Actor-turned-mass murderer Irving Wallace escapes from an asylum and ends up at a nearby theatre where rehearsals for a rock musical are taking place. When Wallace kills a crew member, the director sees a marketing opportunity and locks the cast in the theatre, insisting they keep rehearsing through the night. Unfortunately the killer is locked in the theatre with them and gets to work immediately.
Six years after the slasher hey-day and just as Dario Argento was beginning to run out of original ways to approach his brand of baroque horror, his young protege Michele Soavi delivered one of the eighties' defining moments of spaghetti splatter. On paper, the film offers nothing different from a dozen other slasher movies, a series of ridiculous contrivances providing a familiar set-up. The killer travels back to the theatre hidden in the car of lead actress Alicia (Barbara Cupist) after she has an injured ankle treated at the local asylum(!), while the actress that director Peter (David Brandon) gives the key to hide after he locks the doors is Wallace's second victim, the location of the key dying with her.
Luckily, Soavi knows exactly what to do with such a premise. He doesn't waste any time getting to know his characters so gives us familiar types – there's the plucky young actress and her bitchy rival, the tyrannical director, money-obsessed producer, a pair young lovers and the camp male lead (an amusing turn from perennial Italian horror victim John Morghen). With the doors locked and a storm raging outside, the unlucky eight are dispatched by Wallace (wearing a giant owl's head) in a variety of inventively messy ways – power drill, axe, chainsaw – while Soavi ladles on the gore like it's going out of style.
Soavi's time spent working on films like Argento’s Tenebrae and Opera really pays off, and he proves himself as adept a director as any of his peers. The camera prowls menacingly, and film is crisply shot in vibrant blues and reds. The theatrical setting is used well – the killer frequently blasts ominous orchestral music from the speakers to unnerve his prey, and the building provides an infinite number of rooms and corridors for him to hide. There’s also a bravura sequence towards the end as Wallace sits on the stage, the bodies of his victims arranged around him, while Alicia crouches underneath trying to lever the lost key through a crack in the floor.
Stage Fright is sometimes pretty funny, although not always intentionally. The musical that David and co are putting together is hilariously bad – it seems to solely consist of an owl-masked maniac raping and killing women whilst leaping around to a godawful synth-rock beat. It's so terrible, you really can't blame Wallace for wanting to slaughter those responsible. Meanwhile, there's an amusing final moment, a sly wink to the audience, showing Soavi isn't taking his film too seriously.
Simon Boswell's of-the-era music aside, Stage Fright has aged very well. It's utterly unoriginal but ruthlessly efficient, scary when it needs to be and clocks in at under 90 minutes. It was actually produced by Aristide Massaccesi, the hack director better known as Joe D'Amato, and written by Massaccesi's gut-munching Anthropophagous star George Eastman, working here as Lew Cooper. And watch out for a cameo from Soavi, as the young cop who thinks he looks like James Dean.
Italian director best known for his stylish horror work, Soavi first worked both as an actor and assistant director on a variety of notable genre films, including Dario Argento's Tenebrae, Phenomena and Opera, and Lamberto Bava's Demons. After making the Argento documentary World of Horror, Soavi directed the superb 1987 slasher Stage Fright.
The Argento-produced follow-ups The Church and The Sect were flawed but intriguing supernatural shockers, while 1994's Dellamorte Dellamore was a unique, dreamlike zombie comedy. Unfortunately family troubles forced Soavi out of film-making soon after, and although he now works in Italian TV, his horror days seem behind him.