Thursday, October 31, 2019

Census Bloodbath: They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.


STAGEFRIGHT
(aka Deliria, aka Blood Bird, aka, for unknown reasons, Aquarius and/or Stagefright: Aquarius)

The SWITCHEROOOOO!  It's October, and that means it's time for Brennan Klein, of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending and Scream 101 and, above all, our hearts, to take on my usual and oft-shirked task of reviewing the Cardboard Science sci-fi schlock of a bygone era, while I get to luxuriate in the blood and guts of 80s slashers with his Census Bloodbath series, which he has been pursuing with diligent and perhaps disturbing obsession, lo these many years.

1987 (Italy)/1989 (USA)
Directed by Michele Soavi
Written by Luigi Montefiori and Sheila Goldberg

Spoiler alert: moderate verging on high


The final leg of this year's Census Bloodbath Experience brings us to Italy, in some ways the slasher form's ancestral homeland, and there we find 1987's Deliria, given an English-language release under the rather better and vastly more specific title Stagefright.  But Stagefright is not a film by any old Italian, but Michele Soavi, and Soavi is generally recognized by those who love and study Italian horror—though you'll concede such people are also just about the only ones who ever bring Italian horror up—as a luminary in his field.

This puts me at a disadvantage, because I am no great scholar (or, for that matter, great fan) of Italian horror, and while I can speak (somewhat) intelligently about American slashers,  it's far beyond the scope of this project to contextualize Stagefright into the broader wave of post-gialli Italian horror that, I think, mostly involved zombies and cannibals and zombie-cannibals, though perhaps this had petered out by 1987, which is why the star and screenwriter of 1981's Anthropaphagus, Luigi "George Eastman" "Lew Cooper" Montefiori, was by this point co-writing Stagefright instead.  This is your contextualization, then: it's loads better than Soavi's next film, The Church, in that it's never so Goddamn tedious, though it's not inconceivable that I overrate Stagefright simply because Stagefright isn't Crappy Prince of Darkness.

Besides, context maybe isn't even all that necessary, for with Stagefright we're starting in the same place Soavi himself did, with the first narrative feature he could call his own after coming off a productive half-decade spent in apprenticeship to Dario Argento, as a second unit director on Argento's films from Tenebre through the same year's Opera (which Stagefright, coincidentally or not, strongly superficially resembles), and the impression Soavi gives is that Stagefright was something handed to him as a proof-of-competence exercise anyway.  It also helps that Stagefright is an exceptionally straightforward exercise (it has, like, all the Aristotelian unities—which, incidentally, were also invented in Italy), and it's invitingly easy to get a handle on, whether your benchmark for accessibility is Suspiria or whether it's Friday the 13th.



The "hardest" thing it ever does, in fact, is also the first, with a Blow Out beginning that finds us with a cat yowling on the soundtrack, and, as we emerge from blackness, the same cat (who has obviously not been vocalizing) wandering a street, passing a pair of legs that belong to a woman that we realize is a prostitute.  Around the time we notice that this urban environment is cheaply stagebound even for a movie from this country and at this budgetary level, our hooker is dead, having been dragged into a void from which emerges a man in an enormous owl mask, who then begins to most furiously dance, while on a fire escape above a woman dressed like Marilyn Monroe wails and wails on a saxophone.  With the video for "Edge of Glory" thus inspired, the owl killer is persecuted with assaultive prancing by the crowd and, ultimately, by his own victim, but then, as quickly as it began, it ends, when the director of what we're just now grasping is a play—an "intellectual musical"—angrily orders a halt to the rehearsal because his lead actress, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) is insufficiently horny about the prospect of being brought back to life through dance so she can rape her sex murderer to death through what I think was about to become a pantomimed blowjob.  I think it's the cat that sells it, though: because a cat would not be used in a live production, he makes the street feel "real" in a way nothing else could.

