Italian horror cinema in the late 1980s seemed manifestly moribund. Many of the industry’s pioneers and guiding lights had either passed away (Mario Bava), were entering upon an era of increasingly diminishing returns (Dario Argento), or else found themselves consigned to the realm of TV-movie productions (Lamberto Bava). One of the brighter spots to be adduced was the emergence of Michele Soavi, a talented filmmaker who had apprenticed under both Argento and the younger Bava. Soavi’s debut film, Stagefright, is an inordinately stylish and often hilarious slasher film that occupies the giddy middle ground between earnest emulation and lacerating lampoon. Over the course of the next decade, Soavi would unleash The Church, a hallucinatory gothic concoction resounding with echoes of Amando De Ossorio’s Blind Dead series and the stories of M. R. James, as well as the equally deranged Cemetery Man, whose Italian-language title, Dellamorte Dellamore, better captures the film’s deliriously sensuous amalgamation of love and death.
Stagefright opens with a bit of cinematic misdirection reminiscent of vintage De Palma: An assault on a fishnet-clad streetwalker (Barbara Cupisti) by an unseen assailant morphs into a jazz-fueled modern dance recital leaps and bounds weirder than anything Martha Graham ever envisioned. (So if those mean streets seem patently absurd, prefabbed down to their fussily arranged piles of trash and carefully scrawled graffiti, that’s because they are.) The sudden revelation of the anonymous “killer,” who executes a mean pas de chat while wearing an enormous owl mask, is wickedly amusing, as is a bit of stage direction for a subsequent scene wherein “the victim rapes her own murderer.” This ill-starred off-off-Broadway production is entitled The Night Owl, and it’s described by one character as “a kind of intellectual musical,” but All That Jazz this is not.
Stagefright is closer to Fame as imagined by Agatha Christie in Ten Little Indians mode. Set almost entirely within the cavernous theater where The Night Owl is being rehearsed, aside from a handful of cutaways to the exterior, where it always seems to be raining in properly photogenic fashion, Stagefright proceeds to isolate and execute its batch of bitchy show-biz types with industrious alacrity. Dictatorial director Peter (David Brandon) decides to capitalize on the murder of prop girl Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) at the hands of deranged actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) by having the remaining dancers locked into the theater and incorporating Wallace’s case history into his storyline. Talk about your killer ideas.
Wallace sets to work whittling down the cast using every murderous implement in the slasher guidebook, and at this point effects artist Pietro Tenoglio really goes to town with some wonderfully old-fashioned latex-and-syrup makeup effects. Because the tone is often almost gleeful, these ultra-gory kills are as liable to elicit incredulous guffaws as any legitimate fear and loathing. Of course, there’s the requisite finale involving a tableau of victims along the lines of Happy Birthday to Me, though in this case the overt theatricality is built into the narrative and thus not entirely gratuitous. Stagefright may be a paradigmatic example of the calling card film, adding up to little more than an exercise in style meant to establish a filmmaker’s bona fides, but at least this one happens to have been accomplished with sufficient panache (not to mention with its tongue planted acidly in cheek) as to render it supremely and salaciously enjoyable in its own right.
Stagefright benefits considerably from the bump to Blu-ray. Blue Underground’s 1080p/AVC transfer removes some of the speckling and other blemishes that were found on their 2007 DVD edition, punches up the primary colors, and delivers on deep, dark black levels. The 5.1 surround track is also an improvement overall, even if some of the murkier dialogue (looped afterward per Italian industry standards) remains difficult to decipher. Simon Boswell’s incredible synth score and many of the ambient sound effects vault into the foreground with all the vigor of that owl-masked dancer launching himself out of a darkened doorway.
Blue Underground fleshes out their earlier barebones DVD with almost 90 minutes of on-camera interviews with cast and crew. Director Michele Soavi discusses his early work as an assistant director for Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, getting tapped to direct by producer Joe D’Amato (aka Aristide Massaccesi), and his decision to backslide (at least according to D’Amato) by doing second unit work in order to collaborate with Terry Gilliam on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Soavi goes into detail about the antiquated camera equipment and how he got those remarkable shots with the key for the film’s climax. Actor David Brandon reminisces about working in the Italian film industry, interacting with some of the nonprofessional actors in Stagefright, and playing opposite Soavi in the Joe D’Amato-produced Caligula: The Untold Story, in which he got to slice out Soavi’s tongue. Actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice talks about stealing some early roles from Soavi, rewriting lines for his character in Stagefright (an openly gay character he pithily describes as a "bitchy American"), refers to Dario Argento’s presence on the set of films he produced as "cumbersome," and reveals why he nicknamed Soavi "Peter Pan." Makeup artist Pietro Tenoglio describes challenging work conditions (long days, intense heat), designing the owl mask, making a "female" cast of David Brandon for his decapitation scenes, and the good old days of "artisanal spaghetti effects." Finally, composer Simon Boswell contributes a lively overview of his history providing music for Italian genre films, describes how some directors would slap his compositions haphazardly onto their films, and recounts his contributions to some Papal performance art (the result, he says, comes across like "an Ecstasy-fueled rave"). The disc closes out with the theatrical trailer and a still and poster gallery.
Birds of a fiendish feather will flock to Blue Underground’s sterling new Blu-ray transfer of Michele Soavi’s Stagefright, especially given the gaggle of bonus materials new to this presentation.