by Matt Levine
Stage Fright adopts the same credo as many midnight movies: throw everything you can at the audience—the more outlandish and schizophrenic the better—until all conceptions of cohesion and decency are dropkicked out the window. This indifference to narrative logic and genre expectations is, of course, what makes such movies so exciting, but it’s also what keeps most of them from excelling; casting aside pre-patterned clichés is an admirable endeavor, but it would be nice if such iconoclasm led to anything powerful or profound. The fact that Stage Fright never takes itself seriously is both its blessing and its curse.
Midnight, Friday & Saturday
Director: Jerome Sable
Producers: Jonas Bell Pasht, Ari Lantos
Writers: Jerome Sable
Cinematographer: Bruce Chun
Editors: Christopher Donaldson, Lisa Grootenboer, Nicholas Musurca
Music: Eli Batalion, Jerome Sable
Cast: Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf, Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Kent Nolan, Brandon Uranowitz, Ephraim Ellis, Melanie Leishman, Thomas Alderson, James McGowan
Premiere: March 10, 2014 – South by Southwest
US Theatrical Release: May 9, 2014
US Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Genre hybrids are nothing new in a post-postmodernism that embraces pop-culture references with greater zeal than it addresses reality (thanks, Family Guy). But it’s rare for a film to flaunt its generic incompatibility as brazenly as Stage Fright, which begins with a gory murder scene indebted to both De Palma and Argento, then leaps to a campy satire of Stephen Sondheim-style showtunes (with a bit of coming-of-age allegory thrown in). The first images are promising: on a surreally lit stage, a man is stabbed to death; nearby, a woman sings a mournful operetta. We soon realize we’re in the middle of a Broadway show--The Haunting of the Opera, starring the talented up-and-comer Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver). It is poor Kylie who’s butchered in the pre-credits sequence, which adopts the same in-your-face technique as Suspiria or Eastern Promises (with a fraction of the stylistic skill): begin with one of the most shockingly violent scenes in order to place the audience on edge immediately.
As the film flashes forward ten years later, it suddenly becomes a brightly-colored send-up of both summer-camp comedies and melodramatic musical numbers. We find ourselves at Center Stage, a summer getaway for the “theatre kids” who have trouble fitting in at school the rest of the year. Appropriately, the kids immediately launch into an over-the-top musical number about their outcast status: one bespectacled nerd bemoans that it’s not school bullies that ridicule him, but his own father; another pixyish camper with a speech impediment, named Lithpy (that’s the kind of humor we’re working with here), joyfully insists she’ll overcome her lisp to become a famous singer. Not everyone is completely at ease in this environment, though: Sam, an effete camper, insists he’s “gay, but not in that way,” then meekly tries to convince anyone who will listen that he’s attracted to women. (In the movie’s defense, when Sam finally makes out with the flamboyant stagehand David as his coming-out moment, it’s surprisingly sincere.) As someone who detests the only Broadway show I’ve ever attended (Rent, for those who care), I can’t say I enjoyed any of these musical numbers, but at least they’re self-deprecatingly silly and performed with an infectious energy.
Two of the cooks at Center Stage, Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith), have a dark secret: their mother was Kylie Swanson, murdered exactly ten summers ago. Camilla has always had the itch to perform onstage, though lingering trauma over her mother’s death has prevented it. This year, though, seems like the opportune time to make her debut: the camp will once again be staging The Haunting of the Opera, this time in the manner of Japanese kabuki. The decision to alter the operetta’s style and setting is “at the very heart of post-structuralism in theatre,” says the pompous director, Artie (Brandon Uranowitz)—thus adding inflated behind-the-scenes egos to the movie’s satirical targets.
Camilla astounds everyone with her audition, leading her to split the main role with Liz (Melanie Leishman)—both of whom are expected by Artie to compete for the role via sexual favors. Though the movie rarely takes itself seriously, the exploitation the actresses face is overtly critical of the sexual entitlement assumed by some men in the entertainment industry. This critique is undermined somewhat by the fact that Artie is the first to die in a spectacularly grisly way by the seemingly resurrected killer, now donning a white kabuki mask—asking us to sympathize with Artie's plight shortly after we see him harassing Camilla.
A montage hurtles ahead thirty days, making this one of the more quickly-paced movies of the year: suddenly, it’s the day before the show opens, and the camp struggles to decide whether to go on with the show after discovering Artie’s dismembered corpse onstage. The camp’s director, Roger (Meat Loaf), plagued by foreclosure notices and confronting his last shot at glory, proclaims that it will be Camilla’s debut and lures a Broadway agent to the opening performance. Of course things go spectacularly awry as the body count skyrockets; one victim is repeatedly shot in the face with a nail gun, prompting our murderer to ludicrously exclaim, “Nailed it!” One of the film’s more ridiculous gambits requires the killer to wail along to death-metal whenever he (or she) is onscreen, the musical style suddenly leaping from Sondheim to Slayer; both the showtunes and the hardcore metal are pretty lame, but you’ve got to give the movie credit for stylistic eclecticism.
Clearly Stage Fright tries to emulate the wild unpredictability of The Rocky Horror Picture show, valuing a unique movie-watching experience over a cohesive, unified vision. Perhaps inevitably, the results are hit-or-miss: for each wildly inventive set-piece (such as the orchestra conductor’s frenetic efforts to keep the disastrous opening-night performance afloat), there’s an unintentionally stupid gimmick (like the drunken camera that follows the masked killer through a dimly-lit lair, complete with a tacky slow-motion effect). Ultimately, with so many genres duking it out onscreen and an overall air of winking artifice, it’s hard to take Stage Fright seriously—even though certain elements (to the movie’s credit) attempt something deeper, namely the unflagging terror that our heroine Camilla is left with at the end. The final scare is, for once, dramatically believable instead of simply loud and gratuitous.
But if Stage Fright doesn’t completely work as satire, musical, horror movie, or coming-of-age drama, its kinetic juggling of tones and styles is never even close to boring. I’d rather have a reckless (if flawed) hodgepodge like this than a dull, clichéd, “respectable” rehash. In any case, midnight movies are often more about the social activity itself than the film’s aesthetic or thematic merits (which is why The Room is the granddaddy of this unusual corpus). Stage Fright might have some awful songwriting and a paucity of legitimate scares, but if you have alcohol (or anything stronger) on hand, it’s a hell of a good time.