Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stage Fright (Michele Soavi, 1987)

They say the show must go on, but this is ridiculous! Am I right, fellas? Ladies? Please tell me I'm right. Anybody? Fuck this shit. I don't need your validation. Artistic types are a funny bunch. And I've noticed that some of them will do just about anything to advance their so-called "art." Well, in the amazing Stage Fright, a stylish Italian slasher flick from Michele Soavi (The Sect) that features drills, knives, pickaxes, chainsaws, regular axes, and a hungry lionfish, one "artist" sees the grisly murder of a co-worker as a way to increase ticket sales. Little does he know, a killer is on the prowl. Wait a minute. What do you mean, "little does he know"? How could he not know? While I can't get inside the mind of a chain-smoking theatre director, one who pretends to be horrified when a seamstress working on the production of his play "The Night Owl" takes a pickaxe to the face one rain-soaked evening. However, I can judge his actions. And, I must say, he was completely right to exploit the death of the lowly crew member. But she wore a Cramps tour t-shirt...backwards! Yes, the irregularly worn Cramps tour shirt made her cool and junk, but she said it was bad luck when a black cat passed her path. I know, you're thinking to yourself, so what? Oh, boy. You should know by now that anybody who perpetuates such superstitious nonsense about black cats automatically loses their coolness in my book. She could have been wearing a Skinny Puppy t-shirt from, oh, let's say, their 1990 Too Dark Park tour, and I still would have deducted her of cool points. Yeah, but the theatre director dude picks up a black cat by the scruff of the neck. It's true, he does pick up a black cat in that manner at one point. But I never said he was cool, I just said I understood his desire to take advantage of an underlings untimely demise. You see, in the world art, you need to strike while the iron is hot.
An unscrupulous theatre director named Peter (David Brandon), and Ferrari (Piero Vida), his equally unscrupulous financial backer, think they have stumbled upon the ultimate public relations gimmick to sell their "intellectual musical" to the masses. However, and I'm 100% not sure if they're aware of this, but murder is serious business. In hindsight, I think they should have waited for the iron to cool down a few degrees, because they have no idea what kind of chaos they have unleashed. Sure, their greed unwittingly leads to an inordinate amount of legginess. But if bifurcation is one of the byproducts of their symbiotic selfishness, you can count me out. Hey, I like sexy, stocking-encased gams as much as the next guy. But call me old fashioned, but I like them when they're attached to a torso, preferably one with a living head atop its equally alive shoulders.
A black cat slinks past a pair of silver pumps standing on a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts. Poured inside the pumps are two feet that are connected to a couple of legs that are sheathed in black nylons covered with a vine-like pattern. Let me stop there you for a second. Why are you telling me all this? Haven't you heard? The film, Stage Fright, one of the best slasher flicks I have ever seen, opens with a shot of Barbara Cupisti's feet, and then the camera slowly pans up her legs, which, like I said, are sheathed in a pair of black stockings with a vine theme, past her stomach and chest until will reach her face. In other words, I'm going to try squeeze out every inch of awesomeness this film has to offer. And, believe me, it's got a lot to offer.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the film opens with a close-up of Barbara Cupisti's nylon-adorned legs standing on a sidewalk. As the camera finishes panning up her appropriately whorish frame, which is clad in the aforementioned silver pumps and vine-inspired hosiery, a gold skirt, a black, belly-revealing tank-top, and a curly blonde wet poodle wig, Barbara takes a drag on her cigarette and surveys the grimy street life. Stopping near a dark doorway to straighten her hose, she is suddenly pulled into the dark doorway by an unseen assailant. Her screams attract a throng of pimps, junkies, and fellow streetwalkers, as they're all curious to know what happened to the lithe prostitute. Just as the music on the soundtrack is about to go into overdrive, a man with an owl head dives out of the dark doorway and begins!
