Stagefright (1987)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #37

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Also known as Aquarius, Deliria, Bloody Bird
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: January 1987
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: Italy
Budget: $1,000,000
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: Michele Soavi
Producers: Joe D’Amato, Donatella Donati
Screenplay: Lew Cooper, Sheila Goldberg
Special Effects: Robert Gold, Dan Maklansky, Roland Park, Alan Sloane
Cinematography: Renato Tafuri
Score: Simon Boswell, Guido Anelli, Stefano Mainetti
Editing: Kathleen Stratton
Studio: DMV Distribuzione, Filmirage
Stars: Barbara Cupisti, David Brandon, Mary Sellers, Robert Gligorov, Jo Ann Smith, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Martin Philips, Piero Vida, Loredana Parrella, Ulrike Schwerk, Domenico Fiore, Mickey Knox, James E R Sampson, Richard Barkeley, Clain Parker

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Suggested Audio Calzone:

Simon Boswell & Stefano Mainetti Locked Up

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Of all the countries I have visited during my lifetime, Italy is undoubtedly one of my favorite stomping grounds. Located deep in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea and boasting a population of well over sixty million, this beautiful place makes a mockery of its rather unattractive nickname lo Stivale, which it has earned on account of being shaped like a boot and its setting is one of romance and mystery. I have only ever had the distinct pleasure of visiting there once; a romantic four-day rendezvous in San Marco Square, Venice to be exact. Alas, it all ultimately ended in tears as my heart was callously broken on the final day our stay. However, despite being snubbed so conclusively, I still came away enriched by the experience and look back at it primarily with fondness.

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Then, during a holiday in San Francisco in 2008, I was introduced to an Italian artist by the name of Chihuly and it changed my life. Being unashamedly a child of the eighties, garish colors don’t faze me at all, the more retina-bursting the better and this exceptional cyclops produces fine expressive art with one eye that most artists wouldn’t dream possible with fifty. Glass blowing, street puppetry and venetian mask-painting are some of the other intricacies to come from this great kingdom. Meanwhile, my palate overspills at the mere mention of Italian cuisine, in particular, pizza. Thank you Italy for every slice, every drop of puree and every last slice of pepperoni. I would gladly wear a pizza-encrusted leotard and calzone moccasins if the chance presented itself.

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However, my love of Italia also stems from more shadowy locales. Thanks to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, I suffered from recurring nightmares about a surreptitious dwarf in a red duffle coat lurking in the back streets and it doesn’t stop there either. One thing in particular I have always found fascinating about our Italian cousins is their stupendo grasp of cinema, in particular horror. I grew up with the likes of Argento, two Bavas, Lenzi, Deodato and last but absolutely no means least, Lucio Fulci so, needless to say, my love of the macabre was well and truly catered for. There is one more name I wish to include in this impressive roster on account of supplying one of my childhood highlights and that is a certain Michele Soavi.

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His 1987 breakout movie Stagefright is, like Demons before it, a masterful piece of horror cinema that is often regrettably overlooked when mentioning the classics. Similar to Lamberto Bava’s gory eighties centerpiece, Soavi creates a tense, bloody and downright pleasurable feature which offers knowing nods towards the slasher sub-genre whilst possessing enough style in the execution and pressure cooker tension to elevate it above many of its American counterparts. Indeed, he poaches as much inspiration from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski as he does Sean S. Cunningham.

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The premise is simplicity itself and involves the cast and crew of a stage production who are busy rehearsing for opening night under the beady eye of over-bearing director Peter (David Brandon). When leading lady Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) sprains her ankle and sneaks away with her friend Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) to find medical attention, the only hospital in close proximity just so happens to be a nearby mental institution. You can see where this is headed right? While she is busy getting patched up and fraternizing with the interns, the girls gain themselves an extra passenger for the return journey, and it goes without saying that he’s a psychopathic killer hell-bent on ventilating the entire troupe. To make matters worse, some dufus has managed to lock them all in. No prizes for originality then.

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What elevates Soavi’s film above so many of his fellow countrymen’s efforts is the atmosphere created from the opening frame which is evident right through to the final curtain. It goes without saying that the script is unlikely to win any awards and the acting is gloriously over-theatrical for the most part. Characters range from ludicrously camp to flat-out hysterical and, should you opt for the English language dub, then you will find it offers up much hilarity as is the case in pretty much any other spaghetti horror from that era. As is expected, the cast are largely forgettable and totally expendable with the exception of our plucky leading lady Alicia.

