For some, Italian horror movies are an acquired taste. For hardcore horror connoisseurs, they become a required taste. Artful, stylistic and hopelessly European, these films dazzle the senses as well as feed our need for gore.
Stage Fright, released in 1987, happens to be in that narrow list of films that I missed at the time. For some reason, this one failed to make it to the local video stores that fed my addiction. Directed Michele Soavi, Stage Fright happens to have a lot of cool in all the right places. If not for this impeccable sense of style, it might falter.
The Unmistakable Drone of 80’s Synth Pop
Just like its Italian horror movie brethren of the era, Stage Fright Begins with the rhythmic pulse of Euro synth-pop. Using Lamberto Bava’s 1985 gem Demons as a synth-pop measuring stick, Stage Fright is clearly Italian and definitely horror. What looks at first like a murder of the narrative turns into an acted scene in a stage play. A man in black wearing a huge mask shaped like a barn owls dances impressively at center-stage.
Like many Italian horror films, everything feels like plastic. The characters, the stage scenery and the dialog feel contrived. Behind every available moment of tension gets punctuated by the sharp attack of a synthesizer stab. The costumes revel in an 80’s chic in a square shouldered, pleated pants kind of way. Just when you consider clawing your eyes out and perforating your eardrums you realize that all that abrades your senses is actually art.
While the clothes and the makeup may change, the Italian horror movie always retains the sharp edges of high fashion and the latest trends in music. The audience feasts on the atmospherics as much as the action. And once the audience penetrates beneath the surface, it all begins to feel like the strange day Andy Warhol convinced the world that art can be found in a can of tomato soup. Therein lies something brilliant.
The Plot of The Night Owl
The story begins with a stage production directed by a controlling narcissist director named Peter, played by David Brandon. Peter drives the troop to exhaustion as the debut lies only days away. The play depicts the story of a serial killer called the Night Owl. Appropriately, the Night Owl wears a headdress like that of a barn owl. Ill-fated, one of the girls sprains her ankle during rehearsal and seeks medical assistance… at a mental hospital. Add this to the list of things not to do in order to survive a horror movie.
In that very hospital resides a man so dangerous and so nefarious that the orderlies keep him restrained. That man is Irving Wallace, serial killer extraordinaire. Conspicuously, Irving is not only a madman, but a former actor as well. He escapes his fetters and deftly hides inside the women’s car. Soon, Irving Wallace obtains access to the rehearsal studio, and then control of the barn owl headdress. All of the pieces for an Italian horror movie massacre fall neatly into place.
Giallo, Giallo, What’s a Giallo
In Italian the term giallo roughly equates to what would be called pulp fiction in the US. These are the stories of cheap detective novels, filled with ill-principled people, lurid sex and excessive violence. Typically the giallo features an anti-hero detective hunting down an unknown murderer in a whodunit style of story. Stage Fright lacks both the mystery and the eroticism that typically denote Italian giallo films.
While I have seen the sub-genre giallo and slasher/giallo attributed to this film, I hesitate to assign that label. While there are similarities, there exist many films, Blood and Black Lace, Tenebrae, that better exemplify the art of the giallo.
Clever Kills and Graphic Spills
One of the most loved aspects of the Italian horror movie concerns the totally graphic and completely creative kills that exemplify the genre. Stage Fright keeps this tradition alive. The very first one involves a pickax driven handle deep into the gaping maw of one of the actresses. The effect proves tightly executed and punctuated.
During another scenario Night Owl tries to force his way into a locked dressing room. The actors throw themselves at the door. Using brute strength, the Night Owl punched through the door and clutches one of the actors against it. The high-pitched the whiz of a giant spinning drill bit slowly burrows through the body of one the actors.
In other gory events, the Night Owl reaches through the floor and pulls an actress through the hole. Her colleagues scramble to her assistance, but the Night Owl’s strength clutches her tightly. Throwing their weight into it and grabbing her arms they pull her to ‘safety’, but not before the Night Owl severed her in two at the waist.
Cool Mask, Cool Killer
Sure, it’s impractical. The Night Owl mask sits atop Irving’s head like the Liberty Bell, but damn is it cool. Irving as a slasher is hard to pin down. He seems opportunistic at first, taking every chance to get a victim. Inexplicably, he leaves the original Night Owl actor, played by legendary victim Giovani Lombardo Radice, tied up, masked and alive. In a moment of fear and anger, the director buries his axe in his lead characters chest, thinking it was the real killer. Doh!
In another gruesome scene, the Night Owl attacks with a chainsaw, slowly rending one of the actors limb from limb as the rest of the crew watches helplessly from above. Chainsaw still running, blood everywhere, the Night Owl looks quizzically at the rest of the crew as if to shrug his shoulders as is to say, “What’s your problem?!?”.
The most iconic scene in the film finds the Night Owl methodically and precisely posing his victims on the stage. Feathers flutter like snowflakes in the air. Inexplicably, the madman sits perched upon his throne surrounded by the mayhem he created like a mad king contemplating his empire. He sits motionless, stroking a cat like a Bond villain, while the last victim plots her moves to escape. To do this, she must risk waking the beast and renewing the horrors that led to this point. Utterly, Fantastic!
Stage Fright – The Final Act
The question of whether or not Stage Fright qualifies as an Italian giallio confounds philosophers and academics alike. Fortunately, the questions posed at Malevolent Dark concern only quality and entertainment. Stage Fright takes center stage and belts out a performance worthy of a standing ovation. Its success lies purely in its idiosyncratic style. Bold primary colors, caricature costumes and synth lines that would make Herbie Hancock blush make this film stand out like a neon sign blinking in the abyss.
Nobody will write a college paper contemplating the plot, because there really is no plot. Even at the conclusion, the film mentions no motive for the attack other than Irvine lost his marbles at some point. Michele Soavi takes the high-stakes gamble that the audience won’t care. That gamble only works in exchange for extreme entertainment. Soavi carries the day with brilliant technical execution and exceptional style.
Stage Fright is a delightful Italian horror movie with subtle giallo flair that entertains far more than one would suspect based on the sum of the parts. This film launched Michele Soavi’s career as he would go on to direct other solid entries in euro-style horror. If you a looking for a solid Italian horror movie to add to your lexicon, Stage Fright will not disappoint.