Stagefright (1987)

There was a moment two minutes into this movie, when a slasher like scene turned into a Cats-like play, that my mind was blown. And there was a moment halfway through where a body was torn in two that I jumped off my couch, screaming, “Soavi, I love you!”

There’s no other way to say it — this movie is completely crazy. Is it because of Michael Soavi’s (The Sect, Cemetary Man) direction? Or the script from George Eastman (better known Nikos Karamanlis from Antropophagus and, well, kinda sorta Nikos in Absurd, a movie so brutal that it inspired a murderous black metal band)? Why ask questions? Why not just sit back and enjoy the mayhem?

The entire movie takes place in a theater, where actors and a crew are creating a musical about the Night Owl, a mass murderer. Alicia (Barbara Cupisti, The ChurchCemetary Man) sprains her ankle, so she and Betty sneak out to a mental hospital to get some help. While there, they see Irving Wallace, a former actor who went on a murder spree, which has continued in the insane asylum. He uses a syringe to kill an attendant and hides in Betty’s car.

Because Alicia left, the director fires her while Betty is killed with a pickaxe outside. Alicia finds the body and calls the police (one of them is Soavi, who spends an extended scene asking if he looks like James Dean), who lock them inside the theater and guard the premises. Because, you know, that’s the way the police handle these things.

The director is inspired — the play will now be about Irving Wallace and everyone must stay the night to rehearse, even the rehired Alicia. While rehearsing the first scene, Wallace dons the killer’s owl costume and strangles, then stabs one of the other actors in front of everyone.

Then, Wallace cuts the phone and starts killing one person at a time. It’s at this point that this movie goes off the rails and does some rails. A power drill going through someone? Yep. Hacking someone up with an axe? Yep. A woman cut in half that sprays blood all over an entire room full of people? It’s got that, too. A dude getting chainsawed until the saw runs out of gas and then getting decapitated? Oh yes.

Wallace takes all of the bodies and blares the theme from Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin while feathers fall. Alicia finds the key to escape and a gun while Wallace pets a black cat, his face covered by the owl mask.

Alicia has no idea how a gun works and can’t take the safety off. Wallace chases her, even stabbing him in the eye ala Halloween. The higher in the theater Alicia climbs, Wallace keeps following, in a POV shot that makes it feel like he’s climbing toward us. She cuts the cord he is climbing and he falls to his death. But this is a slasher — albeit one through the eyes of Soavi — and the killer comes back until he is set on fire.

The next day, Alicia goes back to the theater to find her watch. Willy, the janitor, tells her that they took eight bodies out, which makes her realize that Wallace is still alive. He shows up, unmasked, and tries to kill her all over again. After hearing Willy tell her how she didn’t even have to think to kill him and that the gun would do it all once the safety is off, she unloads a bullet “right in-between the eyes.”

Alicia wanders out of frame, toward a bright white doorway that we first saw just before Wallace attacked her. And in this scene, we can really see why Soavi stands ahead of the pack when it comes to horror. That doorway offers escape, not just from Wallace, but from the film itself, as her fictional character, her final girl, is removed from our minds. The killer lives long after the victims and survivors, so the camera pans down to reveal Wallace, blood pouring from behind his eyes, and he begins to laugh. Soavi said that he intended this to be a wink to the conventions of the slasher, where the killer never really dies.

This film was produced by Joe D’Amato, who had a scene from this movie play within his 9 1/2 Weeks rip-off Eleven DaysEleven Nights. Also known as Aquarius and Deliria, it features an amazing soundtrack by Simon Boswell. And Soavi — in his first time as a director — shines with intricate camera work (it’s very Argento), complete with a wordless final twenty minutes of Alicia fighting against Wallace.

The end of this film approaches near surrealism within the horror narrative. This gets the highest review I can give. It’s a slasher that transcends the genre to become real art.

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