There are a handful of directors I would do anything to see working again. I'm not necessarily talking about retired filmmakers, but those who appear to be floating in the ether. Don't Look Now and Performance director Nicolas Roeg is one of them. His movies still haunt. Michele Soavi is also on that list. There are moments in the filmmaker's body of work that threatened to trump the Italian horror masters — directors he actually worked with, including Dario Argento (on Tenebrae, Phenomena and Opera) and Lamberto Bava (on A Blade in the Dark and Demons). Soavi even made the crossover to mainstream cinema as second unit director on Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
As Soavi came into his own as a director, he edged closer to brilliance. The Church was an atmospheric twist on Lamberto Bava's Demons series, but his 1994 film Cemetery Man (a.k.a. Dellamorte Dellamore) remains Soavi's greatest achievement — a surreal blend of European art house, philosophical horror, and tragicomedy. Soavi seemed poised to usher Italian horror into the millennium, securing a place next to Fulci and Argento, but the director suddenly stopped working in the genre. Before we wax poetic about the might-have-beens, let's look at Soavi's wonderful directorial debut, StageFright.
I want to get one thing out of the way: StageFright (also known overseas as Aquarius) is a slasher film with giallo elements. I'd rather not engage you in a boring discussion about what constitutes the two; if you're reading this website, you hopefully know the difference already, though they are easily confused. (Let me take this opportunity to implore those of you calling Suspiria a giallo film to cut it out.) Where's the giallo in StageFright? It's a stylistic choice, which is a given since the director was once Argento's protégé. StageFright's elaborate and gory death sequences, striking color palette, stylish camerawork, and bizarre murderer fit the gialli profile. However, the killer's identity isn't a mystery, and there are no red herrings — a few of the genre's essential tropes. At the same time, the film subverts the typical slasher fare, thanks to a unique framework and Soavi's impressive style... and yet, for all that's great about StageFright, it remains both under-seen and under-appreciated amongst horror fans.
It's a deceptively simple premise: a troupe of actors rehearses their next big performance, but one of the cast members winds up dead, and the body count increases after the thespians become locked inside the theater with the killer. Several genre regulars assisted Soavi's film: sleaze auteur Joe D'Amato produced the movie, and the star of D'Amato's Anthropophagus, George Eastman, wrote the script; composer Simon Boswell delivers some creepy synth hooks; Cannibal Ferox's Giovanni Lombardo Radice also appears, only to be slaughtered as usual. Speaking of gore, there are some fantastic death scenes, which culminate in a gruesome stage show during the finale — something foretold during the troupe's rehearsals.
Many of StageFright's greatest moments have nothing to do with blood and death, but with the film's clever, self-referential nod to the genre (like the Bava-esque mannequins), and to art itself. The film opens with a surreal and dizzying set-up that toys with our sense of reality — a jarring, dreamlike manipulation that continues to the very last shot. Soavi has tongue planted firmly in cheek as he acknowledges the artifice of art (film), from the illusional nature of theater and a cast of players who are deliberate caricatures (the slut, the flamboyant gay man, the tyrannical stage director, etc.), to the James Dean reference, theater producer (who attempts to buy himself out of his own death), fame-hungry director, and the mesmerizing owl headpiece our killer wears — all symbols of creative disillusionment and myth.
StageFright is an outstanding debut from Soavi that effectively embraces elements of giallo cinema and demonstrates the artistry of a young director on the threshold of a promising career. In recent years, Soavi has stayed busy directing for Italian television, but we haven't given up hope that he'll revisit his horror roots.