VOD film review: Stagefright (Deliria) (1987)
Slasher clichés deconstructed8
Anton Bitel | On 27, Dec 2021
Director: Michele Soavi
Cast: David Brandon, Barbara Cupisti, Mary Sellers, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Jo Ann Smith, Robert Gligorov, Piero Vida
In the Eighties, Michele Soavi had done some acting in fllms for Lucio Fulci and Joe D’Amato and quickly forged a working relationship with Dario Argento, serving as assistant director on Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987) – and debuting as solo director on the filmographic documentary Dario Argento’s World Of Horror (1985). So it was hardly surprising that Soavi’s feature debut Stagefright (Deliria) should occupy that grey area between giallo and slasher – which had at times been the stamping ground for all three of Fulci, Argento and D’Amato (who produced).
Stagefright was released in 1987, quite a while after the slasher genre had hit its peak. Once the film settles into its slash-and-dash routines, it is admittedly rather by numbers – although you might want to pay close attention to those numbers – with only the range of different tools used by the killer contributing to the variety on show. Yet it is in its meta-theatrical framing – its staging, as it were – that Soavi’s film stands out from the competition.
Stagefright opens at street level, with a prostitute smoking and walking and ignoring the proposition of a curb-crawler who – along with his roaring car – we hear rather than see. When she stops in a dark doorway, she is violently pulled inside, screaming – and as a crowd gathers, a man in an owl mask leaps out, and launches into a dance. The camera, previously close on the characters, is now wide, revealing that the street is, in fact, a set on a stage, and that all these characters are players in an elaborate piece of musical theatre: The Night Owl. This revelation is a real coup de théâtre, breaking the film’s fourth wall and leaving the viewer lost in a hall of mirrors, unsure where exactly the exit is to be found. This knowing reflexivity unsettles us, subverting any precise notion of what is narrative truth, and what is mere theatre.
“It will be sensational,” declares the director Peter (David Brandon), who, although annoyed by his cast’s poor acting, knows how to find the scandal in spectacle, and wants his production to culminate in the victim, played by Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), irrationally seducing and then raping her own murderer post mortem. Meanwhile, real spree killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) – himself an “actor who went berserk” – escapes from a nearby asylum for the criminally insane and murders the wardrobe mistress, Betty (Ulrike Schwerk), just outside the playhouse.
Recognising immediately that reality is overtaking his staged fictions, Peter sniffs a marketing opportunity. “When the newspapers hit the streets, there’s gonna be a line a block long outside our box office,” he tells his womanising impresario, Ferrari (Pierro Vida), even as he exploits the coincidence of scenarios onstage and off by giving his production’s previously anonymous killer the name “Irving Wallace”. This is further complicated when the real Irving Wallace sneaks into the studio, dons the owl mask himself – after the actor (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is put out of action – and mounts the boards once more to reenact his past massacre. As cast and director are locked in overnight with this murderous madman, there is much slicing and dicing – but is the slaughter really happening, or just more play-acting and stagecraft?
Many of the gorier tropes of horror cinema had their origins on the stage of Paris’ Grand-Guignol Theatre and, ever since the auditorium of the Paris Opera House was haunted by the Phantom of the Opera in Rupert Julian’s 1925 film of the same name, features such as Samuel Gallu’s Theatre of Death (1967), Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), Douglas Hickox Theatre of Blood (1973) and John D Lamond’s Nightmares (aka Stage Fright, 1980) have made theatres a domain of horror at its most self-referential, where death is scripted and behind the curtains the artifice shows. Soavi’s film fits right into this meta-theatrical traditional, while inspiring, for example, Jerome Sable’s similarly titled Stage Fright (2014) and Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s The Gallows (2015). The iconography of its owl man has also clearly been an influence on Lawrie Brewster’s Lord of Tears 2013) and The Black Gloves (2017).
Stagefright is very stylish, with some wonderfully mannered cinematography from Renato Tafuri. Once the killing starts in earnest, the film might seem to do little to distinguish itself from other slashers – except that here all the masks, costumes, props and practical effects that typify horror are made part of the internal dramaturgy. By the end, even the overused trope of “the killer who will not die” is reconfigured merely as a performer who is good at acting dead – and so this feature deconstructs itself and its own genre clichés, while uncannily leaving the viewer unsure of where the play stops.