Director: Michele Soavi
Year of release: 1987
Country of origin: Italy
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD/Blu ray: Both
Tagline: "The theatre of death".
Also known as: Bloody Bird, Deliria and Aquarius
Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre
Story: A group of down on their luck actors are busy rehearsing a play about a murderer known as the night owl. This figure turns out to be an individual clad in life like feathered owl mask who targets young women (after dark presumably). During the rehearsal one of the actors Alicia injures her ankle and is secretly taken away by the costume manager to seek medical attention. Alicia ends up being taken to a mental institution instead of a regular hospital but despite her reservations the doctor they find there is more than happy to attend to the pretty young actress. While inside the building Alicia stumbles upon a man restrained in a room whom she learns is notorious murderer Irving Wallace, an actor who went mad and chopped people up on a demented killing spree. Like any good maniac Walsh proves to be a bit of an escapologist and manages to slip free of the institution, stowing himself away in Alicia and her friend’s vehicle as they return to rehearsals. While Alicia heads back inside the stage manager is attacked outside by the car which brings the police who speculate it could be the work of Wallace who is now known to have escaped. Though the actors want to go home the director persuades them to stay seeing an opportunity to change the play to be about Wallace to cash in on the interest the story will generate when news of the escape hits the media. The real Irving Wallace however has found his way into the theatre and locks himself in with the actors before donning the owl mask to hunt his newfound prey.
Good points: The owl mask looks impressive and is very distinctive. It’s instantly recognisable now within the horror genre and has become synonymous with the film.
There are some very solid deaths on display throughout with the gore effects to go along with them also being pretty good in places. Some of the kills pay homage to the genre and take inspiration from other slasher/horror mainstays. The first kill for example is a little reminiscent of the Halloween nurse in the car scene while the weapon evokes memories of My Bloody Valentine. Elsewhere we see little nods to the likes of Psycho, Slumber Party Massacre and Texas Chainsaw Massacre with some of the other kills and weapons used.
The theatre setting works really well as a backdrop for things to unfold and helps with the atmosphere. I like the acting angle it carries with it as well such as at the start where what we are watching turns out to be a rehearsal. The bickering and banter between the actors early on is also fun and the director character was good for entertainment value. The death of one of the females fairly early on is well put together as well taking advantage of the theatrical theme as initially the actors don’t realise the girl is in trouble thinking she is just acting out a role during her time of real distress.
Being Italian StageFright in a way fuses the best of slasher with the best of giallo creating an effective hybrid. While it retains the more flamboyant kills popularised in US slashers at the same time it also has a more stylish visual aspect to it more common in European films of the era. I particularly liked the way the killer staged the bodies near the end which was reminiscent of such films as Happy Birthday to me and Hell Night while at the same time the swirling feathers added a stylish touch more akin to the giallo. (Though in turn you could even say the feathers were inspired by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The music was also pretty good and blended well with the visuals to further enhance the slick style and presentation.
I felt that the characters of the two cops sitting outside were a nice touch. They offered passages of relief, a chance to catch our breath from the excitement happening inside. They broke up the tension a bit providing some lighter moments.
Bad Points: The final girl Alicia though doing a good job of jousting with the killer in a game of cat and mouse towards the end wasn’t all that likeable to me personality wise. To me she just seemed a bit of a cold fish and wasn’t as sympathetic as I would have liked.
Spoiler: The ending was overblown I thought with them doing too much. I think it would have been better if Wallace had of just grabbed Alicia’s feet at the end instead of actually getting up. She then could just have pushed the burning brazier onto him to leave him to burn to death on the floor. To me it was too unrealistic that he could actually get up and stagger around after such a big fall. And then for him to still be alive to encounter the caretaker the next day and even then they imply that the gunshot here perhaps didn’t even finish him off. Possibly this last bit was supposed to be a dream but even so I felt all this extra stuff diluted the part with Wallace falling and lessened its impact.
It would have been nice to have learnt a bit more about the history of the Irving Wallace character and his original killing spree which initially landed him in jail/the mental institution.
Verdict: An awesome horror film which successfully weaves elements of both slashers and giallo’s into one potent package. The owl mask and the theatre setting add to the appeal. It is generally a film held in quite high regard by horror and slasher fans and I would say it is definitely deserving of being held in such high acclaim. For me it is one of the best stand-alone slasher films. The final girl could have been more likeable and I felt they put a bit too much into the ending but other than that it is hard to find fault with this.
Bodycount (contains major spoilers):
1) Mental hospital worker: Killed off screen. Seen with a syringe in his head.
2) Betty: Pickaxe to the mouth.
3) Corrine: Stabbed to death as the others look on not seeing the danger thinking she is acting.
4) Ferrari: Stabbed and body later hung up.
5) Mark: Killed through a door with a long drill.
6) Brett: Killed by accident by Peter with an axe after he was mistaken for the killer.
7) Sybil: Pulled through the floor and cut in two with a chainsaw.
8) Danny: Also killed with a chainsaw. :
9) Peter: Arm cut off with a chainsaw and then decapitated with an axe
10) Laurel: Stabbed in the shower after she had gone into hiding there due to injury.
11) Irving Wallace: Shot in the head by the caretaker though it was unclear if he actually died as the very end implied he maybe wasn’t dead.