ALL THE COLOURS OF THE 80s: Part 3
The Play's The Thing (Stage Fright, 1987 dir Michele Soavi)
The first thing I thought when watching Stage Fright was “I wish I’d watched this in a triple bill with Murder Rock and Opera.” Like Fulci’s Frenzied Flashdance pastiche, Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright is a late foray into Giallo, and focuses on the performing arts. Where Stage Fright differs from (and is superior to) Fulci’s movie is in its creativity and its streak of self-awareness. Murder Rock, while a lot of fun, did feel like Fulci going through the motions when compared with some of his efforts. Like Argento’s Opera, Stage Fright is aware of what it is, and benefits from a level of directorial self-indulgence – but unlike Opera, Stage Fright travels in a playful, mischievous direction, and its director’s self-awareness and humour (later to resurface, to great effect, in Soavi’s 1993 comic existential horror masterpiece, Dellamorte Dellamore) shines because of its manifest playfulness, not in spite of it.
Stage Fright opens on what looks like the crappiest backlot movie set ever erected – cardboard walls and polystyrene streetlamps, with acting to match, like a local theatre troupe’s darkest hour somehow committed to film. This turns out to be closer to the truth than at first imagined. As Renato Tafuri’s camera pulls back, it reveals the stage, the curtains, theatrical lighting rigs and scaffolding.
What we’re actually watching is rehearsals of a local theatre troupe’s darkest hour.
The ingenuity begins when the on-screen director yells cut, and the actors break character – because they never actually do. The cast continue the same hammy, sub-Fame speech patterns and terribly flowery gestures, as though the whole thing, the whole movie is that self-same rehearsal. At face value, this could just be misconstrued as substandard acting combined with an inexperienced director (Stage Fright is Soavi’s first solo gig, though guided by the hand of mentor, producer and Italian legend in his own right Joe D’Amato).
But look closer.
A few minutes later, when Alicia (soon-to-be Soavi regular Barbara Cupisti) sprains her ankle and visits the local hospital, look at the floors they tread – clearly and visibly marked out with tape so that the actors can walk straight lines and always hit their mark. When the action switches to a rain-swept exterior, it is the most obviously manufactured rain (more than a little reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1958 musical classic Singin’ in the Rain), with hammy theatre sound effects to match – the film remains very much a staged production, even when not on the stage set. Fast forward to 2003, and Lars Von Trier receives no fewer than 9 prestigious awards worldwide (plus a further 12 nominations) for his avant-garde crime drama Dogville – the director and production designer Peter Grant tread similar (if more extreme) boards to Soavi, his production manager Antonio Tacchia and art director Rubina Michettoni. In doing so they are hailed as visionary, but this minimalist, surrealist, stage-play-meets-soap-opera production style of Stage Fright certainly preceded Dogville even if it did not directly influence it.
Soavi ensures his cast never stops ‘acting’, like some kind of meta-method in a movie that makes several nods to Stanislavski (Dowd, 2013). The director’s intentions here are reminiscent of David Lynch (and this will not be the last time a comparison is drawn between the new kid on the Giallo block and the master of neo-noir surrealism). In Twin Peaks (which came about when Lynch and Mark Frost were invited by ABC to create a soap opera) each line of dialogue is uttered by the actors as though they inhabit the typical hammy US daytime soap, despite the events that surround them belonging to something much darker and more obtuse. Lynch and Frost even go so far as to insert a televised soap opera within Twin Peaks (called ‘Invitation to Love’) where the hammy acting, melodramatic overtures and absurd plot twists are, at times, barely distinguishable from those of Twin Peaks itself. One serves as a meta-exploration of the other (Nugent, 2018).
In Stage Fright, Soavi has his cast continue the same hammy, repertory acting style throughout the film, and it is this that adds a distinctive extra layer to what would otherwise be an effective but not overly impressive entry into the genre. The play which the cast are rehearsing, a bizarre musical featuring a knife wielding killer with a giant owl’s head, is soon overshadowed by…a knife wielding killer with a giant owl’s head. After the initial murder, when one of the players is butchered by a maniac escaped from the local hospital, troupe director Peter (a wonderfully over the top David Brandon) commands “Give me the script…I want to make some changes” and adds elements of the unfolding plot into his play in an effort to make it a success. Peter then locks his cast in the theatre overnight, in a move bound to ensure art imitates…art. The lines blur in fantastic fashion, Soavi deconstructs as he directs, examines various (often illogical) plot elements contained within the genre, in what serves to be a prototype to the self-aware horror movie – think Scream, but without the overt, knowing humour (Wilson, 2012).
Soavi’s film is certainly self-aware. It knows what it is, and where it sits in the genre, even if its admirers are not always so certain. Is Stage Fright a Giallo? A Slasher? An undefinable meld of the two horror subgenres? It would appear there is no consensus. This series of articles has already covered the certain influence Giallo had in the creation of the slasher [ HERE ] , and established that by the end of the 1970s, the Italian cycle had very much seen itself superseded by its bastard child in terms of global popularity. The reactions to this amongst Giallo’s pantheon of directors were no doubt myriad and mixed, as they saw their offspring to be both more overt and diluted somehow (and very much Americanized) yet phenomenally popular. The keenest among them (chiefly Dario Argento, who carried influence as a producer as well as a visionary director, and Lucio Fulci, who already had strong links the US markets) sought to adapt and adopt, and weaved elements of the popular slasher into their gialli, to ensure some continued success for the filone in a new era. Soavi, a younger director with links to Italian legends Argento and Joe D’Amato, would surely see this and play with the simpler slasher template to create a Giallo that manages to both embrace and gently make fun of slasher tropes.
