Years of experience with Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, the reigning post-Bava Italian giallo masters, will give you Stagefright. For Michele Soavi, actor and assistant director to the masters turned first-time director here, this meant conjuring up this 1987 pseudo-slasher as his big come-up. The original title, Deliria, being vastly more apposite, this is less a slasher dressed up in giallo airs than a giallo putting on slasher clothing to sneak into the mainstream so it can uncloak its true self when the moment beckons. Like any good disreputable giallo, Stagefright is a bodacious concoction of performance-art murders choreographed like installation pieces, on one hand, and pure, unbridled instinct and impulse on the other. So while the kills may be judiciously filmed and planned, Soavi never lets anything as trivial as common sense or good taste trounce on his funhouse; his film is orchestrated but never programmatic.
A hallucinatory carousel, Stagefright is almost more indebted to its bracing subcutaneous comic edge than its horror credentials, what with the gleeful binges of absurdism cartwheeling around the structurally thrashed-about midsection where most of the expendable meat are sliced and diced in almost cartoonishly expedient, industrious fashion, as if the film is upending slasher convention by the minute. A thick slathering of the surreal is the order of the day, as in a stage director character whose dehumanizing, pernicious attitude toward his actors would make Hitchcock or De Palma blush. Speaking of which, in addition to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz being an obvious progenitor, Stagefright is also a progeny of De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (in fact, Stagefright feels a little like something De Palma might have whipped up on a particularly committal bender, if his cinema’s cocaine supply was upgraded to proper nitroglycerin). This is no exercise in post-modern genre liquidity though; comedy is here to stay, but Soavi’s horror bonafides are in full effect – they’re simply a stitch looser and more freewheeling than you might expect.
Opening up on a powder keg as a woman in a lycra-clad set (designed with a stagey artifice, like any giallo might be) is murdered, the camera pans back to reveal an in-media-res off-off-in-another-dimension-from-Broadway play called the Night Owl in progress. When institutionalized theater actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) escapes and murders the set designer, the fabulously Euro-trash director Peter (David Brandon) willfully throws caution to the wind and reenvisions his play as the story of Wallace, wither Peter going to the trouble to lock himself and his performers in for the night because, you know, practice makes perfect. Lucky for us, Wallace needs to bone up on his deboning (and defleshing) skills, and with numerous test subjects in front of him, he too takes Peter’s advice about putting in your 10,000 hours toward mastery.
As a slice of kraftwerk, it’s indelible, all the way down to the quixotically lurid final where Wallace, adorned in giant owl mask and winking eyes, enshrines his kills in a tableau of rococo death, adopting his rightful place as deity of the recently deceased as he sits atop an impromptu throne and relishes his work while stroking a cat. Renato Tafuri’s cinematography is a day-glo nightmare of toxic ‘80s flourishes, exactly as it should be, and Soavi’s lurching-beast camera-prowls excavate the corners of the theater without ever safeguarding the audience by transforming the theater into a fully explicable, knowable space; an air of daunting uncertainty and obscurity is never more than a whisper away.
Thematically, it’s a little quotidian, admittedly. There’s a lot in here about the dialectics of performance and reality, as though that wasn’t implicit in the melodramatic, excessively, hedonistically performative nature of all giallos. But Stagefright’s literalization of the “theater of life” – it is, after all, a story about real life mimicking a theater piece – curates and numbs the theme when it ought to unleash it. Something like, say, Suspiria burrows this dreamlike artifice into the form of the film and thus into the subterranean mind – suggesting the psychotic muddying of dream, performance, and reality through experiencing images which cannot comfortably, singularly be reduced to any one of the above. Stagefright is keener on literalizing the theme, segmenting theater and reality off from one another as explicit narrative shift, which does admittedly accrue a twitchy aura like a switchblade shuttering between open and closed.
What’s negated, or at least slightly neutered, in Stagefright, however, is the non-committal attitude toward what our senses are feeding us. If Suspiria’s editing redistricts our senses and displaces linear logic for a more fluid atemporal realm, Stagefright is content to violate a mostly straight-laced narrative with pinpricks of anti-logic. Rather than swirling theater and dream logic around together, Stagefright is more sensible, more cohesive at a narrative level, and thus less cogent as a malleable question mark about the limits of consciousness to understand the trauma of horror. Rather than exploring how the uncanny invasion of terror can feel like theater to those unprepared for it, Stagefright settles for shifts in style that mostly call attention only to themselves – only to that the film is sliding from theater to reality – rather than why it is doing so.
While this instability and showmanship is appreciated, there’s something more damaging to the soul about a film like Suspiria, The Beyond, or Don’t Look Now where “shifts” do not do justice to how homogenously artifice and reality are intertwined. No solid chunks of either sense or nonsense remain in those films, while Stagefright seldom moves away from chunking its distinct segments off from one another. Perhaps it is left up to the flutters of individual taste, but while Suspiria’s nightmarishness feels like it encircles an exploration of how tentative, secretly-threatened, and false reality’s grasp of its own stability actually is, Stagefright feels more it’s just strutting about town and showing off.
Still, it’s a darling little sliver of nastiness nonetheless. Sure, Soavi’s psychological bite is pared down relative to Argento, resulting in a more conventional slasher tale with quivers of psychological nightmare rather than a full-on brazen prophecy of mental disarray. But, if not horror prophecy, it’s approaching the none-too-shabby lesser-deity realm of “omen of disturbance” or “presage of the mind on the precipice of falling into tatters”. It could use the push into outright crisis and epidemic a la the emotional panic of Fulci’s The Beyond, but the slightly more even-keeled Stagefright is at least dancing at the threshold of, I don’t know, Argento’s throat-grabbing but straightforward Deep Red. A slasher interfered with by the untamed world of the giallo, Stagefright is the violation of the so-called rational mind by an untempered, inhospitable incubus, a suggestion of the sensible mind’s inability to conquer or unify the monstrous mongrel of fiction and reality.