The Friday Night Horror Movie: Stage Fright (1987)

stage fright poster

I did work study for the theater department for most of my years at college. I had an amazing time. For each show, we’d spend weeks in rehearsals working several hours every night and building the sets on the weekends. Then we’d put the show on for three weekends in a row. It was a small theater department so we often had folks from outside the school performing and working. It was much more like community theater than your typical university theater.

Everybody working a show from the actors to the director and the stagehands became a small family for a few months. And because it was a community theater often the same people would come back and work the next show, and the next. I made some great, lifelong friends at that theater.

Because of this, I love a movie about theater life. Stage Fright is a pretty terrific slasher film from director Michele Soavi that takes place almost entirely in a theater.

A small theater troupe is rehearsing a show about a serial killer who wears a big owl head while he attacks young women on the city street. It is set to open in just a few days, but the maniacal director Peter (David Brandon) doesn’t think it is ready. He locks all the doors, hides the key, and demands everybody stay all night to perfect the show.

Two actresses, Alicia (Barbara Capisti) and Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) find a way to sneak out because Alicia has sprang her ankle and needs medical attention. The closest doctor is at a psych hospital and naturally, a psycho-killer escapes while they are there and sneaks into their car.

You can guess what happens next. It takes a while for the bodies to start piling up. There is some enjoyable behind-the-scenes at the theater stuff. Some of it is on point, but some of it seems completely ludicrous. All of the cast is hungry, they need the job, they need the money, and they desire the fame. When the first girl dies the police are called and the press shows up. The director immediately tries to use it as a means of drumming up publicity.

But three days before opening night, he also fires one of his lead actresses, rewrites entire scenes, and makes big changes no director in his right mind would do that close to opening.

Not that any of this matters. This is a slasher film, not a theatrical documentary, but this nerd noticed.

Soavi has a great eye. In some ways the film is more Giallo than your typical slasher, which makes sense since he studied under Dario Argento. There is a great visual sense throughout the film, but especially in the last act. There is a scene in which the stage has been set in a most theatrically macabre way and then a fan clicks on and blows feathers all over and it is so strangely beautiful.

The killer wears that giant owl head for the entirety of the film and it is just terrifying. Once the kills do begin they come fast and furious. About halfway through I was mentally writing this review and I thought to myself that there wasn’t much gore for a slasher film. I was oh-so-wrong. Not long after that things get very bloody. The kills are good as the kids say.

The best slashers are typically no more than dumb fun. Stagefright is that, but it has more style, more of that special something that elevates far above most films in the genre. It comes highly recommended by me. Perhaps even more so if you’ve ever done any theater.

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