The film features an isolated setting – the theatre building – but the cast are isolated in the most ridiculously convoluted way possible. Locked in by their own director, they could easily escape but for convenient narrative twists that keep them from getting and using the keys – and this can be read as both a send-up of the isolated setting trope (in itself ridiculous, as short of prisons and underground bunkers there are few real life settings that could not be escaped by simply opening a window) and a loving nod to the convoluted twists and turns of a Giallo plot (such as the zig-zagging mystery plot of Luciano Ercoli’s 1971 entry Death Walks on High Heels, or Lucio Fulci’s genre masterpiece of the same year, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin).
Soavi is also hyper-ware of the gimmickry of the slasher subgenre, especially in its antagonists. Wes Craven’s seminal 1984 slasher Nightmare on Elm Street features an horrifically burned killer in a brown fedora and striped sweater; John Carpenter’s Halloween creation Michael Myers wears the familiar blue boiler suit and James T Kirk mask; Sean Cunningham’s Friday 13th franchise developed perhaps the ultimate gimmick antagonist in the hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding Jason Voorhees. Soavi, in his imitable playfulness, both adopts, adapts and pokes fun at the idea with his villain – a vicious unrelenting killer wearing black ballet tights and the ever so slightly ridiculous oversized owl head, whose kills frequently feature nods to other franchise villains (there are surely few things more absurdly fitting than watching a man wearing a giant owl head dismembering someone with a chainsaw).
Technically, Stage Fright is very strong – Tafuri’s camerawork does exactly what Soavi needs it to do, and the director’s vision and Kathleen Stratton’s editing bring George Eastman’s script to delicious am-dram life, while the score by Simon Boswell, Guido Anelli and Stefano Mainetti switches between genuinely dread-inducing synths, power-pop and deliberately crappy theatre accompaniments to enhance the whole experience. The blood and gore matches the tone of the movie overall. There are some inventive, low-budget effects that spill plenty of claret, great hack and slash set pieces and a fantastically OTT climax which I won’t spoil here, but which goes above and beyond any Grand Guignol sequence you might expect from the genre.
Stage Fright, overall, serves as a fantastic introduction to Michele Soavi and something of a last hurrah for Giallo. It opens up a window onto its director’s style, humour and panache to give a richly rewarding experience. There are more technically accomplished pieces to come from the director - The protégé of Joe D’Amato, Terry Gilliam and Dario Argento would feed inspiration from all his mentors into a style very much his own, which shines in his next three films (The Church, 1989; The Sect, 1991 and the previously mentioned Dellamorte Dellamore, 1993). Before them, the new kid on the Italian Horror block managed to provide Giallo’s last truly notable entry – a film that recognises the genre’s roots, its entire filmic journey and acknowledges its offspring, its metatextual elements and wry humour managing to both satirise and elevate the rich vein of source material it draws upon.
ENDNOTE – Many thanks for joining me on my journey through Giallo. It has been a pleasure to indulge in and learn so much more about this fantastic sibling to horror, and to have you all along for the ride. Hopefully my writing serves to kick-start your own odyssey or rekindle the flame of your love affair with Giallo.
There are so many more films within the genre to enjoy (see the references and further reading list below for a link to a list of 150 gialli films) and so much more to write about – but not by me. I’ll leave the deeper analysis to the many genre experts whose written work I have read and been inspired by, with special thanks to:
Russ Fischer (indiewire.com)
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (brightlightsfilm.com)
Glenn Kenny (rogerebert.com)
Erik Loncar (erikloncar.wordpress.com)
Adam Lowenstein (University of Pittsburgh)
Rachael Nisbet (hypnoticcrescendos.blogspot.co.uk; Arrow Video)
Michael Sevastakis (kinoeye.org)
Thanks also to Alex and the Beyond The Void family for putting up with my shit.
Mark Doubt, 2018
If you missed ANY of this series. You can check out the articles here!
References and further reading:
Cross, Jon (2014) Stage Fright 1987 US Blu-ray review
D, Paul (2018)Top 150 Italian Giallo Films As Rated By The Letterboxd Community
Doubt, M (2018) All The Colours Of Creation: Part 2
Doupé, T (2014) Editorial – How the Giallo Helped Shape the Face of the Modern Slasher
Dowd, AA (2013) A few drops of humor distinguish Stage Fright from its fellow giallos
Fischer, Russ (2015) Black Gloves And Knives: 12 Essential Italian Giallo
Nugent, Addison (2018) A History of Invitation To Love, the soap opera within Twin Peaks
Portilla, D (2013) Films & Architecture: “Dogville”
Shatzer, Jay (2012) Review: Death Walks on High Heels
Wilson, Dave J (2012) Stage Fright
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