‘Stage Fright’: The Perfect Way To Get Into Italian Horror [Watch]

Stage Fright

Welcome to The Overlooked Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable. I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct.’  

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This week’s selection is a slasher picture from Italy, circa 1987. Stage Fright is a fast-paced horror film with a surreal storyline, a dark sense of humor, unhinged characters, and some memorable chase sequences. 

The setup sees Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) and Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) leaving the venue where they are tirelessly rehearsing for a stage play to seek medical attention for an injury. As luck would have it, the closest healthcare facility the ladies can find is a mental hospital. The two young women cross paths with a personable physician at the sanitarium who is willing to assist with the ailment. However, the dancers are completely unaware that one of the patients at the facility has stowed away with them on their return trip to the theater. Further complicating matters, the escapee just so happens to be a mass murderer who proceeds to torment the production, slashing his way through the cast. 

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Italian horror. But I recognize that it can be something of an acquired taste. Many Italian horror films have the potential to be a bit overwhelming for the uninducted. I vividly remember a time when I was trying to broaden my horizons and check out some of the genre output of Italy. However, my early attempts left me feeling somewhat alienated and unable to connect. Luckily, I found a couple of films that helped ease the transition. And Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright is one example of exactly that. My hope is that by showcasing Stage Fright here, I may be able to help others struggling to connect with Italian horror. The film, although a bit quirky in its own right, serves as a great jumping-off point.  

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Keeping with the grand tradition of Italian horror cinema, Stage Fright places style over substance at every turn. The narrative isn’t always grounded in reality. But that can also be said of a lot of Stateside slashers produced in the ‘80s. So, hopefully that won’t be much of a deterrent. 

Speaking of style, the film is filled with plenty of creative flourishes that make it equal parts visually striking and surreal. The musical that the core characters are rehearsing provides a never-ending barrage of bizarre situations, characters, and stylistic choices. Not the least of which is that the killer in the play is known to wear a giant owl mask. Masks are a common trope in American slasher films. So, it’s interesting to see director Michele Soavi adopt that trope and put a decidedly Italian spin on it. 

As magnificently bizarre as the owl mask is, it does serve an important narrative function. Since the character playing the killer wears a disguise, this allows the escaped mental patient to more easily infiltrate the production. That leads to some panic-inducing encounters. One particularly memorable exchange sees the cast standing by helplessly in wide-eyed horror as the killer stabs an actress to death who was only supposed to die in the play. Several harrowing chase scenes follow suit, making this stalk-and-slash picture an intense and exciting watch. 

In addition to memorable stylistic choices, the film also serves up some great comedic exchanges. One such example finds Laurel (Mary Sellers), one of the dancers, complaining about her costume, to which another performer suggests she go back to her last job microwaving chili at a counter-serve restaurant. Not to be outdone, Laurel retorts that he should go back to hustling in the bus station men’s room.  

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Peter (David Brandon), the director of the play, is responsible for several darkly comedic exchanges that bring levity to the proceedings. His character works as a comical commentary on temperamental directors who treat their actors as expendable. He repeatedly puts the cast in peril for his own selfish gains. That results in some comic mishaps and also serves to establish a level of tension along the way. Case in point: Peter convinces the cast to stay overnight and rehearse (after one member of the production has already been murdered). From there, he proceeds to lock the theater doors and hide the keys.

Soavi uses that setup to establish a sense of utter helplessness. Near the beginning of the second act, the cast realizes that they are stranded inside the theater and that the killer is among them. Though there is a police car stationed outside, the lawmen can’t hear the cast screaming over the raging storm. That fosters a sense of desperation for both the cast and the audience. Knowing that help is so close but so far away is a cruel twist of fate that underscores how helpless the performers really are.   

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Also noteworthy is Soavi’s commitment to delivering impressive sendoffs. The film serves up some really inventive kills. Some of the standouts include impalement by power drill, being cut in half with a chainsaw, and a pickaxe to the mouth. What’s more, we get to see several of these depraved acts of violence perpetrated by a giant owl. Well done, Michael Soavi. Well done, indeed.  

All in all, Stage Fright is a chilling stalk-and-slash picture that features keen direction, compelling visuals, and an iconic killer in an owl mask. What more could you possibly want? 

Despite being more accessible than many Italian horror pictures, Stage Fright remains underrated in comparison to its ‘80s slasher contemporaries. If you’ve yet to experience the film for yourself, you can find it streaming on Tubi as of the publication of this post. 

That’s all for this installment of The Overlooked Motel. If you’d like to chat more about under-seen and underrated films, feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on TwitterThreads, or Instagram



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