To be fair late eighties genre fare was a mixed bag. In with the cheesy direct to video creature features, flamboyant practical effect extravaganzas, side-splitting gross out splatstick numbers, and franchise sequels, the slasher was still creeping along as a dominating theme for eighties’ horror. By 1987, slashers were becoming well-trodden ground for the genre- with the path being churned up time and time again, it was becoming difficult to see any defining tracks anymore. The tropes had been dug up that many times that there was a risk of everything turning to slurry in the process, just meshing into one gelatinous blob of blood, boobs and masked killers. Of course, this statement does not apply to all late eighties horror; indeed some fabulous stuff came out of this period. It was also a time of great freedom on the independent scene with the creation of the home video market. But for slashers in general, it has always been my opinion that the highlights remain firmly in the blossoming early days at the beginning of the decade. Likewise Italian horror, and especially the giallo, was certainly starting to have run its course by this point. Enter Dario Argento protégé Michele Soavi with his feature film debut Stage Fright (1987)– a director who stands as testament to the saying- it’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters- in this memorable piece of murderous eighties mayhem.
Stage Fright is a rare gem for its time and place, a slasher/giallo hybrid that takes the best from both sub-genres, and mixes in a large dose of the director’s flamboyant visual style. Soavi, as a director, has such a unique eye for detail, and flair, that it has to be said his work stands out head and shoulders above many of his peers. The unmistakeable Soavi idiosyncrasies are evident in this early work, but his voice would become more prevalent as his career progressed- especially in The Sect (1991) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), which are stand out moments for the era- not just in Italian horror, but the genre overall. This makes it all the more sad that the director has not been more prolific. It also makes you wonder if Soavi had been born ten or twenty years earlier- in line with the Italian heyday of horror- what he would have been capable of? Sadly the director was forced to move into television by the rapidly declining Italian film industry at the time.
As it is, for now at least, we will just have to settle for the small legacy Soavi has left to late eighties, early nineties horror, but what a legacy it is. Stage Fright is a film that successfully establishes a feel for the decadence of the era; the erotically charged synthesised sax score, and neon eighties glamour, mix in effortlessly with sublime scenes of murder and carnage. This is horror for the then newly evolving MTV video generation, and as such Soavi captures the vibe perfectly. With a strong sense of slick production values that defy budget limitations the film also escapes the confines of your common or garden slasher, to place it more in line with the artful violence of Italian gialli- use of hued lighting and long tracking shots contribute heavily to this look and feel. While the plot follows more of a formulaic- murder by numbers- slasher approach, into which the director breathes new life.
The story- the screenplay written by actor/writer George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori) – takes place inside a theatre, making it perfect ground to have a set of egotistic and gregarious characters to focus on. While working on a ‘intellectual musical’- this involves plenty of dancing around on stage to sleazy sax pop, and costumes that mainly consist of lingerie; apart from Giovanni Lombardo Radice as Brett who gets to wear a magnificent Owl costume, and slinky lycra bodysuit- director Peter (David Brandon) and his team find themselves the target for a murderous escaped mental patient Irving Wallace (Clain Parker ). Writer George Eastman plays Wallace when he is masked. Unbeknownst to them when heroine Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) sprained her leg and visited a local hospital she brought back more than a fresh bandage with her. When one of the crew is found dead in the car park Peter decides the show must go on, and as the despicable money grabber is wanting to cash in on the press attention- he decides it would be a great idea to lock the cast in for the night and continue rehearsing. The cops are placed outside to protect them, so what could go wrong? Well, someone has stolen Brett’s owl costume for a start, and now cast members are apparently going missing too.
Using the theatre as a hunting ground in hack and slash based horror was something that had been touched upon before Soavi’s effort. Pete Walker’s proto-slasher used the same setting for his Flesh and Blood Show in 1972. While the offbeat giallo The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974), again takes a similar approach with a group of people locked inside a theatre for the evening,- in fact there is a scene in Stage Fright apparently inspired by the aforementioned Italian number. As stated though, it’s what Soavi does with these elements that count, and it is the director’s crafting of strong characters, visual style and explicit violence that gives the film a unique edge. The theatre is the perfect place to summon tension and atmosphere too; all those little nooks and crannies to hide in, rows of old costumes to creep about behind, rafters, and dark corners- it makes a perfect setting, and one which Soavi exploits to its full potential.
Drawing on his experience of working with Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Joe D’Amato, Soavi was already a talented craftsman by the time it came to start making his own films. Because of this the film never loses pace and upholds its tone and atmosphere throughout. The plot builds quickly into the violence, while also allowing for some character development to take place too. The effects, even on blu-ray, stand out as being lusciously gruesome and without much restraint. Even though there has been an obvious attempt to put an Americanised slant on this feature, the outstanding practical effects, and generous attitude to letting the grue just hang out for all to see, aligns this film with the Euro crowd of likeminded features- some Stateside offerings seeming a little more tame in comparison. As the story picks up steam, it rushes into a highly entertaining furious climax that reaches a taught and impressive show-down.
For the casting, there are some pretty solid Italian names in amongst the lesser known actors. Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen takes one of his most gregarious roles to date as prankster actor Brett (complete with some hilarious dubbing), adding in some glorious camp value to the proceedings. Lead Barbara Cupisti as Alicia is suitably wide-eyed, and sympathetic, making for the perfect final girl. While David Brandon as over-wrought director Peter seems to revel in the melodramatics of his part. The rest of the supporting characters all put in solid turns, with no obvious weak links. Watch out for a generous cameo from director Soavi as the donut munching cop, who is set up alongside cult favourite Mickey Knox as his partner- there is some great comedy in the dialogue to come out of their handful of scenes. Last but not least, mention has to go to James Sampson as caretaker Willy for his memorable offering to the finale.
This restoration onto Blu-ray/ DVD combo by Exposure Cinema is remarkable. Transferred to Blu-ray for the first time anywhere in the world, the film, restored from original vault elements, retains its grain, while demonstrating a strong definition in the detail. The print shows no age related damage- apparently having a thorough clean-up- yet also has, thankfully, not been left with any relics from the DNR processes. The colour correction process now allows Soavi’s artful visuals to shine like never before, with hues and tones in colour being well saturated, and presenting naturally on skin tones. The audio track, in line with the print quality, is also faithfully restored and is presented without damage or distortion. All in all, this is a quality upgrade.
If all this is not enough to tempt you, however, check out the impressive bulk of extras on this limited (3000 units) edition UK release. First off there is a cut comparison with the main feature- demonstrating side by side comparisons to material that was previously removed. A Bloodstained Featherstorm – features a set of interviews from cast and crew, including director Soavi, and Barbara Cupisti. Italian film star Giovanni Lombardo Radice appears in the generous interview Giovanni’s Method- talking about his time on the film, and also the Italian film industry in general and his personal career. Critic Alan Jones explores the film’s history and production in Alan Jones: The Critic’s Take. Impressively also included here is Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut, an hour length interview with prolific Italian king of sleaze and horror Joe D’Amato (who produced Stage Fright), talking about his career in film. Topping this off is a documentary on VHS collectors, Revenge of the Video Cassette. The release also comes with a gallery of stills and posters, and the original trailer for the main feature. Packaged with original artwork, this Blu-ray/DVD combo pack also includes a collector’s booklet Video Chillers.
Check out the Exposure Cinema page for more details on the release here.