StageFright—or, as it’s sometimes known for no really clear reason, StageFright: Aquarius. The film’s director, Michael Soavi, claims he wanted to call it Aquarius because he intended the viewer to see the film through a fishbowl… but it doesn’t have that look at all. Maybe he should’ve invested in some fisheye lenses? Anyway, Soavi was a protégé of Dario Argento, working with him on Tenebrae and Phenomena, to name just a couple. He has also been a second unit director on not one but two Terry Gilliam films, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and, years later, The Brothers Grimm. You couldn’t really get a better film school if you tried, in my opinion, and it shows in StageFright, which was the director’s feature-length directorial debut.
The plot is pretty routine—it’s basically the usual slasher plot, with people trapped in a building and a masked killer who slices and dices them until the final girl survives the ordeal. However, it’s set in a theatre where a group of actors and crew are rehearsing a musical about a serial killer known as the Night Owl. So obviously the whole thing is a little meta, and the killer ends up donning the owl mask. This seems to be a direct homage to Georges Franju’s wonderful ’60s adaptation of the 1910s silent film serial Judex: it’s a eagle head in that film, but the image is so striking that it would almost be inconceivable that it wasn’t in Soavi’s mind.
The story takes some serious suspension of disbelief before you can get on board. Somebody gets murdered, but they decide to stay in the theatre after the director changes the script around so they can rehearse all night long. Meanwhile, the police are staying outside the theatre all night. I don’t quite get why the police would agree to that, or the actor’s union, but it’s a Italian horror film so logic can be thrown out the window. Despite the routine slasher plot and some of the more baffling plot points, Soavi directs the hell out of the picture. The deaths are al pretty inventive, the colour scheme rivals the best of Argento, and it’s all done in a slightly surreal way.
StageFright may not be Soavi’s best—that’s clearly Cemetery Man, which is perhaps my favourite Italian horror film, and strangely the most profound. However, it’s an absolutely wild ride, and delivers a couple of interesting twists even though the trajectory is familiar slasher territory. The Italian ’80s synth score is also one of the most memorable from the decade. The film is also far more inventive visually and in the terms of deaths than any Halloween sequel featuring Michael Myers sequel has ever been.
The Blu-Ray release from Shameless Films includes interviews with Soavi and also with two of the film’s actors, Giovanni Lombardo Radice and David Brandon. Both English and Italian dubs are available on the disc, although it was intended to be in English.