main cast is ably supported by an excellent secondary cast of campers, most of whom are young children, who are both convincingly cute and earnest, but also fully in on the sideways looking, knowing nature of the piece.
‘Stage Fright’ is Jerome Sable’s first full length genre movie although he did lay much of the horror / musical ground work in 2010 with his memorable short ‘The Legend of Beaver Dam’; as director here, he deserves recognition equivalent to that of his excellent cast. His camera handles both genres well, framing large scale ensemble song and dance numbers with the same skill he employs tracking and POV shots to create tension in the slasher segments. Neither is easy and to balance them so adeptly is an achievement in itself; when you consider that both genres are equally well coordinated and act as fond homages to their respective origins, then ‘Stage Fright’ becomes a noteworthy feat. His work is supported by some excellent lighting, both as technical component and as plot point, and constant nods to some of the genre’s heavy hitters – Craven’s ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, and De Palma’s ‘Carrie’ most obviously, but also ‘Sgt Kabukiman, NYPD’, ‘Sleepaway Camp’, ‘Scream 2’ and Soavi’s original ‘Stagefright’ among the references for real genre fans. The special effects are also a step above similar, low-budget movies with some really creative kills on display, even if they are rather few in number.
The film does have its issues however. After a strong pre-titles scene, the movie settles into the musical elements very quickly; whilst this is very funny in places, for genre fans there is little slashing until about thirty minutes in, which will be a little pedestrian for some tastes. In opposition, the last act is straight up horror, chase through the woods stuff, interspersed with a comedy performance taking place elsewhere at the camp; whilst this sequence works, just, it does so at the expense of some tension as our heroine tries to survive the night. The big reveal is also rather swift, a shame given the investment of time in making the killer both look and sound great.
These are minor quibbles though. ‘Stage Fright’ should be applauded as the cult classic it is destined to become. There are few scares here but, like most modern horror movies, this is not entirely unexpected; what is here though is a lovingly crafted, genuinely funny, terrifically acted homage to two very different genres. Add star-making turns from Allie MacDonald and Thomas Alderson to a director who clearly both loves and understands the horror genre working at the top of his game, and you are left with an excellent little movie. I had an absolute blast and, as it stands, ‘Stage Fright’ is my favourite movie of 2014 so far. Highly recommended.
4.5 / 5
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