StageFright Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
While a group of young actors rehearse a new musical about a mass murderer, a notorious psychopath escapes from a nearby insane asylum. But when the show’s director locks his cast in the theater overnight, the madman is accidentally locked inside as well. Now, a killer with acting in his blood has gone berserk for the blood of actors and the stage is set for one unforgettable evening of shock, suspense and unstoppable carnage. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Michele Soavi was, for a time, the last hope of a doomed Italian horror/fantasy filmmaking community. Having been brought up through the ranks as an assistant director and actor under the likes of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, and Lamberto Bava, Soavi rose to relative fame directing two hallucinogenic gothic horror films for Dario Argento. The Church (Italian: La Chiesa, 1989) and The Sect (Italian: La Setta, 1991) led Soavi to his Argento-free genre masterpiece, Dellamorte Dellamore (aka: Cemetery Man, 1994). Unfortunately, Soavi’s young son became sick and required full-time care, and the director temporarily retired at the height of his power. By the time Soavi returned to filmmaking, Argento had fallen into an inescapable rut, Fulci had died, Deodato and Umberto Lenzi had retired, and everyone else was making low-budget TV movies. The horror industry had succumbed to bloat and changes in the audience’s taste. Instead of trying to revive the genre, Soavi reinvented himself as Italy’s answer to Michael Mann with a series of cop thrillers and historical dramas, including Uno Bianci (2001), Francesco (2001), The Goodbye Kiss (Italian: Arrivederci Amore, Ciao, 2006), and Blood of the Losers (Italian: Il sangue dei vinti, 2008).
But before Argento’s intervention and the brilliance of Dellamorte Dellamore, Soavi made his first feature film (following Dario Argento's World of Horror, a popular documentary he made for Japanese television, 1985). Entitled StageFright (aka: Deliria, Bloody Bird, Aquarius, and The Sound Stage Massacre), it was made without any support from his supposed mentor. Soavi has said in interviews that he assumed Argento was skeptical of his skills, but some assume that Argento felt he had invested too much energy in forging Lamberto Bava into a successor and was not willing to switch gears (Bava, who had already come out from under his father, Mario’s wing and directed four films all on his own, proceeded Luigi Cozzi as Arento’s protégé). Soavi found support in a less illustrious cohort/advisor/former boss named Aristide Massaccesi – better known as Joe D’Amato. D’Amato, who died of heart failure in 1999 (the year Soavi returned to filmmaking), was a talented cinematographer (he shot some of StageFright when time ran short) and progenitor of ultra-trashy horror epics, like Buio Omega (aka: Beyond the Darkness and Buried Alive, 1979), Anthropophagus (aka: Anthropophagous: The Beast and The Grim Reaper, 1980), Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Horrible, 1981), and the succinctly titled Porno Holocaust (1981). D’Amato’s name didn’t lend StageFright the same prestige Argento’s would have, but he offered the young director the money and support he needed to flaunt the talent he had culled.
The screenplay was written by regular D’Amato collaborator, Luigi Montefiori, with dialogue input from Sheila Goldberg (who also acted as English language dialogue coach on a number of Italian horror movies throughout the ‘80s). Montefiori is usually referred to by his stage name, George Eastman, and has played the big scary guy in a number of spaghetti westerns and post-apocalyptic thrillers, but he is best known for his part in D’Amato’s splatter-fests and pornos, specifically as the unstoppable killer in Anthropophagus and Absurd (which he also co-scripted). He also reportedly lent his massive stature to Soavi to play StageFright’s owl-headed killer in some of the masked sequences (along with other stunt men and a dancer). Eastman’s skills as a screenwriter went unsung for a long time, mostly because he spent his early writing career filling space on cheapo genre flicks – the kind that often started shooting without scripts (the exception being his work on Enzo G. Castellari’s exemplary western, Keoma, 1976). Shortly after StageFright, Eastman found his groove in Italian television, which eventually led to him reuniting with Soavi for Uno Bianci.
