Review Date: February 21, 2002
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release date: 2/19/2002
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
With the deaths of Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, many wondered who would be the next great Italian horror director. Michele Soavi may have stepped into that title with his hugely popular film Dellamorte Dellamore (AKA Cemetery Man) in 1994. Unfortunately Soavi has not made any movies in a few years, but hopefully that will change soon. In the meantime, we are finally getting to see high quality releases of his older films. While Dellamorte is still MIA on Region 1 DVD, at least Anchor Bay is releasing some of his early work. Let's go behind the scenes of a very strange theatre production in Soavi's film debut, Stagefright.
Peter (David Brandon) is the maniacal director of "The Night Owl", an exceptionally bizarre stage production. It's a jump back to the 80s with the music and costumes you'll see here. I can't quite make out just what the show is about, other than a man in an owl costume raping, murdering, and dancing. But there's about to be just as much real violence as simulated violence quite soon.
When Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) develops an ankle problem, she and the costume girl Betty (Ulrike Schwerke) sneak out to a nearby psychiatric hospital (!) to have it looked at. They unwittingly bring an escaped lunatic back to the theater with them, and Betty is soon horribly murdered.
Peter sees the murder as great publicity, and decides to push the opening of the production ahead a few days to capitalize on the notoriety. He locks the doors of the theater and continues rehearsals long into the night. To no one's surprise but their own, the killer (wearing the owl costume from the play) is locked in the theater with them, and now they can't find the keys to get out. What follows is your typical 80s slasher, with cast members getting the hook one by one until it's one girl vs. the masked madman.
Stagefright is a promising but flawed debut for Soavi. The good things are the stylized lighting schemes and fabulous camera work. Soavi learned his craft under several Italian filmmakers, especially Dario Argento. The Argento influence is most apparent, as many scenes seem directly borrowed from Tenebrae, a film that Soavi served as an assistant director on. But it still has more than enough originality to serve as an homage rather than a rip-off.
There are some major negatives in the movie too, however, and most of that derives from the script. I'm not sure if Soavi was trying to avoid the trappings of the giallo genre, but he almost purposely omits many of the trademarks of the Italian whodunits. Stagefright loses any possible mystery as to the killer's identity not long into the film, which pushes it into the slasher category with Halloween and Friday the 13th. While it's still head-and-shoulders above almost any typical slasher film, it's just not good enough to sit beside something as good as Carpenter's 1978 classic. Thus, it really is just an average American style slice-and-dice, without the mystery and depth we've come to expect from the Italians. Sure, it's a nice touch to have an Italian flavoring to an American slasher, but I still get the feeling I've seen it all before.
One thing going in Stagefright's favor is the use of the single-night scenario. I'm always a sucker for horror films that do this, from Night of the Living Dead to Hell Night. It's such a simple plot device that's used constantly in the horror genre, only because it's just so effective. Keeping all the characters in one central location for the entire duration of the film makes for outstanding tension, and the setting (in this case the old theater) actually becomes a character itself. When morning finally comes, we feel just as relieved to have survived the night as those on screen.
Stagefright is not the epitome of Italian horror. It was clearly overshadowed by a similar theater/murder film, Argento's Opera, released the same year. And Opera is simply a much better film. But Soavi was supposed to be the next big thing in spaghetti horror (and still might be), and this is a great way to see his humble beginnings. I do prefer Dellamorte Dellamore and even The Church to Stagefright, but it's still not a terrible way to spend 90 minutes of your life.
This is another high quality transfer from Anchor Bay. It's not their best, but only because they've set the bar so impossibly high with their previous releases. Stagefright has the same "stage lighting" motif we saw in Theatre of Death, also available from Anchor Bay, though I think it's a little better in Theatre of Death. This still looks just fine though, with nice black level and minimal grain. Since it's an 80s film, neon lighting was required by law, and this disc handles the garish colors admirably. Occasionally, there are vertical lines that mar the transfer, but that's due to film elements. The presentation is widescreen (1.85:1), and enhanced for anamorphic TVs. I'm sure Stagefright has never looked this good before.
The sound transfer is a nice jump in quality for this film as well. Anchor Bay did a Dolby Digital Surround EX mix, and it's a fine one. As usual, there is no unnecessary "cooking" of the sound; instead it's just a nicely enhanced version of the original mix. Most sound and dialogue is confined to the center speaker, with the mains getting use for the oh-so-80s music, and the surrounds are used for the thunderclaps on the rainy outdoor scenes. The dialogue and the dubbing is surprisingly good, and this was one of Soavi's dissatisfactions with the film; the Italian dub supposedly wasn't as good as the English one. We don't get the Italian dub here to verify this however. The only other sound option is a plain Dolby 2.0 mix, but listen to the surround version if you have the capability.
Along with The Church, released by Anchor Bay at the same time, this disc is pretty sparse when it comes to extras. I'd love to have a commentary from Soavi, but he's been fairly reclusive since making Dellamorte Dellamore. It would be interesting to hear where the inspiration for some of his scenes came from. But with no commentary or interviews, all we have is the trailer and a Soavi bio (the same bio from The Church).
I had been wanting to see this film for a while, and I was a little disappointed by it. Of course, I'm aware that this is Soavi's debut, and he's made much better films since. So while it's interesting to see his earliest work, I don't think I'll watch this as often as say, Dellamorte Dellamore. Despite the film's shortcomings though, this is another excellent Anchor Bay release, with great sound and picture. With Soavi's rather short resume, it's nice to have his films available in such high quality.
Movie - C+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - C-
- Running Time - 1 hour 32 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- 24 Chapter Stops
- Dolby Digital Surround EX
- Dolby Digital 2.0
- Theatrical Trailer
- Michele Soavi Bio