As the camera pulls back on the street scene, the owl man continuing to dance up a storm, West Side Story-style (the owl man has since been joined by the pimps, junkies and whores), it is slowly revealed that this isn't real life, but merely a set on a stage. I knew something was up the moment a brief shot of a woman dressed like Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch playing the saxophone on the roof of one of the fake buildings enters the frame. Anyway, while Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) is lying on stage pretending to be dead, Peter, the play's director, looks on in horror. Unconvinced, he yells at her, "You're supposed to be a whore!" Ouch! What's this guy's problem. I thought Alicia was a first-rate whore. Either way, Peter is not a happy camper (they're supposed to open in a week).
Meanwhile, backstage, my favourite character is busy shaving her armpits and applying makeup to her gorgeous gob. It didn't take long, but I knew the second I saw Laurel (Mary Sellers), Alicia's acting rival, that my rooting interest would be squarely in her corner. I don't know, there was something about her face, wide eyes and full lips that appealed to me. My love for her was pretty much made official the moment she dons her red fright wig, matching red tights, and slipped on her blue dress with the puffy sleeves.
The guy wearing the owl head, by the way, is Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, House on the Edge of the Park), a struggling actor whose seen it all. When he's not stomping around backstage complaining about his costume, the Dorothy-adjacent Brett can be usually found exchanging insults with Laurel; the fact that Laurel could hold her own with such a catty cunt was a testament to her claw-like charisma.
On top of finding out who wears the owl head in this movie, we also meet Betty (Ulrike Schwirk), the show's seamstress, and, it would seem, Alicia's only friend in the entire production; well, Ferrari likes her, but in a more unseemly way. Oh, and don't you dare compare the way I feel about Laurel to the sick thing Ferrari has going on with Alicia, they're totally different. A stagehand named Mark (Martin Philips) is spotted at one point and so is Sybil (Jo Ann Smith), an actress with short blonde hair who is talking on the telephone.
While I was admiring the fact that Sybil is wearing black hold-up stockings over top a pair of tan pantyhose, Brett makes a crack about Laurel's old job, which apparently involved microwaving chilly at a restaurant called "Mexico Joe's." What an asshole. Good line, though. I only wish Giovanni and Mary Sellers had more scenes like this together, as their shrewish back and forth was one of the film's strong points during the early going.  That being said, it's not really needed once the synthesizer-enhanced mayhem begins to kick up its heels.
Speaking of synthesizers, we get our first taste of the electronic instrument during Alicia and Betty's trip to the hospital. You see, Alicia's ankle hurts, so, Betty, using something called a "phone book," discovers that there's one just down the road. Still wearing her hooker outfit, and Betty, who is wearing a jacket over her backwards Cramps tour t-shirt, with the help of Willy (James Sampson), the caretaker of Stage No. 3, head out. (The reason they need Willy's help is because they're under strict orders not to leave.) When they get there, they're shocked to discover it's a mental hospital for the criminally insane. I wonder what the scene where a nurse feeds guppies to a lionfish is supposed represent? Hmmm. Yeah, well, one of the doctors agrees to help Alicia, and ends up massaging her thigh. Um, hello? I said it was ankle that hurt, and that's clearly not my ankle. Actually, she doesn't to mind the superfluous thigh-groping.
While walking down hall, Alicia notices a creepy patient in one of the rooms. It turns out it's demented serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), an actor whose killing spree cost the lives of sixteen people. What are odds of Irving breaking out of the hospital, following Alicia and Betty back to Stage No. 3, and continuing his love for serial killing? I'm going to go out on a limb, and say, pretty high.
You would have thought that Alicia was the one who had murdered a bunch of people judging by the way Peter treats her when she comes back from the hospital. Told to pack up her things and get out, Alicia slinks off, as Laurel grins sheepishly off to the side; to add insult to injury, Laurel fans herself with a harpie-esque aplomb.