This opening is something like Stagefright's thesis statement, though it's not ever perfectly clear what that thesis actually is: some sequences, and especially the very last, but also most everything involving the play's director in the middle, are oddly weighted with genuine trauma (the film concludes with a man in obvious shock at his own violent acts, along with a gaudily-symbolic broken watch), and what these parts seem to say is that our heroes have been playing with something they didn't remotely understand, and this has been their punishment; but then everything else about Stagefright seems invested in rejecting any kind of intellectual gloss whatsoever, including a metanarrative reading, insisting instead that it is the play, only better, because it's not stupidly pretentious, and because images of violence, just like images of dance, are already complete in and of themselves, requiring no thematic elaboration to make them significant, only craft to make them stylish and rad.  It also starts up the showbiz satire that only abates when everybody's dead, and it's even possible that the sheer act of disorienting the audience is, itself, the only real point.  And though it's the boldest move the film makes with that goal in mind, it's not the last. One perseveres throughout the entire runtime, a baffling score-like thing by Simon Boswell, Guido Anelli, and Stefano Mainetti that's varied and lustrous in its gestures toward rock and funk and operatic New Age electronica (sometimes it's the play's own diegetic music, sometimes not).  It always plays like an ironic counterpoint even when it's also quite eagerly adding to the headlong momentum of the film.

In any event, everything afterward is prefigured by an opening that confuses one layer of fiction with another.  After the director, Peter (David Brandon), shouts stop, Alicia sulks off, trying to ignore the backbiting from and between her catty co-stars Laurel (Mary Sellers) and Brett (Giovanni Lambardo Radice), while her other co-stars, Danny (Sting, working under the made-up stage name "Robert Gilgorov"), Sybil (Jo Ann Smith), and Corrine (Loredana Parella) likewise ignore her, because the former two are dealing with a recently-discovered pregnancy and the latter is busy reading Stanislavski, whose Method techniques are doubtless of great value to a back-up dancer in a play about a bird that strangles women for sexual pleasure.  However, Betty (Ulrike Schwerk), the costumer, is kind, and seeing that Alicia's ankle hurts so bad she can barely stand on it, let alone dance on it, contrives to sneak Alicia out from under Peter's tyranny for a half-hour to get it looked at by a doctor.  Unfortunately, the nearest hospital is a "mental asylum," that is less convincing as what it represents than any other set in the movie despite the fact that many of the sets in the movie are literally backdrops on a stage, and which boasts an egregiously exposition-prone staff who inform us that this particular asylum is the home of Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), the failed actor turned serial killer.

Wallace, as is the prerogative of all movie psychos, promptly stages a break-out and follows Alicia and Betty back to the playhouse, where Betty soon dies.  When Alicia finds her body, the cops are called but can't find the murderer, and Peter hatches a fate-sealing scheme: after a brief consultation with his gormless assistant director, Mark (Martin Phillips), and his producer, Ferrari (Piero Vida), Peter dictates some quick rewrites to take advantage of their impending notoriety, and when he tells his cast, he doesn't even pretend it's for the art.  Declaring that time is of the essence, Peter demands they rehearse all night, and, to deter anyone from leaving, locks the door—and has Corrine hide the key.  What he doesn't know is that Wallace never left, and, in the guise of the masked "Night Owl," he's found his perfect role.


Straightforward, I said.  As in many a slasher there's a lot of moving parts to describe, but Stagefright boils down to "a killer sneaks into an overnight play rehearsal and exploits the fact that one of the characters is masked to murder his way through the cast."  Except it's kind of not that, or at least not for very long, and Stagefright, while hewing more-or-less faithfully to the roadmap of a slasher film, is structurally daring to a genuinely shocking degree, and compresses the whole "...then there were none" plot into something like five minutes, culminating in what is the best scene in the film—fake-out opening or no fake-out opening—and one of the most starkly affecting scenes in any slasher ever made, as Peter shrieks at "Brett" to get onstage and hurry up and kill Corrine, and the looks on their faces as they understand what Peter's asked is the kind of heart-dropping-into-your-stomach moment that very, very few slashers ever manage, in part because you kind of half-expected Wallace to somehow already know the choreography.

What it becomes after this is more like a siege film than a slasher, one that even carries a character who's not the designated Final Girl through some kind of actual character arc, even if this arc is a little sloppy in the ending.  Stagefright can, of course, be very sloppy, though its sloppiness is of the ordinary fast-cheap-and-foreign kind: stage directions that were either unclear on the page or totally misunderstood by Soavi, that turn at least one scene on a ladder into an incoherent mess; a non-trivial amount of deeply unpersuasive set decoration (besides the mental hospital, there's Stagefright's idea of "a backroom office in America," which involves a baseball glove, an American flag, and a stack of Newsweeks they don't even try to pretend they didn't clear out from an airport newstand); and, inevitably, the bad acting and worse dubbing (though Brandon, as an ambitious shitheel of a director with some vestige of a conscience still leftover, is genuinely good, and Radice and whoever dubbed his voice is at least playing to an enjoyable version of Brett's Bitchy Gay Stereotype).  But mostly it's extremely well-done horror, with hyperviolent gore shocks that only DTV producers and foreigners could get away with by 1987, only some of which are stolen from better movies (cough Body Double), though repurposed here to good ends.  And all along it boasts a constant, throbbing sense of danger, which it only breaks from for bleak comedy, with cutaways to the pair of cops "guarding" the playhouse, whose silly, shticky banter is hilarious in context with the slaughter happening literally twenty feet behind their heads.


