Stage Fright (1987)
Sometimes, the test of a good director is not whether a director can make a great film from a good script. Rather, it is whether they can make a good film from a mediocre script. Lots of folks have made a decent Hamlet (see Michael Almereyda's Hamlet (2000)), but it took Julie Taymor to turn Titus Andronicus into a great film. With this in mind, we turn to Stage Fright (aka Aquarius, Delirium), the debut film from Neapolitan horror stalwart Michele Soavi. After appearing in numerous fright films (City of the Living Dead, Phenomena) and assisting both Dario Argento and Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D'amato), Soavi was given a chance to make his own scare flick. Produced by Massaccesi and scripted by veteran actor and screenwriter Luigi Montifiore (aka George Eastman), Stage Fright was hardly anyone's dream project.
The set-up is familiar: a group of twenty-somethings are trapped in an isolated location, while a madman whittles them down one by one. In this case, it is a troupe of actors, led by petulant director Peter (David Brandon). When dancer Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) injures her leg, a quick trip to a local hospital leads to a viscous murder. Determined to have his play ready for opening night, Peter locks everyone in for an all night rehearsal. Of course, the killer is locked in with them.
From this tired premises, Soavi molds a terrific little suspense film. Equal parts thriller, droll backstage comedy, and splatter flick, Stage Fright starts strong and keeps up the pace until the end. It best moments recall the wicked wit of Hitchcock: the cat-walk scene, the scene where the only key to get out is in the worst possible place. Soavi is helped by a strong cast. Led by Cupisti (The Church, Opera) and Brandon (Foto di Gioia), and featuring the irreplaceable Giovanni Radice (aka John Morgern) in a swishy theater bitch-queen performance.
Slick and stylish, Stage Fright is a great debut from director Soavi. Despite the clichéd, and by 1987, thoroughly overdone premise, Soavi is game. Given the chance, he proves himself an adept student of mentor Argento and the artistic superior of producer Massaccesi. Perhaps not a vital film in the stalk-and-slash genre, it is certainly one of the most enjoyable, and an ostentatious start for a director who would become a leading light in Italian horror.