Stage Fright is the kind of horror movie that some people will really love. Going in, I thought I was going to be one of them. Unfortunately, I was not.
Jerome Sable’s feature film debut as writer/director has a lot of potential right off the bat. An unexpected combination of tones—theater, horror, musical, comedy—grabs the viewer’s attention with odd curiosity. Things seem like they may play out in unexpected ways. Unfortunately, they don’t. It becomes clear very quickly that it’s a charade of a film that superficially misleads the audience into believing they’re seeing something they haven’t seen before. But this is all old hat, an encore of familiarity repackaged in a deceptively fun, but wholly uninspired and vacuous way.
The gore is loud and vibrant, as is established early on, when a theatrical production is met with a bloody backstage end, cross-cut with a little girl dancing on stage to an empty theater. These cross-cuts will play a big aesthetic role throughout the film, in what appears to be editorial provocation, but is really just dramatic diffusion—except for this opening, when it really works. Cut to Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) waking up in bed several years later. After recovering from her memory, she heads off to musical theater camp for the summer. The bus trip along the way provides the first real indication that this film is not just a musical in the theater sense, but is actually a musical in the cinematic sense. All the kids launch into a song on their way to camp, continuing the song upon their arrival, catching up with the other kids and being introduced to the movie, all in fun-if-hokey lyrical accentuation.
Once there, it’s established that the big production they’re doing this summer will be “The Haunting at the Opera”—the very production the central character has been haunted by! Auditions occur, competitive drama ensues, and large swaths of time fly by, all building up to the big opening night when, you guessed it, somebody gets murdered. The play itself is actually happening to those who are performing it! This postpones things, and the possibility of Camilla not playing the star of the play is milked for a few scenes, but I don’t have to tell you how that plays out, as much of the script is on auto-pilot, never really digging too far into the psyche’s of those who concocted this tale.
Unlike many of my peers, I don’t think realism is the only game in town. So with that, I was willing to ride along with the lofty theatrics and heightened realism of this movie. And though the film looks good, seems interesting in conceit, and there’s definitely a visionary hiding in there somewhere, but it’s all just so familiar that it cannibalizes its own inspirations and undercuts its potential. Sure, it’s a blend of interesting ingredients, but instead of creating a new dish, it just tastes like left overs of other movies.
The killer looks like Jigsaw (Saw) meets Ghostface (Scream). The film feels almost like it wants to be a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new millennium, but fails to create memorable characters or scenarios. There are sequences reminiscent of Scream and Black Swan, and homages to Carrie, Psycho, Hellraiser, and more. The structure is pretty much lifted from 42nd Street, and the premise is a variation on The Phantom of the Opera. And yet, with all that, it fails to gel in a unique or compelling way. It can’t quite get out from under the shadow of its many odes.
In the tradition of Busby Berkeley films of yore, the first two acts are all set-up for the third act—the performance of the play. But by using a formula established in the thirties, and not doing anything fresh with it, everything feels trite and uninspired. Nothing is reestablished by blending these genres, just retreaded alongside each other. It’s never really boring, it just never really goes anywhere too interesting. It’s predictable, and the drama is rushed, derivative, and nothing ever really feels at stake, despite the concern of being slaughtered or the show being ruined or someone being betrayed, etc. It’s too aware of its own cinematic habitat to forge a concrete connection outside of itself.
The musical numbers are sugarcoated sing-a-longs and Sondheim-esque dramatic sweeps. The playful tone is too boisterous to make the horror truly work. Though it’s actually pretty funny—one of its successful angles is in the execution of the comedy, the critique of the theater world is probably its strongest achievement. It’s campy, full of color and the cast are all clearly doing the type of performances they were supposed to, and they’re good at what they’re doing, but it’s too self-aware. Instead of compelling characters, they’re tongue-in-cheek caricatures. It all just seems too disingenuous, like it’s mocking everything that it’s trying to do. However, I will make a note that Meat Loaf does a pretty terrific job here, and even Douglas Smith fully commits to his minor role in an often frenzied way.
As a director, Sable has some good moves and is obviously talented, but, unfortunately, most of Stage Fright feels phoned in, and simply phony in the worst way. I think he could do a really great comedy at some point, and would like to see that. I appreciate the ambition of blending satire, the backstage musical genre, and the slasher film, but it’s too appreciative of its own presumed cleverness that it’s tonally self-destructive. It comes across as Sable’s revenge against the obnoxious “in crowd” that makes up the tribal mentality of the theater world, and so treats his characters with a condescension that is unbecoming and narratively distancing. Particularly in the way in which the killer is given his counter metal musical backdrop, which plays as artificially “hardcore” as it gets. I do like how the killer scream sings his lines, though—which was one of the few unique elements going on here. Otherwise, it was, to me, a failed attempt to strengthen the threat of the anti-musical figure of the flick. I guess when placed alongside smiling pop singers, scream singing in a kabuki mask while playing an electric guitar is considered threatening.
Stage Fright is now available on Blu-ray and DVD through Magnet