APRIL 6, 2014
If they had thrown in a Community reference, there would be no doubt in my mind that Stage Fright was made for a very specific audience of one: Brian Collins. I mean, putting Meat Loaf into a movie is already a guaranteed butt in the seat, but Loaf SINGING, which is incredibly rare (out of 60+ films, he's only sung in about 5 of them)? And in a SLASHER movie? One with a custom mask instead of a giant coat like half of the modern slashers are given? And with a song during the end credits ABOUT THE END CREDITS??? Which are done with the "Carpenter" font that accompanied most of his films? These are all niche-y things that I've confessed my love for time and time again, so to have them all in one movie is pretty damn rare, and thus I didn't pay too much attention to pans OR raves from pals who saw it at SXSW last month - this movie was too in sync with my personal tastes for anyone else's opinion to matter much.
The funny thing is, even without the Loaf and the other things, I'd be excited to see the movie since it was the feature debut of Jerome Sable, who was the genius behind The Legend of Beaver Dam - hands down my favorite short of the past 5 years or so. It could have been a straight up drama and I'd be curious to see how he fared with a feature length narrative, but since it didn't stray too far from Beaver Dam's inspired "slasher meets musical" approach, I had high hopes. Were they met? Well, sort of - it's not exactly a home run, and there were times where I was flat out disappointed, but overall I was entertained and had a dumb smile on my face for many sequences. It may not be perfect, but for a feature debut, it's a damn good start.
It definitely feels like a film from someone used to shorter pieces, however. The first 5-10 minutes are damn near perfect, offering a gory murder and a full musical number from the majority of the cast - perfectly setting up the concept and showing their hand to potential lameos in the audience who thought they were there for one thing or the other. And then Loaf comes in and starts singing the 2nd number, and while it's not very good (it's probably the weakest in the film, admittedly), it calmed my fears that he'd be a minor character who exited the movie early (I was also relieved that he sang - he's been in a few other music-heavy movies without actually singing himself). Indeed, this is actually one of his bigger acting roles in quite a while (of the ones I've seen; he does a lot of indies that sound unbearable and thus I avoid them), showing up quite often and lasting all the way to the final reel. His mustache is ridiculous, but you get to hear him yell "FUCK!" over and over at one point, so it's a good treat for his fans, especially if they are like me and thus disappointed his roles in Tenacious D and Burning Bright (two of his more promising sounding gigs) were relegated to a single scene each.
But he is not the main character. That would be the very lovely Allie MacDonald as Camilla, whose mother (Minnie Driver in a cameo) was murdered after a performance of "The Haunting of the Opera", a "Phantom"-esque musical that she was starring in at the time of her demise. It's now 10 years later, and Camilla works as the cook at a musical theater camp, which has just opened for the season and will be putting on a production of... you guessed it, "The Haunting of the Opera". Camilla wants to work out some of her demons by auditioning for the role her mother inhabited, something the director doesn't think much of but the producer (Loaf), who has also been sort of her father figure, allows. As you might expect, people start dying at the hands of a killer who looks like the one in the play, which has been retrofitted to take place in feudal Japan (hence the Kabuki mask).
However, not ENOUGH people die at his hands. Because there are a bunch of kids around, logically there can't be much of a body count until the night the show premieres, as they would obviously be freaked and demand to leave the camp. But since the plot involves auditioning, rehearsal, etc - there's a lot of down time in between the opening kill and the next, to the point where you might forget you're watching a slasher movie. The killer makes a few appearances in between, snarling at photos of all the would-be victims and singing quick rhymes about how much he hates their music or whatever, but that doesn't count - they really should have opted to have a kill scene somewhere in between; a telephone repairman or something would suffice - anyone they could kill off without anyone noticing/caring that he was missing. Curiously, there aren't a lot of songs in here either; we hear snippets of the ones from the play, but otherwise there isn't another full blown musical number for a while - the movie just kind of drags until opening night.
Luckily, once we get there the movie really comes (back) to life. Just as a good short will have a knockout closing moment, the movie quickly makes you forgive its earlier lapses; the Kabuki Killer gets really active, there are more songs (including a hilarious metal one from the killer that I was humming later), and Sable finally finds the best balance between the needs of his story AND both of his genres - it all works almost perfectly (though I was bummed to discover an off-screen kill - in a movie that needed more as is, you shouldn't be robbing us of one!). The killer reveal isn't too shocking, but there's an extra twist to it that worked well, and a character gets a shockingly gory demise that I was legitimately surprised by - it's like some Grand Guignol shit all of a sudden. Plus, again, the end credits have a song about the movie, something I always love anyway (and he even thanks people for reading the credits! God, if they had just hired me to do their titles I'd have a permanent nerd boner at that bit).
I do wish that the younger cast members were given more to do, however. I get why they wouldn't be part of the slasher stuff, but after their glorious opening number where they sing about how happy they are to be at camp where no one will make fun of them or beat them up for liking musicals, they're basically just background players. Most of the focus is on the older people: Loaf, MacDonald, the director, the creepy janitor, a big NY theater guy who is coming to see the play... some of the kids could have easily have been the star of their own movie (particularly the one with glasses who was there to avoid his dad, and the one with the lisp), but after the play has been announced they're just sort of THERE. Friday the 13th Part VI had the same sort of scenario; little kids couldn't be Jason fodder like the adults, but they found enough for them to do (the kid reading Sartre still kills me) to give them a real reason to be there - here it was basically just cancelling out a ton of suspects/victims without any real payoff.
But like I said, it's a good start for a filmmaker who clearly isn't interested in doing generic fright fare, and seems to embrace the challenge of doing a horror comedy. With James Gunn and now Drew Goddard off making superhero stuff, we could definitely use a talented filmmaker to fill the void in this particular sub-genre. Stage Fright is by no means perfect, but how many of our great horror filmmakers really hit it out of the park their first time? If this is Sable's Dark Star or Hollywood Boulevard, then I am perfectly fine with that, and eagerly await his Halloween/Gremlins.
What say you?