|(For the Hugo Stiglitz Italian Horror Blogathon)|
So it's a dark and rainy night: a fire in a trash can on the street casts flickering shadows; graffiti adorns the alleyway walls; a prostitute in a weird feathered hat walks down the street and is suddenly grabbed from behind. The second floor windows hold agape witnesses and then... a crazy killer dressed in a giant owl head comes diving out in a swirl of jazz blown by a Marilyn look-alike's fire escape sax. We're in an old rehearsal space way outside of the city, wherever that is, preparing a sleazy pre-Giuliani Times Square-style dance-tacular (there were plenty of them in the 70s-80s) and it's a dark and stormy night.
The director, Peter (David Brandon), gets angry because--while he's confident the public will swill it up--star Alicia (Barbara Cupisti--in Argento's OPERA the same year) doesn't quite get it. The fat little producer meanwhile worries they'll get closed down by the cops (Italy has a long history of 'regional' censorship). Alicia sprains her ankle. How cliche, notes Peter, which is so cliche of him to note. Permission denied!
The oversize theatricality of it all helps amp the suspense and post-modern refraction all at the same time: in addition to the lecher producer there's the bitchy but nurturing gay dancer (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), the catty slut-and-comer (Mary Sellers), a suddenly pregnant young couple determined to make it work and not "get another abortion" and a black cat (Lucifer) crossing the superstitious wardrobe mistress's path. Turns out Peter was right not wanting to let her leave, as the hospital she goes to turns out to be a mental institution, and a notorious axe murderer has just been admitted, tied to a stretcher... and he and Alicia share one of those uncanny 'see you soon, Clarice' glances as she passes his cell in the hallway, like they get a weird glimmer of their own killer-final girl pair bonding to come. And meanwhile that rain pounds down, turning everything dark and atmospheric, so thick and heavy someone could be getting killed ten yards away and you wouldn't see or hear them.
This all may smack of ROTM slasher antics, but as soon as the escaped killer first appears in the giant owl's head, walks nervously on stage and actually strangles and stabs the hot girl twirling around on cue, his designated victim, while Peter yells encouragement, oblivious. The cops have already been there, a cop car waiting outside in the pouring rain may as well be a mile away; Peter knows headlines are inevitable so use the publicity and bite the bullet on moral conscience and try to get the show up and running in three days (he even lies and says the wardrobe mistress was an actress, to make it more meta for the papers). He knows there's no such thing as bad publicity. Man, it's so meta I can imagine seeing this in a theater at night in Times Square and being afraid to turn around in my seat lest I be slashed across the eyes. It feels way more real a threat than, say, worrying demons are going to run out of the screen in Lamberto Bava's Demons 2. When what's on stage is so close to what's going on around you that you can't tell if you're seeing a movie, or are just an extra acting like a spectator in a theater and about to get strangled from behind, then you know it's going to be a bumpy ride and there's no seat belt left to fasten. It's been sliced off by the grindhouse slasher, or a junky sitting behind you cutting your pockets out of your jacket with a razor blade, as I've heard was the style of the time.
And I know the feeling: years ago I was studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor and was interning at Bellevue when one evening I dislocated my kneecap playing a Jim Morrison-esque drunk rock star in an extended improv on the crumbling Bellevue theater stage. None of the fellow actors--all residents-- thought I was really hurt, just acting up a storm, spooking the pigeons in the rafters as I screamed and heard it as from a distance, realizing now I understood the concept behind torture, and the meaning of the phrase 'white hot pain' - because my vision was going white the pain was so intense - I've never felt anything remotely like it before or since, thank god. Still, even with my knee cap shifted all the way to the side, my fibula and tibia no longer connected, still the Bellevue Drama Therapy Dept. patients onstage with me in the improv only feigned calling an ambulance in feigned concern, and soon one of them jumped onstage to be the doctor. The pain was so bad I had to laugh at how inauthentic my screams sounded to me, like John Barrymore cackling at the irony that he couldn't act 'real' pain when it finally struck him.
There should always be a safe word, even in death.
