Stagefright (Deliria)

Director: Michele Soavi
Screenplay: George Eastman
Stars: David Brandon (Peter), Barbara Cupisti (Alicia), Domenico Fiore (Police Chief), Robert Gligorov (Danny), Mickey Knox (Old Cop), Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Brett), Clain Parker (Irving Wallace), Loredana Parrella (Corinne), Martin Philips (Mark), James Sampson (Willy), Ulrike Schwerk (Betty), Mary Sellers (Laurel), Jo Ann Smith (Sybil), Piero Vida (Ferrari)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1987
Country: Italy
Stagefright Blu-ray
StagefrightStagefright (Deliria), the feature film directing debut of Michele Soavi, who had cut his teeth for several years working as an assistant director for Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, is a clever low-budget slasher film in which a theatre troupe is trapped inside a black-box theatre with a psychopathic killer. The screenplay by George Eastman (writing under the pseudonym Lew Cooper), a regular collaborator with low-budget sleaze auteur Joe D’Amato (who also produced Stagefright), eschews the typical murder-mystery frame that Argento favored in so many of his thrillers, opting instead for a simpler form of suspense built around the constant threat of victimhood—that is, who will be next?

Soavi opens the film with a clever gambit in which we think we’re seeing the murder of a prostitute on a gritty street corner, only to discover as the camera pulls back that we are actually watching the rehearsal of an elaborate avant-garde musical called The Night Owl. Given that the film was made in the late 1980s, the musical is a highly eroticized pop-music-infused exercise in delirious bad taste, the kind that rivals the gaudy absurdity of the Broadway-goes-to-hell numbers that made Sylvester Stallone’s Staying Alive (1983) such a memorable embarrassment. The director, Peter (David Brandon), is both pompous and despotic as he sneers at his cast, particularly Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), who is nursing a twisted ankle and therefore doesn’t bring the sexy like Peter wants (his dismissal of her inability to properly act like a “whore” is the first suggestion that she will likely be the film’s Final Girl).

Alicia’s twisted ankle sets the plot in motion, as she slips out of the theatre with Betty (Ulrike Schwerk), the troupe’s sweet-natured prop girl, to see a doctor. In the film’s one absolutely inexcusable bit of ridiculous character behavior, Betty takes Alicia to a nearby psychiatric hospital because, as she puts it, “Psychiatrists are doctors, too.” No matter—the point is to introduce the psychopathic killer, who is being wheeled into the hospital on a gurney just before Alicia and Betty arrive, although he doesn’t stay strapped down for long.

At this point, Stagefright is in imminent danger of devolving into stupidity (or at least mind-numbing formulaic-ness), but then an interesting plot development occurs: The killer knocks off one member of the troupe, the police arrive, pictures are taken, and journalists ask questions. The troupe returns to the theatre, thinking they’re about to go home, when Peter orders all the doors locked and the key hidden before informing the troupe that he’s had a genius new idea: Why not take advantage of the tragedy, incorporate it into their already violent musical, and open several days early to ensure lines around the block of morbid would-be viewers.

Most of the actors initially rebuke this exploitative idea, until Peter reminds them that they’re all a day away from unemployment and starving, and they need a hit just as badly as he does. Thus, the members of the troupe, desperate for money and lured by the desire of seeing their names up in lights, agree to the gambit, which ensures their demise at the hands of a knife-wielding (and later axe-wielding and chainsaw-wielding and power-drill-wielding) killer. Thus, Stagefright is built on a stronger-than-usual moral backbone, with the characters literally dying for stardom, rather than the old stand-bys of illicit sex, sneaking off to smoke pot, et cetera.

Although Stagefright was made on a low budget and a tight schedule, Soavi manages to make it a memorably stylistic affair. The film is certainly gory, although he rachets up the violence as the film progresses, at first obscuring the grislier views before unleashing all means of dismemberment, decapitation, and even vivisection (interestingly, the only country where the film played in an edited version was in Italy, where it did not do well at the box office). Soavi avoids Argento’s baroque style of colored lights and canted angles, although he does make use of an often-times assaultive rock soundtrack that relies heavily on electric guitars, shrieking saxophones, and crashing drums. Much of it will sound dated to current ears, although the deployment of the tense orchestral score from Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1924) during one memorably suspenseful sequence borders on genius (Soavi exploits the fact that there is a sound system and tape recorder in the theater, so oftentimes the music we’re hearing is being played by the killer).

Some of Soavi’s camerawork feels a bit gratuitous (particularly the amped-up point-of-view shots from the killer’s perspective as he stalks through the bowels of the theater), but other times he achieves an impressive level of artistry, particularly at the climax when the killer, who has donned a giant owl mask to obscure his face, arranges all of his victims in a grisly, feather-strewn tableaux on the stage. It is a moment in which the film could have simply ground to a halt so we could admire this surreal vision, but Soavi wisely uses it to ramp up the suspense as the final survivor decides whether or not to risk being seen in order to retrieve a crucial key from literally right under the killer’s feet. At moments like this, Stagefright transcends both its low-budget economics and its well-worn genre requirements and achieves something sublime that can only be described as “Hitchcockian.”

Stagefright Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • “Theatre of Delirium” interview with director Michele Soavi
  • “Head of the Company” interview with actor David Brandon
  • “Blood on the Stage Floor” interview with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice
  • “The Sound of Aquarius” interview with composer Simon Boswell
  • “The Owl Murder” interview with make-up effects artist Pietro Tenoglio
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster and still gallery
  • DistributorBlue Underground
    Release DateSeptember 23, 2014

    Stagefright is presented a clean, sharp high-definition transfer that maintains a pleasant filmlike presentation. While it doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Dario Argento’s gaudy aesthetics, the film is replete with bold colors and packed compositions, which the transfer handles very well. Darker scenes boast strong shadow detail and inky blacks. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack gives the already bombastic musical score plenty of punch and depth, and while the dubbing of the actors isn’t always first-rate, it isn’t terribly distracting either (for those interested, the English-language version is Soavi’s preferred version, as apparently the Italian dubbing and sound mix were done with less care, which is perhaps why it hasn’t been included here).
    When Blue Underground released Stagefright on DVD back in 2007, there were virtually no supplements included. That is not the case with the new Blu-ray, which packs in more than an hour of interviews, along with the original trailer and a poster and stills gallery. There are separate new interview pieces with director Michele Soavi (19 min.), actors David Brandon (12 min.) and Giovanni Lombardo Radice (14 min.), composer Simon Boswell (18 min.), and make-up effects artist Pietro Tenoglio (11 min.), which together provide virtually everything you’d like to know about the film’s production and reception.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Blue Underground

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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