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Cupisti has featured in the works of Fulci, Argento, Joe D’Amato and Tinto Brass, while also reuniting with Soavi for The Church in 1989, and it isn’t a stretch to work out why he acquired her talents for a second time. She has that look which Italian directors in the seventies and eighties were drawn towards and stands out here like a diamond in the rough. On one hand Alicia appears frail and vulnerable whereas, once her associates start dropping like flies with vertigo and her back is against the wall, she unlocks the inner resolve to fight back and save her skin. Cupisti has all the ingredients of a classic final girl and is brilliant throughout.

Simon Boswell & Stefano Mainetti Main Theme

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Meanwhile, we need ourselves a villain of the piece outside of the killer himself and waist-coated wanker Peter endeavors to give every last one of the cast members a motive to murder. Slime is the operative word here, likeable slime, but slime nonetheless and Brandon tries his level best to steal the show in every scene, succeeding more often than not. The scene where our nocturnal nightmare maker introduces himself for the first time is typical of the bone-headed brie money can’t buy and Soavi even manages to shoehorn in a saxophone solo while he is carving his intent. Had I mentioned that it is played by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike on a smoke-filled back alley balcony? Only the Italians.

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Once the formal introductions have taken place, and our first lambs slaughtered, shit breaks out like adolescent acne. Cue much frantic waving of limbs and hand-on-cheeks astonishment from our bumbling buffoons as, one by one, they meet the business end of the killer’s wide assortment of lethal weapons. Knife, axe, pick axe, chainsaw, cordless drill; we’re talking the whole nine yards and not a single inch to spare. This is what makes Stagefright so damned compulsive. It shamefully steals its inspirations from the slew of stateside slashers secreting from every multiplex and the boundless grue is lavish with every grisly kill given centre stage.

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This being Italian, it goes without saying that the theatrical backdrop is put to wonderfully creative use. The insular setting perfectly compliments the hopeless plight of our lemmings as they each reach their own fatal final curtain. Once all distractions have been dealt with, all too often slasher flicks lose their way, but this is not the case with Stagefright and the breathless closing act cranks the anxiety up to almost unbearable levels. We are fully expectant of our heroine summoning that inner strength and facing up to her assailant but, what we aren’t prepared for, is a stunning finale of true Italian splendor and Soavi truly outdoes himself here.

Simon Boswell & Stefano Mainetti Stagefright

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Picture the scene and feel free to skip this stanza if you don’t wish to be exposed to spoilers. Our killer, looking more than vaguely unsettling clad head to toe in an owl costume, sits belligerently center stage, surveying his slaughtered starlets amidst a veritable feather storm, whilst stroking a cat-like a Bond villain. All the while, our mortified final girl is stifled by dusty floorboards directly beneath our feathered friend’s coordinates. All is calm excepting the whirl of oscillating fans blowing quills around his delectable display of deadbeats and her only feasible lifeline is a key lodged between the boards directly before our seated slayer. It is a gloriously protracted encore and singularly worthy of the price of admission.

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There are no conveniently fuelled-up motorcycles, helicopters, samurai swords or resourceful pimp daddies à la Demons and mercifully no preposterous distractions like the rooftop childbirth of its sequel either. What Soavi does provide in abundance is stifling atmosphere, glorious kills, a dispatch artist who manages to remain ominous despite the oversized owl head, and a rattlesnake pace which barely lets up for the duration. Needless to say, a cathedral of candles burn brightly in my heart for this enigmatic late-eighties effort, particularly given that the entire slasher craze was on the severe downturn when it arrived. Watch it alongside Ruggero Deodato’s Body Count for a wonderfully trashy double-header if you really feel like slumming it and you should have precious few complaints. Now where did I leave my saxophone?

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 5/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: I believe that the Grueheads are hungry, perhaps even ravenous. Fret not my beauties and take your fill as there’s plenty of deep red here to go around. With the vast inventory of dispatch tools at our killer’s disposal, how could it feasibly fall short? Numerous stabbings, dismemberment aplenty, chainsaw massacres, decidedly messy drill kills, oral entry via pick axe, and much more besides ensure that Stagefright has an absolute ball on center stage. Viva Italia.

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Read Body Count Appraisal

Read Demons Appraisal

Read Demons 2 Appraisal

Read Stage Fright (2014) Appraisal

 

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