Michele Soavi is perched in that second tier of Italian horror maestros below Fulci, Argento and Bava. Watching his films, I always feel this is a shame; Soavi apprenticed under Argento and Fulci as an actor, and must’ve picked up much of the DNA of their films, as he is almost on par as a visual stylist. He’s also a compelling storyteller, as is evident in his first feature film, STAGEFRIGHT, a slasher that combines the high art of Soavi’s visuals with the low artlessness of producer Joe D’Amato and writer George Eastman, producing in the mix a film that is one excellent example of Brilliant Trash.
A troupe of actors are rehearsing a play when one actress twists her ankle. She gets the costume designer to drive her to the local sanitarium, wherein resides Irving Wallace, a failed actor turned maniac murderer. A needle in the eye later, and Wallace hitches a ride back to the theatre, where he quickly dispatches the designer. Quick to capitalize on real life tragedy and figuring Wallace has fled, director Peter gets the cast to stay and practice the rejiggered play, which replaces its killer with Irving Wallace. Unbeknownst to them, Peter locks them in and has one actress hide the key. But the real Wallace is lurking within, and he’s ready to bring the carnage. Oh, I should mention that he goes around slaughtering the cast and crew from under a giant owl mask.
This plot has D’Amato and Eastman written all over it. This ultraviolent trash is squarely in the wheelhouse of the pair who directed and wrote and acted in ANTHROPOPHAGUS, respectively. And had D’Amato directed STAGEFRIGHT, it would’ve been artless filth. In Soavi’s hands, it’s a revelation on how beautiful a slasher can be. He varies all sorts of visual techniques, lingering on gore for several seconds in one shot, sending his camera barreling across an overhead walkway the next. There are overhead shots, Dutch angles, shots with objects in the foreground (several shots of the key, the means to escape, near to the viewer with a potential victim in the background are quite impressive). There’s a painterly shot of a nurse in the sanitarium through a huge fish tank, an exotic fish swimming around slowly; it does nothing to enhance plot or character, but it’s high art. Renato Tafuri’s cinematography is simultaneously moody and gaudy, with all sorts of blues and reds, playing up shadows at times while brightly lit at others to show the audience there’s no safety even in a fully lit room in the company of others. Kathleen Stratton’s editing drives the piece, with hectic, frantic cuts that echo the insanity happening within the theatre. Instead of the sort of grungy, ugly affairs I associate with D’Amato and Eastman, Soavi has made something gorgeous, a sight to behold. He manages to raise the visuals to such heights that their grotesque marriage to the material is among the best of Brilliant Trash.
And oh dear God, do I mean grotesque. Once Wallace gets inside the theatre, “carnage” is the best word to describe the reckoning he brings. The maniac drills through one victim, drives a pick axe into another’s head, cuts off yet another’s arm with an axe and then decapitates him. And there’s the chainsaw. Leatherface and the Sawyer clan would applaud what he does with the chainsaw. Soavi does not hold back, focusing his camera on the gore and lingering on it. This is a mean film, its intent to see the human body ripped to pieces in all a slasher’s glorious forms. Gorehounds will lap this bloodshed up, and keep coming back for more, of which Wallace and the filmmakers are happy to deliver.
STAGEFRIGHT has a slew of alternate titles, and boy are they bizarre. Its original Italian title is DELIRIA, and it also goes under the moniker BLOODY BIRD, SOUND STAGE MASSACRE, and of all inane titles, AQUARIUS. Oh those glory days of different titles for different territories.
I hate to harp on D’Amato, but under his direction it would’ve been all about the carnage. But Soavi’s cinematography, use of score and editing heighten the tension in a way most slashers aren’t mature enough to pull off. The finale, up in the rafters with an actress who’s poorly armed against Wallace and his axe, is an exercise in torque that follows her attempts to loosen that all-important key from a wedge in the wood under the stage.
Even better, let’s examine the “maniac piles up the bodies” trope, so expertly used here. Usually it’s an inane action meant to show off the special effects guy’s bloody artistry and not much else. Here, Wallace assembles them onstage, part of the failed actor’s gruesome show to a non-existent audience. Weapon in one hand, he uses the other to stroke a cat as he sits on a throne, surrounded by his supporting cast of actors and actors’ severed parts. The pressure mounts as the lone survivor realizes the key is just a few feet away from where he’s sitting. This is masterful filmmaking that has no right being in a schlocky slasher film from the 1980s. It’s just a few shades below John Carpenter’s work in HALLOWEEN. I know that’s heady praise, and you may think I have no idea what I’m talking about or that I’ve lost my mind. But Soavi’s that talented.
And then there’s the mask. When I first watched STAGEFRIGHT with Mike Cucinotta, I found it ludicrous that a maniac was slaughtering an acting troupe in a giant owl mask. And I still do. But watching it again tonight, I found that owl head to be scarier than a hockey mask or William Shatner mask, perhaps because it’s so ludicrous. There’s some great dramatic irony where the director, thinking it’s his actor under the mask, instructs him to strangle an actress in a scene, and is baffled when Wallace pulls out a knife and plunges it into her several times. Even when the jig is up, he dons the mask, as if he’s still acting a part, which is frightening. Those unmoving, yellow eyes and the feather motif are downright creepy, in equal measure to being silly.
STAGEFRIGHT isn’t perfect. Though it’s nice to see a group of adults in a slasher instead of dumb kids in the woods, some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired, and the dialogue isn’t winning any awards. This isn’t uncommon for Italian horror at the time—Hell, it’s just about expected in American slashers of the era—but that’s no excuse. And the indestructible maniac who can take falls that would break a mortal man in half, a nail in the brain and eventually a bullet in the head is ridiculous. But those are small faults that don’t detract my enjoyment from what is a superior slasher. After all, these are minor quibbles compared to the sheer, implausible lunacy that occurs in the canons of Fulci and Argento.
And so we come full circle, as we return to the maestros. Soavi and Mario’s son Lamberto Bava were always in striking distance of Italy’s three revered patron saints of horror, several cuts above the Umberto Lenzis and Joe D’Amatos of the world, but never able to break through that ceiling to attain legendary status. Soavi’s debut STAGEFRIGHT was auspicious and pointed him in the right direction, but couldn’t quite get him there. At the least, he took D’Amato and Eastman’s trash, and made something brilliant out of it, and that’s no small feat.