Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950 thriller or the 1980 Ozpolitation serial killer chiller (that was also titled Nightmares) or even that ropey 2014 Minnie Driver/Meat Loaf theatre camp horror of the same name, 1987’s Stagefright (AKA Aquarius, AKA Delira) marked Italian film-maker Michele Soavi’s directorial debut. Having learned the ropes working as a second unit director with the likes of Joe D’Amato and Dario Argento, Soavi certainly earned his stripes with this bonkers blood-soaked slasher.
The set-up is simple but soon turns insane. A dance troupe have just one week until they open their experimental new musical production, The Night Owl, about a fictional killer and they still stink. When one of the crew members is murdered by escaped mental patient Irving Wallace (Clain Parker and Luigi Montefiori), the company’s director (David Brandon) seizes on the opportunity the tragedy will bring to the show in terms of publicity. He renames the show’s antagonist to that of the psychopathic former stage actor and locks everyone in the theatre to rehearse. However, Wallace has also snuck in and soon embarks on his killing spree.
Featuring inventive set-pieces that are both stylishly executed and gruesome to the max, Stagefright has quite rightly earned its cult status over the years. It also boasts a hauntingly terrific score from Simon Boswell, whose punk-skewed synth sound is the perfect match for Soavi’s vision. It’s like watching a feature-length music video – but with lashings of gore.
Stagefright also features one of the most bizarre-looking killers in the slasher genre – the mute owl head-wearing psycho who dispatches his victims with a drill, chainsaw and axe (in what could be read as a nod to The Driller Killer‘s Reno Miller, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s Leatherface and Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees).
Genre regulars Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead) and Barbara Cupisti (The New York Ripper, The Church) are among the cast, while Soavi also appears as one of the two cops stationed outside the theatre while all the mayhem is going on inside. The other is played by former American actor turned screenwriter and dialogue director, Mickey Knox (look him up, he’s quite the character). And here’s a shout out to Lucifer the cat who out-acts the rest of the cast.
Now one scene that really excited me was when our owl-headed psycho creates his macabre tableaux– arranging the dead actors in various poses, stuffing feathers in their mouths and smearing their blood on their faces. It reminded me of the poster for one of my favourite Vincent Price films: Theatre of Blood. Now, I wonder if Soavi was also reminded of it when he designed this scene? What do you think?
The Shameless Films 4K restoration release of Soavi’s Stagefright is a welcome addition to their other releases of the director’s horror output: Dellamorte Dellamore, The Sect and The Church, and it looks and sounds terrific. I’ll be revisiting this often.
Special Edition Features
• New 4K-restored version
• Staging the Fright: Interview with director Michele Soavi
• The Theater of Blood: Interview with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice
• The Last Performance: Interview with actor David Brandon
• English or Italian with new English subtitles and hard-of-hearing closed captions
Stagefright is available on Blu-ray and digital on-demand from Shameless Films: https://www.shameless-films.com/product/stagefright-blu-ray/
Having learned his trade from the likes of Joe D’Amato, Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam, Milan-born film-maker Michele Soavi went on to direct a quartet of Italian horrors in the late 1980s and early 1990s that have their fans and their critics.
1987’s Stage Fright was a well-executed slasher that paid homage to Argento; 1989’s supernatural shocker The Church looked great, but was a bit of a bore; 1991’s The Sect revisited Rosemary’s Baby theme with trippy results, and 1994’s Cemetery Man aka Dellamorte Dellamore combined black comedy and horror to great effect that it became the director’s finest hour.
Given Shameless’ lovingly-restored, re-mastered release of The Sect (which follows their release of The Church last year and Dellamorte Dellamore back in 2012), I thought it ripe to pay Soavi’s underrated horror a revisit…
Kelly Curtis (daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and sister to Jamie Lee) plays American schoolteacher Miriam based in Frankfurt, where a satanic cult is making headlines for a series of grisly murders being carried out across the German city.
When she knocks over the elderly Moebius (Herbert Lom), she takes him home to recuperate. But her good deed results in her being drugged with some ominous-looking fluid.
