Cunning. Brutal. Fantastic.
Is StageFright any good?
Boasting some clever conceits and a set of characters who conspire to put a new spin on the conventional clichés, Michele Soavi’s extravagant ’87 slaughter-fest, StageFright, wears its bloody influences proudly on its sleeve.Hitchcock and Argento are the most obvious references in this limb-lopping tale of an escaped nutter laying siege to a bunch of bickering actors trapped inside a warren-like theatre. But there are also nods to Carpenter, Bava and the American slasher cycle. Not as gory as many like to think, this still offers up a top notch bodycount as deranged former thespian Irving Wallace dons an enormous owl mask and embarks on a literal critics’ rampage, dispatching the doomed production’s cast and crew with pickaxe, drill, knife, chainsaw and fire-axe, carving a crimson swathe through their rehearsals.Visually striking, this is Soavi’s most respected offering besides Dellamorte Dellamore, and whilst no heyday Dario, brilliantly cranks up suspense with some inspired set-piece mayhem. Indeed, the film is most memorable for its now classic sequence in which the killer redresses the stage with prosaically positioned victims, whilst battered and bloodied Barbara Cupisti attempts to retrieve the key to her escape from the floorboards beside his feet. It’s an insanely bravura sequence of purest Grand Guignol - breath-taking to behold and heart-stoppingly intense.
John Morghen – possibly the most screen-butchered actor in Italian film history – and David Brandon, as the single-minded and contemptible production director, provide dependable focal points for a squabbling cast of ubiquitous screamers.
Cunning. Brutal. Fantastic.
StageFright Blu-ray Picture Quality
Michele Soavi’s extravagant slaughterfest, StageFright (1987), makes its long-awaited debut on UK Blu courtesy of Exposure Cinema, who deliver it with an AVC 1080p transfer that they cite as being restored from vault elements. Stage Fright is 1.85:1 and now presented exactly as originally intended. Previous versions were always shown in the wrong aspect ratio and the US BD release also has framing issues.
Early word about this limited edition release suggested great things. I think you should temper those expectations just a little.
Whilst the transfer is clean, reasonably crisp and shorn of print damage and, best of all, any overt digital manipulation, the image is not as gloriously vibrant, nor as detailed as some have been keen to indicate. For a film that revels in its baroque and colourful setting, fashion-disaster clothing, and lashings of neon-bathed gore, this is not all that scintillating to behold. Yes, I am being picky. I admit that. But I know that this was a deliberate and very painstaking exercise in flamboyant lighting and photography, with Bava and Argento’s radiant nightmares being the template to which Soavi and his DOP, Renato Tafuri, aspired. The image is colourful, don’t get me wrong. But it looks dated, downplayed and somewhat drab at the same time.
Skin tones are frequently dreary and pallid, the admittedly understated gore (even with drillings and decapitations etc) lacks visual bite, and primaries refuse to burst forth. You may not agree, but I feel that the gaudy aesthetic is a little too watered-down. There is also some fluctuation going on. Most noticeably on Brett’s (John Morghen) face when he slides costumes along the rack as he searches for his owl get-up. This is slight, but it is there.
This is a film in which he takes the theatrical angle of the setting and visually runs with it
The proper aspect allows Soavi’s compositions to breathe without awkward head-space, or cropping, and his set-pieces now beg to be scrutinised and roved-about in. This is a film in which he takes the theatrical angle of the setting and visually runs with it. Lots of shots, therefore, are designed to be filled with the cast, either situated right to left across the stage or positioned in scattered array, deep and near, as they huddle behind locked doors or explore shadowy new areas. In this respect, the director emulates John Carpenter’s magnificent use of Dean Cundey’s photography. Depth, as a knock-on effect, is nicely enhanced with some degree of dimensionality brought to the image.
Some scenes and individual shots involving the killer, in his immense feathered mask, pursuing his victims, parading about the stage, or merely sitting down and surveying his handiwork are often quite majestic in their use of contrast, lighting and shadow. His first proper appearance – a tremendously Hichcockian moment in which we know something horrendous that the characters are blissfully unaware of – brilliantly plays with darkness and stage lights. Thankfully, the black levels are deep and ominous, and the lighting, for the most part, splendidly unsettling.