This brings me to a question about the difference between a giallo movie and a slasher movie. Any kind of genre designation is difficult and, ultimately, an objective process. The process isn’t made any easier by the fact that slashers were born of the same inspirations as gialli, along with gialli themselves. However, I think that fans and critics have a tendency to refer to any violent Italian made thriller as a “giallo” by default, simply because it comes from the region. StageFright’s genre distinction is further shaded by the fact that Soavi worked on a number of Argento’s gialli, but I think he’s doing something different by eschewing his mentor’s convoluted plotting and police procedural structures – both vital components to the giallo formula Argento helped implement when he made Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970). Eastman ultimately proved he was capable of complex narratives and characterizations (as seen in Uno Bianci, as a matter of fact), but his habit of compacting and simplifying horror tales for the likes of D’Amato and Sergio Martino serves Soavi’s style over substance ambitions perfectly. He supplies his director with the essentials – a cramped location, a mindless killer, a cast of primed victims, and a reason those victims can’t leave their confinement.
Eastman’s playhouse setting also affords Soavi a chance to poke a little fun at the flamboyant, MTV-inspired extremes gialli had taken on in the ‘80s. Argento, in particular, had redefined his imagery for Tenebrae (aka: Unsane, 1982) and Phenomena (aka: Creepers, 1985), and helped apply the music video iconography to Lamberto Bava’s Demons films (1985 and 1986), which he co-wrote and produced. Back in Italy’s popular culture spotlight, Argento started production on an avant-garde stage version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but was ultimately paralyzed by critics and the press who were still reeling from Ken Russell’s radical version of Puccini’s La Boheme. The situation informed his next film, Opera (aka: Terror at the Opera, 1987), which revolves around a series of murders occurring around the set of an avant-garde Verdi adaptation being directed by a critically-derided horror movie maestro.
But Soavi, who actually worked second unit on Opera, kind of beat Argento to the punch with StageFright. Eastman’s plot hinges on the production of a very giallo-like stage musical headed by a tyrannical director willing to put his cast in mortal danger to achieve his vision. David Brandon, who plays the director, doesn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to Argento, but there’s definitely a whiff of catharsis in the character’s bloody demise. The more telling connection to Argento and the dying giallo genre are the brief glimpses we get of the super campy, neo-pop musical within the film. Soavi makes a point to parody gialli in this context to frame it as silly and passé, which allows him to contrast it against the more serious events of the film. He’s drawing attention to the popular culture transition from the more nuanced, plot-driven cinema of the giallo era to the more vicious, single-minded, gore-driven slasher era (this is speculation on my part, not something the director has personally indicated as far as I know). Yet, Soavi doesn’t let his cynically amusing comment on genre get in the way of the rest of the film’s relentless simplicity, which, again, indicates a desire to ape the tone of American-born slashers.
Slashers are certainly the less respected genre, but good filmmakers, like Soavi, find economical perfection in the undemanding narrative. Soavi was hungry to prove his skills when he made StageFright, but not desperate to make a meaningful work of art. He was more than willing to fit the bill for D’Amato and embraced the demands of graphic splatter movie violence with more artistic panache than anyone working in the field at the time, save Argento and Brian De Palma, and he did it without any major outside influence. The Church and The Sect are arguably better and more interesting films, but StageFright’s stylistic purity trumps many of those greater technical achievements. It plays out as homage to Argento, instead of a film crafted under his pressing influence (in an interview with Alan Jones, Soavi expresses disdain at the fact that The Church’s poster had Argento’s name displayed above the title, while his own was hidden in the credits). Italian slasher, neo-giallo, post-modern stabby-stab movie – whatever you call it, StageFright is among the most stylish, poppy, and frenetic mad killer movies ever made. The kills are plentiful and sloppy with gore, and the suspense is positively nerve-shredding, especially the heroine’s attempted retrieval of a key from beneath the owl-hooded murderer’s killing floor.
At this point, I have complete faith that Blue Underground learned from their mistakes with early Italian Blu-ray releases. Previous to this, their double-feature release of the Italian-made Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror indicated that their latest crop of films from the region were probably not going to have the same CRT noise issues that troubled those early releases. But, even with my faith restored, I wasn’t really prepared for how big of an upgrade this new StageFright Blu-ray was going to be over the previous DVD release, originally made available via Anchor Bay Entertainment. The standard-definition anamorphic, 1.85:1 transfer was, itself, such an upgrade over grimy, ultra-rare and occasionally censored VHS versions that it was easy to overlook its flaws.
