STAGEFRIGHT (1988) Blu-ray
Director: Michele Soavi
Blue Underground

Blue Underground bathes the stage in blood in their gore-geous Blu-ray treatment of Michele Soavi's directorial debut STAGEFRIGHT.

A dysfunctional theater troupe is rehearsing the musical "The Night Owl" about a rapist killer in a bird mask when they cross paths with real life serial killer/actor Irving Wallace (martial artist Clain Parker) who has followed star Alicia (Barbara Cupisti, THE CHURCH) back from the mental hospital where she went to get emergency treatment for her ankle. When Wallace murders the wardrobe mistress Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) and ostensibly disappears into the stormy night, director Peter (David Brandon, CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY) and lecherous investor Ferrari (Piero Vida, THE NIGHT PORTER) see notoriety and decide to rechristen the anonymous killer played under the mask by fey Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, CANNIBAL FEROX) as Irving Wallace himself. Peter decides to lock himself, Ferrari, stage manager Mark (Martin Philips, CONVENT OF SINNERS), Alicia, Brett, and the other main actors – bitchy Laurel (Mary Sellers, GHOSTHOUSE), prim Corinne (Loredana Parrella, ELEVEN DAYS ELEVEN NIGHTS), and young lovers Danny (Robert Gligorov, MURDEROCK) and Sybil (Jo Ann Smith, A TASTE FOR FEAR) – overnight to rework the musical, not realizing that Irving Wallace is lurking in the theater and has donned the owl mask and availed himself of the theater workroom's power tools. Peter has given the only key to the exit to Corinne and asked her to hide it, so naturally she ends up the first victim. When the dwindling survivors realize that they may not be able to get out, they arm themselves to fight back against the mad and resourceful killer.

Obviously not likely to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock's STAGE FRIGHT, but also not to be confused with the Australian slasher-in-a-theatre NIGHTMARES (which was released here on videotape in the eighties by VidAmerica as STAGE FRIGHT), Michele Soavi's STAGEFRIGHT – also known as AQUARIUS, BLOODY BIRD, and DELIRIA – definitely falls into the slasher rather than the giallo mold. Inventive deaths and body counts are generally an important element of both genres, but here we've got characters in an enclosed but labyrinthine location, a killer escaped from the loony bin who adopts a distinctive mask as part of his persona, people who stick together and then split up to be killed, corpses artfully arranged by the killer in a tableau, a final girl, and a nonsensical shock ending. It is in the film's stylistic execution that the film really shines with debuting director Michele Soavi whose not quite refined visual style here reveals the influence of Dario Argento – and OPERA on which he served as assistant director – as well as the establishment of visual motifs involving feathers, water, and watches or clocks that would carry over to his follow-up features THE CHURCH and THE SECT.

Soavi's history with Argento went back to TENEBRAE (under which he served as second assistant director under Lamberto Bava who he would then assist on A BLADE IN THE DARK), but he was also working regularly around this time with STAGEFRIGHT producer Aristide Massaccessi, a cinematographer who would strike out on his own to make his independent directorial debut DEATH SMILES ON MURDER and would gain notice to cult audiences as Joe D'Amato, the helmer of the "Black Emanuelle" series with Laura Gemser. Soavi would work behind the scenes and have small roles in Massaccessi's ABSURD and CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY. Following STAGEFRIGHT, would Soavi would work under Terry Gilliam on the Cinecitta-lensed THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, and the experience would seem to have had a heavier influence on his own DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE than his apprenticeship under D'Amato or Argento (Soavi's own asthma would cause him to bow out of assistant Argento on TWO EVIL EYES). Soavi would also A.D. on Gilliam's THE BROTHERS GRIMM but the illness of his son saw him leave filmmaking for the rest of the nineties and working mostly in television since then with only two non-horror feature films ARRIVEDERCI AMORE, CIAO (2006) and IL SANGUE DEI VINTI (2008) since then.

The killer is relentless and the gore effects are convincing when edited for effect rather than lingered upon, but it is actually after much of the cast is disposed of when the film gives way to a roughly twenty minute dialogue-free sequence of suspense set-pieces in which Alicia faces off against the killer. The ending is a twist on the usual surprise ending, but it's neither as surreal or absurd as it wants to be. The cinematography of Renato Tafuri (DIAL: HELP) bathes the most atmospheric sequences in a blue glow, and the visual highlights of the film include a 360-degree pan as Alicia takes in the aftermath of the massacre and the aforementioned tableau of victims. Simon Boswell's synth and percussion cues build upon his work on Lamberto Bava's DEMONS 2 and DELIIRUM while the "Night Owl" pop musical cues are the work of Stefano Mainetti (TALOS THE MUMMY), and the two meld during the final third of the film as the killer plays back the musical tracks to underscore his stage antics.

Credited scripter Lew Cooper is better known as George Eastman/Luigi Montefiori who had earlier scripted and starred in ANTHROPOPHAGUS, its ABSURD sequel, and the Santa Domingo-set porn/horror films for D'Amato (Montefiori's would make his own directorial debut for D'Amato with METAMORPHOSIS in 1990). Blacklisted Hollywood character actor Mickey Knox, who went to Italy in the fifties and did mainly bit parts while working behind the scenes as a writer (collaborating with Sergio Leone among others during the spaghetti western craze) and dubbing artist, appears here as a cop who patrols the outside of the theater – with cameoing Soavi as his partner – oblivious to the goings on inside. James Sampson (AFTER DEATH's voodoo priest) plays the caretaker while dancer Sandi Schultz would be later cast as the "Mystery Woman" of Lucio Fulci's D'Amato-produced DOOR INTO SILENCE (with John Savage who she would later marry). Sheila Goldberg worked with Soavi on Argento's PHENOMENA as dialogue coach is credited with the English dialogue here and also plays a clinic nurse (she would also write dialogue for a handful of subsequent Filmirage productions including GHOSTHOUSE and KILLING BIRDS).

