Director Michele Soavi is probably best known for directing the last great Italian horror film, Dellamorte Dellamore. However, his word in that film has been so praised that, to a certain extent, Soavi’s earlier horror films have been overshadowed. This is a shame because Soavi was (and is) a great director and — before he temporarily retired from films in the mid-1990s — he directed four of the greatest Italian horror films ever made. The first of these films (and Soavi’s directorial debut) was the 1987 slasher film Stagefright.
As written by Luigi Montefiore (who, as an actor, was better known as George Eastman), Stagefright’s basic story function almost as a parody of a stereotypical 80s slasher film. On a dark and stormy night, an eg0-crazed, cocaine-addicted theatrical director (played by David Brandon) is running a rehearsal for his latest show, a campy musical about a fictional serial killer. However, even as his cast performs fictional mayhem on stage, a real killer escapes from a nearby mental hospital and makes his way to the theater. After the real killer murders the production’s wardrobe mistress, the director decides it would be a brilliant idea to rewrite his show to make it about the real killer. Not realizing that the real killer has snuck into the building, the director secretly locks his cast inside the theater and forces them to rehearse his new show. As you can probably guess, mayhem ensues and blood (a lot of blood) is spilled.
That the film worked (and continues to work over 20 years later) is a tribute to the talent of Michele Soavi. Obviously understanding that he was working with a genre piece, Soavi embraced the expectations of the slasher film and then pushed those expectations as far as he could. The end result is a film that works as both an old school slasher film and as a commentary, of sorts, on the genre as a whole. Soavi’s camera prowls every corner of the film’s theater, creating an atmosphere of truly claustrophobic dread. To me, the most effective thing about the film is that, for once, our victims actually do the smart thing. They stick together and try to fight off the killer as a group. And they end up failing miserably in a scene of horrific choas that shows Soavi at his best.
Soavi started his career as an actor and appeared in a countless number of Italian horror films in the late 70s and early 80s. (For whatever reason, Soavi always seemed to be getting killed in some awful way…) Perhaps that’s why, of all the great Italian horror directors, Soavi always seemed to have the best instincts when it came to casting. For a slasher film, Stagefright is well-acted by a cast made up of horror regulars. Barbara Cupisti is a properly likable protagonist in the role of “final girl” while the great Giovanni Lombardo Radice does good work in the small role of Brett, a flamboyantly gay actor. However, the film is dominated by David Brandon who snorts cocaine and barks out orders as if the fate of the world depended upon it.
(Soavi, himself, appears in a small role as an ineffectual policeman who, while people are dying all around, is more concerned with whether or not anyone else agrees that he looks like James Dean. And, it should be noted, there was a resemblance.)
As opposed to a lot of other directors involved with the Italian horror genre, Soavi had (and, I hope, still has) a genuine love of film and that love is obvious in his stylish direction here. There’s something truly exhilarating about seeing a movie made by someone who is truly in love with the possibilities of film and, because of that love, has no fear of pushing genre “rules” to their extreme.