The rain drenched parking lot of Stage No. 3 is not a safe place, as Betty is about to find out. Running back into the studio, Alicia tells the others that something terrible has happened. As the police and actors gather around the crime scene, it's obvious that Peter sees her death as opportunity. Telling the press that Betty was an actress (he wants to exploit the events to maximum effect, as no-one is going to care about some dead seamstress), Peter does a quick re-write of his script, so that it mirrors the real life horror, and informs the cast (including Alicia, who's back in Peter's good graces) that they will be rehearsing all-night.
Realizing that some of the actors might not want to spend the night rehearsing, especially when you consider what happened out in the parking lot, Peter instructs an actress named Corinne (Loredana Parrella) to hide the key. This action all but seals their fate, as they have been unwittingly locked inside a dark warehouse with a deranged mad man. Actually, that doesn't sound so bad. Oh, it doesn't, eh? Well, wait until he puts on the giant owl head, as there's something extra unnerving about a man wielding a chainsaw in a giant owl head. Think about it: A man without a giant owl head wielding a chainsaw is still pretty scary. Okay, now try to imagine that very same man, but instead of no giant owl head, picture him wearing a giant owl head. Pretty scary, right?
Don't look now, but Mary Sellers is about to remove her red wig. She's about to what? Oh my God. Forget about psycho-killers who wear giant owl heads for dramatic effect, this is the moment I've dreading throughout Stage Fright, and I can't believe it's about to happen; I'm literally on the near the area of my seat if it were the kind of seat that had edges (bean bag chairs don't have edges, dingus). Will Mary Sellers' Laurel be able to maintain her allure sans wig? I'm going to have to say, that, yes, Mary Sellers does manage maintain her allure. If anything, I thought she managed increase her allure. Oh, you would say that. No, seriously. Well, for one thing, her legginess rating increased by at least six points on the leggy scale, as the black slip she changes into did nothing but accentuate the sturdiness of her long, dancer legs. And secondly, the way the pink hair scarf commingled with her natural brown locks was surprisingly effective.
I liked how Laurel, despite the chaos caused by the owl head killer, still managed...yeah, yeah, we know, she managed to maintain her allure. No, what I was gonna say was: I liked how Laurel kept trying undermine Alicia during the mayhem. The part where she blames Alicia for bringing the killer to Stage No. 3 was one example. Which, if you think about it, is absolutely true. I mean, if it wasn't for her trip to the hospital, none of this would have happened. And the other example was when Laurel knocks Alicia off a ladder. But again, Alicia was grabbing her Laurel's leg. Hey, Alicia. Stop grabbing her leg, you thin-lipped hosebeast, a full-lipped goddess with eyes the size of dinner plates is trying to climb that fucking ladder.
If you're in any way concerned about Jo Ann Smith's black hold-up stockings over top tan pantyhose pulling the same stunt as a Mary Sellers' wig. Don't worry, they remain attached to her doll-like frame for the duration of the movie. Um, actually, that's not entirely true. How 'bout this: They remain attached to her legs for the duration of the movie. Yeah, that's much better. You'll know what I'm talking about once you see the movie.
Oh, and I wasn't kidding when I casually called Stage Fright, "one of the best slasher flicks I have ever seen." I don't how Michele Soavi managed to pull this off, but the film contains all the ingredients I look for in a good slasher flick. Leggy babes in peril, intense synthesizer flourishes, grisly murder sequences (pickaxes, drills, knives, and chainsaws), a black cat who has a habit of making his or her presence felt during moments that could best described as "inappropriate," sexy outfits (do I have to mention Sybil's hosiery double whammy again?), a vivid colour scheme, and a great location. This film has it all. Hell, even the killer is cool. And you wouldn't think so given the fact that he wears a giant owl head. But you know what? I slowly grew to like the idea of a killer who wears a giant owl head. It's a testament to a filmmaker working at the height of his or her talent, when they can employ something that could easily induce ridicule in a way that seems effortless.