When Cupisti’s beleaguered and resourceful Alicia is moving covertly beneath the stage, shafts of light from above provide a spectral ambience to her plight. A range of moody blues and purples are also employed. Some might argue that there is occasional crushing taking place, but I’m never too worried about such things … and the shadows looked fine to me. The film plays out with “pop group” colours and rock video gaudiness and whilst I wish the transfer’s palette had been more saturated to really go wholeheartedly with this look, the intent to provide a bright and kaleidoscopic retaliation to the shadowy backdrops is still keenly witnessed. There is no smearing or banding to mire the show.
The image is never overly grainy, and the texture remains consistent and natural. Detail in close-ups can be very good indeed. Seeing the glint in the killer’s eyes as they peer out of the owl mask, for example. But middle to background definition isn’t all that grand. The floating feathers that flutter beside Cupisti’s face, and then all around the stage during Wallace’s showstopper are picked out nicely in closer view, though a little less precisely in longer shots. Edges are natural and have not been horribly sharpened.
Given Soavi’s meagre budget and lack of credentials, his debut movie was hardly ever going to look as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as, say, Suspiria, or Inferno, although these were clearly the visual feasts that he was aiming to emulate. This UK Blu, while nowhere as ravishing, goes some way to showcasing the decorative flair and eye for the viciously avant-garde that he would present in The Church and The Sect and, especially Dellamorte Dellamore.
StageFright Blu-ray Sound Quality
Exposure’s disc carries a LPCM stereo track.
Soavi’s cast, unlike their ancestors in many earlier Italian massacres who spoke in their native tongues (usually German, French and Spanish alongside the Italian), are all speaking English on-set, so the typical bugaboo dubbing that we know and love is not in quite as much evidence as usual. Dialogue is, therefore, much more in-synch, give or take some occasional lapses. Although a note about the dialogue in the accompanying booklet mentions uneven audio levels with regards to the cast speaking a language they were not used to, I didn’t encounter anything that sounded untoward in this department.
Simon Boswell’s score goes for the Argento approach too. Goblin-esque rock assails the soundtrack, albeit with a more distinctly 80’s synth vibe to it, but his actual suspense cues are good, and these can shimmer and float with fine balance on the track. The tour de force is, of course, the infamous death-party on stage sequence, and the pounding use of classical source music (originally composed for Eistenstein silent epic, Strike) and then Boswell’s own eerie, dreamlike cadence is fantastically hypnotic. The original lossless track delivers this superbly with power, clarity and searing intensity, ensuring it remains the audio highpoint.
Width across the stereo image is agreeable without too much directional showboating
Width across the stereo image is certainly agreeable without too much directional showboating. Elements are cleanly separated, with the emphasis fairly on being up-front and punchy. Little effects – footfalls, chinking metal, and a cat’s meow or the feline slurping at a spilled intestine – are certainly catered-for, but this is not a track, nor a sound design that wants to be subtle. The rainstorm that cascades outside all night long has moments of fixated clarity for incessant dripping and for the gurgling of rising pools in the muddy ground. Sound effects for the various kills boast axe-thuds, squishy stabbings, the whirring of a drill and a chainsaw, a gunshot and a nice, spine-snapping impact or two. All of these are conveyed without a hitch. Bass levels are not stridently tested, but are certainly able to deliver when it matters.
There is a problem with this track that nobody else seems to have mentioned (that I’ve come across anyway) and that is a rather gruffly obvious crackling that runs, broken and wavering in and out, for few minutes towards the end of the first act, around half an hour in. It is also apparent on the accompanying DVD in this set so, naturally, I went to check my other previous editions of the film … and, to my horror, discovered that they were all VHS and Beta!!!!! I had no earlier DVD???? Huh? Well, anyway, I do not recall this crackling on the soundtrack (has it really been that long since I’d seen the film?) and I found it quite aggravating to hear it on this lossless track. Curiously, this also occurs during the aforementioned colour fluctuation. Of course this was probably inherent to the source stems – sounding like a scratched record - but this is precisely the sort of thing that should be justifiably cleaned-up and removed. The Blue Underground edition has a 5.1 remix track as well as the stereo, so it might be interesting to see how their audio deals with this troublesome element.
StageFright Blu-ray Extras
Exposure’s release packages both a Blu-ray and a DVD.
They start things off with a gloriously gory and extremely lengthy trailer for their forthcoming release of Zombie Holocaust (aka Dr. Butcher MD), the US Blu release of this hilariously naff gut-chomper I have previously reviewed.
