Happy Halloween: 'StageFright' (1987) Review
Director: Michele Soavi
Cast: Barbara Cupisti, Ulrike Schwerk, Clain Parker, and David Brandon,
The 1987 thriller StageFright tells a story we’ve seen more than once from this type of film: A Mad Killer escapes from a psychiatric hospital and brutally dispatches a number of young and attractive characters. It was a premise that was used effectively in the original Halloween not only because the movie was skillfully directed by John Carpenter, but because it also took its time to develop its characters into people we can believe in and care about. StageFright is not so ambitious. Once the set-up is done, the movie goes straight for the gore.
What’s really surprising is just how incredibly stupid the set-up here is. The movie stars Barbara Cupisti as Alicia, the leading lady in a terrible looking play called The Night Owl, where she plays a hooker who’s strangled to death by a killer wearing an owl’s head, comes back to life, and gets her revenge by raping her killer. After spraining her ankle, Alicia and her friend Betty (Ulrike Schwerk), who’s also the prop master, sneak out of the audition to seek medical assistance. Unfortunately, Betty gets the bright idea to drive Alicia to a mental hospital to get her foot checked out, assuring Alicia that “Psychiatrists are doctors too.”
As luck would have it, a mad killer named Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) gets out of his restraints, kills an orderly, and sneaks into Betty’s car while Alicia is getting her foot checked out. They drive back to the theater, and while Alicia runs back inside to find out that she’s been fired by the play’s dictatorial director Peter (David Brandon) for sneaking off during rehearsal, Betty runs back to the car to make sure she turned off the lights. No points if you can guess who ends up being the first victim of Wallace’s killing spree.
The cops are called, the surrounding area is searched (but not, apparently, the theater itself), and Peter gets a bright idea to rewrite the script and use Betty’s murder to draw in a larger crowd. Not only does he insist that his actors stay and rehearse the changes (including Alicia), but he also tells another actress to lock all the doors and hide the key. Why not have the key returned to him so he can keep it in his pocket for safe keeping? Because if he did that, there wouldn’t be a movie.
Naturally, the killer is in the theater, and he begins picking each of the cast members off one by bloody one. One guy gets stabbed in the gut with a power drill, while the sole pregnant woman in the group gets sliced in half with a chainsaw. Isn’t that entertaining? Many of the victims make themselves easy prey for the killer because they decide to not stick with the group (although to be fair to the pregnant woman, the killer reaches up through the floor boards and pulls her down).
All of this happens to characters who are impossible to care about. They remain one-dimensional stick figures, each of who are defined by one character trait. There’s the jerk of a director, a gay guy, the pregnant woman and her boyfriend, the snobby actress, some other guy, and, of course, the Final Girl. There are two cops positioned outside, and the movie occasionally cuts to them so they can recite some banal dialogue. They do nothing but bring the movie to a halt.
The movie marks the directorial debut of Michele Soavi, an actor who also worked as an assistant director on a few of Dario Argento’s movies. You can tell that his visual style is inspired by Argento (meaning this is a very good looking film), but when it comes to storytelling and generating suspense, he falls criminally flat (the sole exception being a scene set inside a shower stall). The film’s climactic set-piece, which shows the killer’s victims arranged on stage, is disturbingly effective, but by then, it’s far too late to save this boring clunker.
Final Grade: * ½ (out of ****)
Rated R for graphic bloody violence and language