Kelly then finds herself in a waking nightmare involving a dark well and a giant demonic bird that are all linked to the Charles Manson-like cult leader Damon (Thomas Arana) – who is seen in the film’s 1970’s-set prologue in which he is promised a child born from the seed of Lucifer himself…
The Sect is certainly as imaginative as Soavi’s other features, and it benefits from some surreal visuals and hazy cinematography (by Raffaele Mertes who’d go on to do Argento’s Trauma), as well as another cool score from Pino Donaggio (Don’t Look Now, Carrie, The Howling), and, as you follow Kelly’s modern-day Alice down the rabbit hole, the film plays like a really weird acid trip – which is made all the more insane by the runaway script (in which Argento had a hand in writing).
Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen are certainly major influences, both in regards to the storyline and the themes (the Satanic Panic phenomenon was in full swing when this film was made), but Soavi does conjure up the odd cool ideas – like the demonic bird. In the end, however, it’s the score and those visuals that help paper over the cracks, while Curtis makes for an engaging heroine.
For me, however, the big highlight was Herbert Lom. Hearing his elegant gravelled tones and seeing him give a really honest and restrained performance as the mysterious Moebious was a real treat, and it was great to see him back in the genre that knew him best one last time (he retired after 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther).
THE SHAMELESS UK RELEASE
The new UK Blu-ray and DVD release from Shameless features a new 2K scan from the original negative with a running time of 117-min. It also includes the original English language audio, as well as Italian in stereo LPCM or 5.1 audio with new English subtitles.
The main extra here is Beauty and Terror, a 29-minute interview with director Michele Soavi, who discusses his association with Lucio Fulci and Joe D’Amato and the making of The Sect. Also included are trailers for The Church, Dellamorte Dellamore, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
In the US, Scorpion Releasing are scheduled to release The Sect along with The Church later this year.
We all know Rupert Everett for his foppish roles in a host of costumes romps, being GBF to Julia Roberts and Madonna in a couple of rom-coms, and for pulling on a frumpy dress to play an eccentric headmistress in the St Trinian’s movies, but did you know that back in the 1990s he also tried his hand at horror? It was in 1994’s Dellamorte Dellamore (aka The Cemetery Man), a strange brew of Italian arthouse cinema, horror comedy and Terry Gilliam-style absurdist humour, is director Michele Soavi’s adaptation of a novel by Dylan Dog comic book creator Tiziano Sclavi.
Everett plays Francesco Dellamorte, the complacent world-weary caretaker of the Buffalora cemetery, where the dead come to life seven days after burial. Francesco’s job is to terminate these ‘Returners’ before they escape over the walls. Cynical, amoral and fearful of an outside world where falling in love only ends in rejection, Dellamorte prefers the company of the (un)dead and his routine existence in the cemetery which he tends the help of his faithful assistant, Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro).
But when Dellamorte does allow himself to fall in love – with a young widow whom he accidentally kills – his enchanted world is suddenly thrown into total chaos. What follows can only be ‘experienced’ as it’s a real rollercoaster ride of quirky and surreal happenings – a sort of Groundhog Day set in a graveyard.
Dellamorte Dellamore is stunning to look at – filled with the kind of light and colour that’s reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Italian horrors of the 1960s, while the use of an actual cemetery (in Guardea, Umbria) makes it even more fantastical. Everett is a bit wet as the titular hero (he’s certainly no Bruce Campbell), but Hadji-Lazaro is a revelation (his side story is a real treat). The humour might be a bit hit and miss, but it’s the visuals that will stay with you (my favourite – the talking head in a broken TV).
Back in 2012, Shameless Screen Entertainment re-released this mini-masterpiece onto DVD and got director Michele Soavi and writer Gianni Romoli together to share their thoughts (in Italian) as a special feature. I’ve been watching it over and over every since, and revisited it again last night after checking out Shameless latest additions to their Soavi collection The Church and The Sect (check out my review real soon).
Out on DVD through Shameless Screen Entertainment