We get almost 30 mins looking back over the film in a fine retro-doc entitled A Blood-stained Featherstorm. Here we meet actress Barbara Cupisti who, remarkably, is even more attractive now than she was back in 1987 when she made the film. She appears here in a lengthy interview about her arrival on the Soavi scene and comes across as incredibly vibrant and bubbly. Soavi, himself, talks about his background and his passion for horror and the fantastique. Cinematic enfant-terrible, George Eastman, or Luigi Montefiori (ghastly star of Absurd and Anthropophagous Beast), co-produced and co-wrote the film. It is nice to hear his recollections. Mary Sellers, who played one of the performer/victims also airs her memories of the shoot. This is all in Italian with English subtitles. A good, amusing and quite honest look back.
Italy’s long-suffering John Morghen, aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice, has 20 minutes to discuss working with Michele Soavi, his theatrical and creative career and his attitude towards the art in a frank and forthright interview called Giovanni’s Method.
Notorious cult filmmaker Joe D’Amato (Absurd) gets a feature entitled Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut, which runs for 54 mins and was originally recorded in 1997. Joe, looking incredibly similar to Robert De Niro, is extensively interviewed about his wild career in Italian exploitation. Lots of clips from mad movies illustrate his points.
A Critic’s Take brings forth Blighty’s best-known guru of Italian Horror Cinema, the redoubtable Alan Jones to talk up his love and affection for StageFright. A good piece that delivers some interesting information about Soavi’s production and its connections to Argento, as well as how the film was received, this is still bogged-down with some unnecessary clips to pad it out. Good … but better with a bit of pruning.
We have an Art and Stills Gallery, the film’s original trailer and a curious VHS era nostalgia trip which is nice, but a tad superfluous, called Revenge of the Video Cassette.
The Cut Version Comparison details the surprisingly scanty censor-snips that the early Avatar cassette release had, running the few moments of slaughter that suffered side-by-side with their original, and now reinstated versions. I will stress again that StageFright, even uncut, is not especially nasty, especially when held against the splatter classics and, to be fair, a lot of horror material made recently. The drill-bit (pun intended) is an extremely weak kill.
The accompanying Video Chillers collector’s booklet is a disappointment. Ostensibly centred on the film in question, this is mostly a round-up discussion of the many entries in the stalk n slash genre and the state of the Italian Giallo at the time. If you are fan of all this – and if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be buying this release – you will learn very little here. Points for the reproductions of StageFright’s many artwork variations.
Though there is little here to return to, this is not a bad selection of supplements. Personally, I would have loved a commentary track from the likes of Alan Jones, as well.
StageFright Blu-ray Verdict
With StageFright, Michele Soavi (who even cameos as a James Dean-infatuated cop) injected new blood into the ailing stalk n slash genre. His dazzling visual style, exuberant violence and overpowering use of Simon Boswell’s pounding score definitely hail from his mentor in Argento, but he is able to deliver all this with a youthful swagger that gives the mayhem a more MTV sensibility – certainly enough to distinguish his style from his influences. He plays with theatricality, cleverly manipulating his audience and bending as many conventions as he adheres to. Alarmingly 80’s in vogue, and somewhat classical in terms of a one-by-one pick ‘em off, its visceral aplomb and gutsy shock-value are just as powerful now as when blood-starved hack-fans first discovered it.
It's an old school slasher, smothered in Argento sauce and presented with 80’s neon-splashed sass
Ably taking the bloody baton from previous masked madmen (The Phantom of the Opera, Shatner-faced Michael Myers, hockey-visaged Jason Vorhees, Leatherface, Motel Hell’s pig-head etc), our owl-bonced nut-job carves an iconic image that takes slaughter on an agreeably surreal tangent. That glorious set-dressing, get-the-key sequence is a real stand-out that surely warrants repeat viewing even on its own, but the film does build momentum towards a nicely overwrought and warped finale, with its appreciative nod to Tenebrae. There are inconsistencies and silly bits aplenty … but what would a glorious Giallo flick be without such things?
Exposure’s limited release is very welcome and fans should definitely pick it up. The transfer is good, though not as dazzling as some have claimed, but the audio issue should definitely have been rectified. It’s an annoyance, though not a deal-breaker. The extras are reasonable, with the making of and the interviews being the best.
Soavi’s directorial debut is an old school slasher, smothered in Argento sauce and presented with 80’s neon-splashed sass. And it kicks the bloody bits off his mentor’s movies post Opera, for sure.
Although stated as being region B, the disc is actually region-free, making it a worthwile investment if you are over-seas.
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