Soavi gets that, the safe word element as a level of sophistication that allows for a Hithcockian depth of enjoyment without the bad vibes and downer tawdriness of 90% of films like his; he wants to bring in the Godard metatexuality, using every opportunity to fuck with the fourth wall, to collapse the safe word boundary in ways not seen since the musical numbers of Busby Berkeley spilled off the stage and off the roof screaming to the ground below. The only door key out of the NITE OWL rehearsal building begins to loom like a giant sculpture mirage; running killer POVs follow electrical cord paths through the theater as if on wings of a dream; weird mannequins gawk idly in the foreground stage right, and you don't put it past Soavi to substitute real actresses in mannequin poses in some shots and not even call attention to it, or having someone below camera level slowly moving them side to side, too slow for the human eye to register; when Barbara Cuispi's shirt is the exact same light green as the backstage dressing room hallway, like; a big no-no in non-camouflage wardrobe that its broken rule aspect is both funny, reassuring and gently tension alleviating, maybe in ways I can't explain; Peter toots blow but does it on the sly so we barely notice if we don't know what doing blow on the sly looks. Soavi buries gems all over; a reel-to-reel tape of the Bernard Herrmann-ish musical score blasted (by the killer) at inopportune times makes Peter's determined vengeance seem like a Roman opera; a broken bottle of stage blood crashes to the ground right when a guy gets drilled through the door, so the two red run together. We don't just see the cops oblivious in the rain but Soavi plays with trying to get us to care or be scared for them as they delve merrily into cop cliche; Soavi himself one of the cops - looking at the cover of a book on James Dean and preening his hair like him 'don't you think I look a little like James Dean"
The initial effect of all this is giddy confusion, with actors and designers scurrying all over the place and the genres and layers of meta-textuality muddled in ways that are genuinely scary, bleeding off the screen into our dark living rooms, the same way all the slasher references made SCREAM scary, because horror movie trivia and overlapping confusion was such an integral part of our shared film heritage that we felt vulnerable watching. Our safe zone, the couch, was being directly threatened. Where did the VCR playing HALLOWEEN in SCREAM's climactic party end and ours playing SCREAM begin? If we said we knew for sure, we were just whistling Moby in the dark.
This is certainly true of the original HALLOWEEN as well, where the kids watch THE THING, and FORBIDDEN PLANET (see my analysis here) on TV while Michael skulks. Both THING and PLANET are relatively comfortable and unscary, 'comfort films' for me and I'm sure Carpenter as well, so the effect of seeing them be seen by unwitting kids (like us) in such an imperiled setting is chilling --the realization that we're most vulnerable to attack when watching a movie we feel protects us.
That kind of intertextual realism is still underused in horror cinema, as if its so obvious it slips their minds. Soavi doesn't name check other films -- e's way too subtle for that, so subtle I'm not even sure some of the post-modern brilliance I glean in his films is intentional, and that only adds to the luster.
The only way it could be better is if it ended at dawn (like THE WARRIORS, OVER THE EDGE and SCREAM), but other than that there's little fault to find, especially not in the amazing performance of Barbara Cupisti. We can read her thoughts as they flicker across her face as easily as if it they're in an old lady font, yet she's never overacting. She's a frickin' genius.
Then... Just when you think it can't get any weirder or cooler, the killer, thinking everyone is dead, takes the stage. Man, oh man. I like that he treats Lucifer the Cat nicely, and the cat rewards him by... well I wouldn't spoil the tale but anyone who likes their mind screen rich in bright reds, purples and dark grays, and doesn't mind their soul becoming temporarily stained and bent out of shape like the first time they saw DEEP RED, then Soavi's StageFright (the title's actual spelling) is the girl for you. There's even a great little wink trick ending that's just enough weird to blow your mind figuratively, diegetically, and metatextually, leaving you with shaky hands eager to applaud... even though you're all alone and it's three AM and you don't want to arouse the attention of whatever's flapping outside your chamber door... maybe it'll just go away if you don't turn on the lights or make a sound... but you know how night owls love a captive audience.