And you never forget it's from a student of Argento, because even someone who isn't that into Argento can tell that Soavi has learned well how to conjure up an otherworldly atmosphere out of very little money, with an emphasis on the visual over just about everything else.  There are individual shots that are transporting in their fearsome beauty: from Soavi's odd, minute-long fascination with an aquarium (the lionfish probably cost more than the rest of the mental asylum set combined); to the disorienting shots of stage mannequins with too-real eyes (though now that I mention it you're bound to be disappointed in how they are not used to the utmost); to the owl mask itself, with its own glass eyes somehow bearing a predatory gaze; to Wallace relaxing with the cat amidst his imposing death tableau and a storm of feathers; and all the way to that super-Hitchcockian shot of the key.  This, however, is just about where Stagefright goes off the rails.

Because as admirable as I find his willingness to remix and generally fuck with the structure of the slasher, Soavi does not have an infinite supply of good ideas about how to do it, something demonstrated very quickly by a Final Girl sequence that begins with thirty minutes of movie left to fill.  So, once we're done with that superb suspense setpiece beneath the playhouse stage, the movie just starts leaking energy.  It's a noble attempt at sustained tension that, sadly, stops working long before it stops, period, compounded by the obligatory second climax pulled straight from every other slasher movie you've ever seen but handled, maybe deliberately, in the most dramatically-unsatisfying way it could possibly be.

Still, what's good here is either great or very close to it, and while I am not terribly compelled by the path his career actually took, I think I would have been curious about a Soavi who did more like this.

Killer: Irving Wallace
Final Girl: Willy (James Sampson); you will notice how he is not mentioned anywhere in this review otherwise.
Best Kill: When Peter insists, repeatedly, that Wallace, in Brett's identity-obscuring costume, kill Corrine, and then asks, "What's with the knife, Brett?"
Sign of the Times: Splendid saxophone music.
Scariest Moment: Oddly, a shot of the black space beyond a sheet of rain that my brain tricked me into thinking had taken on a humanoid shape—right before that black space kills Betty.
Weirdest Moment: When I realized that the playhouse has a workshop with all manner of tools, including a power drill, yet these feebs are worried about how they're going to unlock a door.
Champion Dialogue: "Was I called?" "Every name in the book, honey."
Body Count: 11
1. An orderly gets a taste of his own medicine, and also an air bubble, via his carotid artery
2. Betty eats a pickaxe
3. Corrine gets real dang Method
4. Ferrari is stabbed and hung like a slab of meat
5. Mark is Body Doubled
6. Brett or possibly Brett's corpse is axed in a case of mistaken identity
7. They try to save Sybil after she's fallen through a rotted floorboard, and pull back most of her, which I guess is pretty good, though most of her organs fall out of the new hole in the new bottom of her torso
8. Danny spies a little black spot on the sun today, turns out it was a chainsaw
9. Peter is dismembered via chainsaw and then his own axe (and has a final quip that would have been best left undubbed)
10. Laurel gets the most unglamorous but perhaps the queasiest kill, as she's stabbed next to a hidden Alicia in a shower stall
11. Wallace gets shot right between the eyes, right between the eyes, right between the eyes, right between the eyes, right between the eyes, right between the eyes, right between the eyes, shut up, Willy
TL;DR: Stagefright is a gonzo hybrid of Italy and America that slavishly recreates the beats of the American slasher formula, but never the rhythm, and this is good most of the time and bad some of time, but is always impressive.
Score: 7/10

2 comments:

  1. That Stanislavski dig is probably my favorite part of this review, but I can attest that every single person from top to bottom in a stage production is exactly as pretentious as you imagine theater people to be, so it's not an inaccurate portrayal by any means...

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    1. My favorite part of researching the review was learning that the classical/Aristotelian unities were codified by Gian Giorgio Crissino in the 16th century, and he was basically just using "Aristotle" as a brand name. The fun part was learning that as the ideas took root in France, they were rebelled against by the Romanticists, which led to riots and fistfights amongst the movements' respective partisans at several performances. The upshot is, geeks with toxic fandoms isn't new.

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