Friday, 19 April 2013


Originating from a background where he was surrounded by creativity it’s perhaps no accident that Michele Soavi wound up in constructing images himself of some kind - early on as a painter but after developing an interest in cinema he moved on to acting and, later still, assistant directing. It was from many of cinema’s veterans that he learnt most of his behind-the-camera skills, people like Dario Argento, Aristide Massaccesi, Lamberto Bava, and even Terry Gilliam. His own directorial debut came together, therefore, quite late in his career. Owning it on Avatar’s video cassette for a few years I once thought Stagefright (sometimes known as Aquarius or Deliria) was a fairly average slasher, but at the time I was a lot less informed and less educated in the darker genres than I am nowadays. Viewing it now is a different matter. It outlines a simple scenario but one that’s nonetheless powerful in many respects: a theatre director who’s obsessed with extracting the best performances from his actors is selfish in the extreme, displaying little or no concern for the welfare of the people if the production is suffering. Alicia, one of his leading ladies, damages her leg in rehearsal and she heads out the back door to seek some medical advice at the first place she and her friend come across - a psychiatric hospital. Whilst obtaining a personal touch from one of the doctors there the two girls don’t realise that one of the inmates has overcome a guard in his escape, only to hitch an unexpected lift back to the theatre with them. Going back to the car in the storm Alicia’s friend is butchered by the lunatic before he apparently disappears. The body is found (pick axe nicely implanted through her gaping mouth) before the police show up to investigate and subsequently keep watch. Spotting an opportunity for some media attention the director decides to rename the killer in his play after the lunatic who’s responsible for the real-life murder, and persuading his actors that it will be beneficial to their career he gets one of the girls to lock the door and hide the key. Of course the killer hasn’t disappeared but rather hidden himself inside the place and the only person who knows where the key is quickly becomes the second victim: now they’re all trapped in there and the killer has free pickings of the bunch while a rain storm rages on outside.
The premise itself is exciting - a group of people locked in an inescapable building with a stealthy and insane murderer, and it’s largely on that that the success of the film rests. The opening of the film once comprised my principle memory from the video days and it’s surely one of the corniest openings in cinema history, and not a good advertisement for what’s to come or what Soavi is really capable of. Having been cut in the UK (by the original distributor I believe) the film in its uncensored form is also much more violent than I was previously aware of, some of the attacks almost inducing a wince in more mature viewers. The movie doesn’t follow all of the conventions of giallo but there’s enough there to consider classifying the film as such, although we don’t delve too much into the history of the killer or why his mind is so irreversibly twisted, the explanation of which usually constitutes a giallo’s final act. It might be more accurate to describe the result as a slasher movie, though the two sub-genres have always been close cousins in reality anyway - one a more psychodynamic, stylistic precursor to the other. Soavi does go unnecessarily overboard during the film’s final ten minutes or so, including a pretty silly final shot, otherwise aside from that and the embarrassing opening there’s a lot of material here that would highlight Soavi as the new talent to watch in Italian splatter at the time. He later compounded this auspicious promise with The Church, The Sect, and Dellamorte Dellamore, but would subsequently all but recede from the eyes of the fans. Utilising his acting abilities briefly, he also makes an appearance as one of the police officers in Stagefright; Soavi was a recognisable face in Italian genre movies. The score itself really picks up the pace of some of the chase sequences, however Demons fans might notice a remarkable similarity to the second instalment of Lamberto’s franchise - that’s because composer Simon Boswell was the primary driving force behind both soundtracks. The Stagefright score is not a direct rip-off from Demons 2 but the style is unmistakably the work of the same man. Boswell has since proved himself to be a highly prolific and talented artist, later enhancing many films through his music compositions, for example Shallow Grave and Dust Devil. John Morghen fans will be pleased to know he appears in Stagefright as an amusing stereotype gay - plus he’s brutally murdered yet again, as in just about any of his genre appearances - City of the Living Dead’s drill through the brain anyone? For a thrill trip through homicidal violence and cat/mouse chase sequences this film should provide a good evening’s worth of mayhem.

In the UK the first home video release came from Avatar and was superseded ten years or so afterwards by an uncut tape from Redemption. I believe Vipco may have got their dirty hands on distribution rights some time later too. Released on DVD by Anchor Bay in the US several years later, this Blue Underground edition is basically a direct port of the AB disc, offering a very average picture that lacks real depth and detail. Colours are a little wayward and overall the presentation could and should have been improved for this (admittedly cheap) re-release, so I’m a little disappointed by BU’s laziness. The Dolby EX track has some bite but keeps most of the activity down the front - there’s less to complain about here than with the image although I‘d really like to hear an Italian language track at some point, if possible. There was an EC disc (presented open-matte with a theatrical matte viewing option available) released just prior to the first AB outing - it’s difficult to get a hold of nowadays anyway so the BU is currently the easiest way to check the film out.

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