The major difference is in overall detail. There’s a sizable change in finer, close-up textures and even bigger one in the wide-angle and background patterns. What was previously blown-out and blurry is now crisp. Given the alternative, the DVD’s previously okay gamma levels now seem too harsh. Another notable difference between the two transfers is the overall color temperature. The HD rescan is cooler, including a blue over-tint during dark sequences. Normally, I’d argue that the DVD’s oranger skin tones and yellower highlights were more natural, but I don’t think Soavi and cinematographer Renato Tafuri (who also worked with Soavi on The Church) had naturalistic imagery in mind. Given the steely blue qualities of the director’s post- Sect films (especially his cop thrillers), I’d say that these hues are right on the money. The HD palette cools out and desaturates some skin tones, but doesn’t interfere with the purity of blood reds and vivid lavenders. There are very minor edge enhancement effects that appear to be a print issue, but no notable CRT machine artifacts or notable compression elements. Grain levels appear natural and don’t clump up too much during the low-light sequences.
Blue Underground has included both the original 2.0 stereo English soundtrack and the DVD release’s remixed 5.1 version of that track (technically, the DVD featured a Dolby Digital EX track, so I supposed this version is missing the extra ghost channel) and presents both in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio sound. StageFright was originally mixed for an analogue Dolby surround system, so there was plenty of room for a digital remix without changing the intended sound field (note that some of the DVD versions released outside America featured the original mono alternative track for older theaters that weren’t set up for surround). I flipped between the two tracks quite a bit and both have their advantages. The 5.1 is better for the dialogue tracks because it discreetly centers it. Unfortunately, plenty of incidental sound effects have also been placed in the middle channel, which makes them a smidge quieter on the 5.1 remix than the stereo track. In fact, all of the basic sound is a bit muffled on the new track. The more elaborate stereo effects are better served by the wider spread, but there aren’t many examples of effects showing up in the rear channels – though a handful rainy scenes and the various chainsaw kills are definitely more impressive on the remix, not to mention that the dialogue is easier to discern.
StageFright, like The Church, includes a composite score from multiple composers – Guido Anelli, Stefano Mainetti, and Simon Boswell (who went on to work with Alejandro Jodorowsky on Santa Sangre, Richard Stalney on Dust Devil, and Danny Boyle on Shallow Grave, among others). Boswell gets the on-screen credit at the beginning of the film, so I suppose he’s responsible for the more prevalent keyboard stuff that sets the mood. As is often the case, the score gets the biggest upgrade between 5.1 and 2.0, including a punchier bass (the stereo track has a bit of a warble) and a nice swirl of movement between the front and back speakers.
Aside from trailers and text-based interviews, no previous home video release of StageFright has featured much in the way of supplemental features. In honour of this re-release, Blue Underground has prepped a series of cast and crew interviews, including:
Theatre Of Delirium (19:00, HD) – A new interview with Soavi that covers the basics of the production, including D’Amato and Eastman’s contributions, applying the stuff he learned from Argento to his debut, the advantages/disadvantages of shooting a low-budget genre movie, his work with Terry Gilliam (who hired him for second unit based on StageFright), and moving on to bigger movies.
Head Of The Company (11:40, HD) – An interview with actor David Brandon, who has nothing but nice things to say about Soavi and D’Amato. It turns out that he actually is a theater director.
Blood On The Stage Floor (14:00, HD) – An interview with the always amusing and perpetually coy Giovanni Lombardo Radice. Radice (who is speaking in French, which leads me to believe the interview was originally recorded for a French source) is usually critical of his work in Italian horror and of the people he worked with, but, here, he honestly praises Soavi’s talents and his sense of humor.
The Owl Murders (11:20, HD) – An interview with make-up effects artist Pietro Tenoglio, who recalls his work with D’Amato over many years, StageFright’s various gore effects, and the owl mask.
The Sound Of Aquarius (18:00, HD) – This interview with composer Simon Boswell includes some rough footage from one of his revival concerts and his original band, Livewire. He discusses his introduction to film scoring via Dario Argento and StageFright’s place in his oeuvre.
Poster and still gallery
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