video uploaded by SeveredSurvival


  1. The gag where they pull up the girl but she's actually cut in half first appeared in House of Death from 1982, directed by David Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet fame (he's the older brother of Ricky Nelson). I really doubt Michele had seen that movie though.

    Your daily moment of slasher trivia zen.

  2. If you search "House of Death 1982," Cinema Gonzo appears as the third result. *high five*

  3. Love this review. Soavi took a worn-out, contrive premise and transformed it into a bad-ass little film. I usually don't care for slashers but this thing is just bonkers! The very ending left me cold, though.

  4. The ending with Willie continually repeating "right between the eyes" is one of my favorite oddball moments from Italian horror. This is one of my very favorite Italian horror films with so many memorable moments (the wacky opening, the gruesome deaths, the eerie atmosphere, that freaky owl head, the key scene at the end...).

    Great write-up! I would love to be able to link to this for my Italian horror blogathon next week.

  5. @ido: October is Soavi Month at HOSI. Spread the word. ;)

    @Kevin J. Olson: Willie's infamous "right between the eyes" moonlogue seems like the kind of thing you could only find in an Italian horror film.

    Italian horror blogathon? Sure, go ahead. I'm glad you likey. :)

  6. October is Soavi month? Awesome. He's one of my absolute favorite Italian horror directors. THE CHURCH is such a fun, batshit insane movie.

    Also, if you're interested, here are the details about the Italian horror blogathon:

  7. All right. You've convinced me. Time to dig up a copy.

    Also, to whoever made the conveniently undated (but [badly] shot on video) movie "Stage Fright" with faux-folded poster cover art on Amazon Instant Video: die in all the fires for your cruel, sub-Asylum deceptions.

  8. @Kevin J. Olson: Even though I was joking. October should be Soavi Month. Yeah, I like that. Soavi Month. Soavi-fest. Soavi-a-thon. My Soavi-Called Life. Say it ain't Soavi. I'm going to noodle with this. Soavi Soavi Sputnik.

    @Knarf Black XIV: Hey, Knarf. Long time no see. :)

  9. @ Yum-Yum: Soavi month? What, after we enjoyed the fruitful Spring and Summer of Jess Franco and Lina Romay's Ass?

  10. I'm throwing in a low five too. I hope that's not gauche.

    Laurel has some major gammage going on.

  11. Hey Yummers,
    I just heard about Sylvia Kristel. You were the first person I thought of.
    I'm just paying my condolences, friend.

  12. ido: Don't worry, there's more Lina Romay bum worship to come. ;)

    Thomas Duke: A double-handed high five for noticing the Laurel gammage.

    Karim Amir: Hey, K.A.,
    Thanks for the condolences. :)

    Sylvia Kristel is a legend.

    Speaking of thinking, I just thought of you recently when I saw a movie where Jemaine Clement doesn't wear a shirt.

  13. @Yum-yum: Honestly, I STILL need to watch Franco's "Eugenie de Sade." I might try to get through it tomorrow evening. That much Soledad in one film might push me over the edge. I barely made it through "Vampiros Lesbos" with my fragile grip on sanity in tact.

    Personally, I think there should be more Togawa Jun obeisance in this void of existence.
    1) 肉屋のように(Niku-ya no you ni, "Like a butcher", about killing and eating people, so goes good with yr recent cannibal films)
    2) バーバラ・セクサロイド / 大天使のように (Barbara Sexroid / Like an Archangel)

    Hear Now, The One True Voice of God.

  14. Eugenie de Sade is too leggy for words.

    Togawa Jun, gothy one minute, new wave the next. Nice mix.

    "Vanity Angel" by Rebecca is my Japanese jam.

  15. Sorry, but I can't take pop music. The legendary GASTUNK is more soothing:

    I still haven't braved "Eugenie de Sade." But I finally got around to watching "Dr. Caligari". See appropriate review for initial reaction.