Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Gore-Us Line

I had been meaning to see Stage Fright for awhile. I first read about it months ago as I scoured Google for any movie that might bear a resemblance to the idea I had for my script. As it was one that came awfully close, I wanted to check it out to see how a slasher (though an Italian work, the fact that there is no mystery to the killer’s identity would seem to disqualify it from being a giallo) set in a theater might operate. It does so surprisingly well, stunningly in some places.

The opening lets us know the proceedings are going to be a little bent. A dance number in a musical (strangely devoid of any lyrics) about a serial killer, with synthesized musical instrumentation that is quite 80s-licious. The next half hour or so is a pretty by-the-numbers set up for what’s going to happen: we meet our Final Girl and meet the meat, mostly actors, plus the director and a makeup girl, the killer escapes from a mental institution, and after a pretty neat first kill (a pickaxe in the mouth, it looks like) the cast is locked in the theater with him. It’s amusing, and certainly not painfully obnoxious, as can be the case in these kinds of flicks. It even distinguishes itself by 1) introducing a black character and not killing him off right off the bat and 2) having a gay character, a relative rarity even in today’s horror flicks, and a good sign that the movie’s setting—the theater, which has long been a queer stomping ground—is not just window dressing for the usual genre tropes. Too bad he’s the usual bitchy queen stereotype, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Things get going when the killer shows up, dressed in the serial killer’s owl-head costume from the play, and kills an actress onstage, just as the killer in the play is supposed to “kill” the actress. Right away there’s more going on here than usual: there’s some nice irony employed in the real kill taking the place of the stage kill, with the director even shouting, “Kill her!” (This particular reflexivity is hardly original, however. The idea goes back at least as far as the 1580s with the climax of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy) The deconstruction of violence-as-entertainment pops up again in a later kill, when a bottle of stage blood falls to the floor and shatters just before another character is bloodily dispatched, with the real blood indistinguishable from the fake. This theme is never developed beyond these little devices, but it doesn’t need to. We don’t watch these films to be lectured with subtext, after all.

Anyway. The middle section has some great details—including the use of melodramatic music during that aforementioned fake blood kill—and the characters, for the most part, avoid the usual stupid slasher clich├ęs. For all of that, though, there isn’t anything terribly suspenseful in all of it. The mood is one more of detached entertainment than any real fear. Not so with the third act. Once our Final Girl wakes up to find herself for all intents and purposes the last one standing, the movie vaults from above average to pretty damned amazing. There’s a walk through a narrow hallway that’s just downright spooky, a shower kill that actually adds a pretty good twist to what we normally expect….And then there’s the climax: absolutely crazy, a visual treat, and it’s actually intense and suspenseful. Quentin Tarantino should have swiped it by now. I’m avoiding specifics in all this because anybody who might be reading this really owes it to himself to track the movie down and check it out, it’s just that great (Netflix doesn’t carry it, so I actually had to buy it cheap from Amazon. If you and I actually interact in the real world, I’ll be glad to lend it out). Unfortunately the film inherits from its slasher forefathers a logic-defying twist ending, two, actually, but that’s still not enough to ruin it.

Honestly, check it out, even if you normally think yourself too good for these kinds of movies. The Final Girl sequence is one for the ages, and the aesthetic of the whole thing (including a schizoid soundtrack that veers between operatic melodrama, heavy metal, and synth that doesn’t jar as badly as Opera) makes it a real standout

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