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Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/23/2014
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/15/2014
In my recent review for the double-feature ofHell of the Living Dead and Rats Night of Terror, I wrote about how Italians have a habit of taking ideas and themes from popular American movies and cranking out imitations. But, they didn't stop at zombie and Escape from New York "homages". The slasher film also get the Italian treatment. One could argue that the Italians invented the slasher movie with their Giallos (more on that in a moment), but that doesn't mean that they could resist taking a shot at a straight-up masked killer movie, as evidenced by Stagefright.
Stagefright focuses on a theater troupe who are rehearsing a dance/musical production called "Night Owl", which features an actor in a owl mask who attacks the other characters. Peter (David Brandon), the director, is very demanding and difficult to please. Therefore, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) doesn't want to tell him that she's hurt her ankle. Wardrobe assistant Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) takes Alicia to a nearby hospital for help, not realizing that it's a mental health facility which is housing notorious killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), a former actor. Wallace sees Alicia, escapes from the hospital and follows the women back to the theater, where he attacks Betty. Peter sees the assault as a chance to get publicity for the play, so he orders an overnight rehearsal with Alicia, Brett (John Morghen), Laurel (Mary Sellers), Danny (Robert Gligorov), Sybil (Jo Anne Smith), Corinne (Lori Parrel) and Mark (Martin Philips). For security purposes, Peter locks everyone inside. Little does he know that Wallace has snuck in and that he's determined to be the star of his own bloody show.
The Giallo and the slasher film are very similar, but there are differences. A Giallo is a murder-mystery in which a series of often violent murders occur and the murderer is revealed at the end. The killer rarely wears a mask, but they do famously wear black gloves. These movies usually choose style over substance, as the killings are very elaborate, but the stories sometimes lack cohesion. In most cases, a slasher presents us with a masked killer who takes out a group of individuals one-by-one, often with little motivation. These movies can be whodunits? as well, with the killer being unmasked at the end. While slasher movies can certainly be stylish, many of the entries from the 80s were clumsily made and technically inferior.
Given that it's from Italy, one could easily label Stagefright as a Giallo, but it's clearly a slasher. In fact, I think that some of it is patterned afterHalloween, the king of slasher films. We have a masked killer, who never utters a word, who kills a group of people, presumably because he's after one person. (Wallace also appears to be seemingly unstoppable, a la Michael Myers.) The fact that the group is locked in the theater harkens back to classic murder-mystery literature, but it also offers a way to keep the budget in check.
While I personally think that Stagefright is a slasher, there's no doubt that the movie presents style over substance. Director Michele Soavi had worked on films by Italian masters Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava and he clearly paid attention. While he would go on to make some critically acclaimed movies like Cemetery Man and The Church, Stagefright is still my favorite of his movies. The first two acts of the movie has some very stylish shots, but there's no doubt that the pedestrian nature of the story (killer chases people) keeps things a tad neutral. However, the last 30 minutes are the movie's saving grace, as the production design and Soavi's interesting set-ups combine to create a slasher film with a very unique look. Also, the movie is able to create some actual suspense, which is actually rare for a movie of this genre.
I can see how some people would dismiss Stagefright as an attempt by foreigners to enter the slasher cycle very late in the game, and because, admittedly, there isn't much going on storywise. However, I think it's a mistake to ignore the amount of work which went into the look of the film and how Soavi really ratchets up the suspense in the third act, going from a traditional cat-and-mouse theme to a truly intense "final girl" segment. Stagefright has been released under other titles over the years, such as "Bloody Bird" and "Deliria", but there's no confusing the fact that other slashers can learn a lesson from this stylish entry.
Stagefright features another performance by John Morghen AKA Giovanni Lombardo Radice, the actor who dies in every Italian horror movie, on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Blue Underground. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 32 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a minor amount of grain and no overt defects from the source materials. Gone are the sort of flaws which have haunted this movie in the past. The colors are very good, with the reds looking especially bold. The image is never dark and the action is always visible. The level of detail is good and we can make out textures on objects. Unfortunately, this transfer is a little too good and it's readily apparent that some shots are out of focus. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. I don't know if this movie was dubbed (I assume that it was), but this track does not have the typical overly-loud or "out of place" sound which often accompanies dubbed movies. There are some noticeable stereo and surround effects, most of which are used to highlight sounds coming from off-screen, and the musical score sounds fine. I didn't note many significant subwoofer effects.
The Stagefright Blu-ray Disc contains several extras, most of which are interviews. "Theatre of Delirium" (19 minutes) is a talk with Director Michele Soavi. Here, he talks about how he got started in film and directing, and then goes on to describe his approach to Stagefright. We hear from actor David Brandon in "Head of the Company" (12 minutes) who takes us through his career and then discusses Stagefright. "Blood on the Stage Floor" (14 minutes) is an interview with Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who has died in many Italian films, who traces his history with Soavi. "The Owl Murders" (11 minutes) profiles Make-up Effects Artist Pietro Tenoglio, who talks about some specific pieces from the film. "The Sound of Aquarius" (18 minutes) has Composer Simon Boswell giving insight into the film's score and offers a live performance of the film's songs, as well as samples of Boswell's early work. The extras are rounded out by a THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film and a "Poster & Still Gallery".
Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long