Originally released over here direct to VHS from Imperial Entertainment with a gorgeous clamshell highlighting its Avoriaz festival win and critical blurbs that housed a murky, fullscreen transfer. Anchor Bay's 2002 DVD featured an improved anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer – as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX remix of the original Dolby Stereo track (STAGEFRIGHT was one of only a few Filmirage productions treated to stereo surround mixing along with ATOR and KILLING BIRDS) – that was still darkish and a bit hazy in the psychiatric hospital scenes (this release would be directly ported over in 2007 by Blue Underground for their reissue). There had been some controversy over the intended aspect ratio with EC Entertainment's Dutch DVD featuring the choice of open matte or 1.66:1 non-anamorphic versions (utilizing the subtitle function to add a video matte like the letterbox/fullscreen option on Pioneer's BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR disc) and a later edition from Another World Entertainment that featured separate 1.85:1 anamorphic and 1.33:1 open-matte encodes.

Blue Underground's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 transfer completely revitalizes the film's image and makes the DVD look painfully inadequate in comparison. The older transfer had a yellowish tinge that obscured the white make-up worn by the actors onstage and made the faces of the actors look too warm and reddish under the firelight in later scenes. Faces retain their natural pallor under Tafuri's blue lighting, with textures and detail vastly improved including the feathers of the bird mask, the fur of Lucifer the cat, and the plaid pattern of Ferrari's suit which previously seemed gray and somewhat noisy in the DVD encode. The clinic scenes no longer have that dreamy look to them with the image now sharp and the noise gone from the blue lighting (making it easier not only to see killer Irving Wallace in his cell but also the reveal of the orderly left in his place). The exteriors on the older transfers were so dark that they could have easily been filmed on a sound stage but here they are revealed to be actual locations. Audio options once again include a 5.1 remix and a 2.0 mix – which may or may not be a downmix rather than the original Dolby Stereo surround track – both in DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included. My only quibble with the disc is the obvious digital recreation of the opening credits with a font that doesn't really match the original (the ending credits appear to be the originals).

While the Anchor Bay and older Blue Underground DVD editions had only the film's English theatrical trailer and a text biography for Soavi, Blue Underground's Blu-ray (and new DVD edition) features five brand new interviews. In "Theater of Delirium" (19:01), director Soavi discusses how he had been working as an assistant director for Argento and Massaccessi who the latter suggested he try directing after seeing the music videos he directed for PHENOMENA and DEMONS. Of his influences, he mentions Argento but also Hitchcock (particularly in the way he had the prop department create a giant key to use in the foreground of a shot rather than attempting a deep focus perspective shot with the killer in the background, the cat in the midground, and the key in the foreground). He also recalls how difficult it was to engineer some of the fancier camera movements with available equipment and worrying that Massaccessi would fire all of them for spending so much time on the opening pan and dolly shot. He reveals that Massaccessi actually took over as cinematographer during the last week of shooting and worked faster than Tafuri with satisfying results, and how Massaccessi wanted him to direct another film and did not understand why he would go back to assistant directing (even for Terry Gilliam).

In "Head of the Company" (11:40), actor David Brandon recalls his working relationship with Massaccessi, meeting Soavi on CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY, drawing from his own stage background to play a director here, and his death scene (he would only let a running chainsaw get close to his throat if Soavi operated it). In "Blood on the Stage Floor" (14:00) actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice answers questions in French with English subtitles, and this footage may have been culled from the French DVD featurette. He recalls how he got roles intended for Soavi in both HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, their friendship which lead to his being cast in STAGEFRIGHT and being allowed to rewrite his dialogue. He recalls the stressful shoot with nonprofessional actors, his subsequent theatrical work with Mary Sellers (an American actress who would marry fellow Filmirage director Fabrizio Laurenti [WITCHERY/CONTAMINATION .7]), and how Soavi's sense of the absurd usually keeps things from being too grim in his films.

In "The Owl Murders" (11:21), makeup effects artist Pietro Tenoglio recalls his long association with D'Amato and Soavi's enthusiasm and insecurity which caused him to shoot more than was needed (as well as how uncomfortable he was with more laid back nature of D'Amato's regulars and the ensemble cast). In "The Sound of Aquarius" (18:02), composer Boswell recalls touring in Italy with his band, producing for Italian singer/songwriters, and getting into film scoring when he met Argento at a party. Goblin was constantly breaking up and reuniting, and members Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli were working on individual tracks, so Argento asked him to write some music as well (Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor also contributed tracks to the score). His first proper score was DEMONS 2, and most of his Italian work was actually recorded in London (most of which he hasn't seen in finished form, including projects where Italian producers just called him up and asked for a five minute "action theme" without any other context). He discusses how the limited synth and sampling tools at his disposal caused him to be innovative with a limited palette. He has positive things to say about STAGEFRIGHT (and, on a side note, is reissuing his part of the soundtrack on limited edition vinyl from the original digital audio tapes), and closes his interview with a discussion of his scoring work on albums and DVDs with two popes. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:18) – highlighting its Avoriaz Festival win – a poster and stills gallery that includes international art and scans of artwork for apparently every single VHS, laserdisc, and DVD release. (Eric Cotenas)