Review: Stage Fright (2014)

Stage Fright


Jerome Sable
Jerome Sable, Eli Batalion
89 min.
Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Meat Loaf Aday, Kent Nolan, Brandon Uranowitz, Ephraim Ellis, Melanie Leishman, Thomas Alderson, James McGowan, Minnie Driver
MPAA Rating
R for bloody horror violence, language and some sexual references

Buy on DVD/Blu-ray

As Tucker & Dave vs. Evil was to the horror comedy genre, Stage Fright is to the horror musical genre, a grand, entertaining cult film far surpassing expectations.

Stage Fright takes place ten years after a budding Broadway star Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) is murdered on opening night, shuttering production and leaving her two children orphaned. Ten years later, her children have grown and are now working at a musical camp under the direction of their mother’s boyfriend and their new caretaker Roger McCall (Meat Loaf).

When the camp’s selection team decides to revive “The Haunting of the Opera,” Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) wants desperately to take the lead role and become the success her mother was on the verge of becoming. As you would expect, the production is soon beset by a masked ghost slaughtering those involved with the production and plunging the camp into the midst of a serialized version of what happened ten years earlier.

MacDonald delivers a fierce performance as the timid Camilla who emerges as a gorgeous singer when put on the stage. Camilla is uncomplicated, but her vocal prowess outsells the weaknesses of the character. As her brother Buddy, Douglas Smith is a mixed bag. When the film begins, he’s a worried, simpering sibling. As the film progresses, he begins to develop more organically, yet doesn’t produce a dynamic shift in the quality of his performance.

Meat Loaf (credited as Meat Loaf Aday), who made his feature musical debut in 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show shows that he hasn’t lost his talent in the intervening years. The character is somewhat contrived, but he embellishes this with verve and electricity. The rest of the young cast features some gifted singers with limited acting abilities, but when you’re a genre piece like that, it’s easier to forgive those weaknesses.

A clear spoof of The Phantom of the Opera, “The Haunting of the Opera” deals with a haunted theater that features a ghost who grants his leading lady with the keys for success. To punch up the limitations of such comparisons, screenwriters Jerome Sable (who also directs) and Eli Batalion have come up with a twist. The young director of the musical in the film has decided to set the revival in Feudal Japan employing Kabuki theatre techniques to update the production.

The film’s designers use this as a brilliant starting point to employ atypical costume and set designs for an American horror film or musical. The makeup work used in the third act for our heroine is one of the film’s highlights.

This is Sable’s feature film debut, taking to long form after more than a half-dozen short films. As such, there are some uneven moments to the film, the early segments are a tad plodding and the finale feels rushed. In horror, the last-minute revelations are fairly common, but musicals tend to foreshadow a lot more of their narrative conceits. Here, there are a few moments that suggest who the killer might be, but they aren’t as notable or interesting as they could have been.

There are a handful of references to other prominent musicals. This should come as no surprise since the film is set at a camp for kids heavily into musical theater. The songs written for the film are incredibly fun and quite catchy, the primary aria from “The Haunting” being easily the best. The opening number is humorous and has some clever digs at people who are gay (both traditional and modern definitions) and sets the audience’s expectations that the film will be a great deal of fun.

Like Tucker & Dave vs. Evil, this film relies more on a pliable audience to make itself a success. Those who aren’t as famiiar with the traditions and caveats of horror filmmakings (or musical production for thta matter), may not get as excited or enthralled by the events unfurling on screen. Stage Fright is a film deserving of becoming a cult hit.
Spoiler Discussion
While it wouldn’t necessarily ruin anything, these scenes in the film are worth discussing.

In the opening number, one of the key characters (who eventually plays the Opera Ghost in the musical version of “The Haunting of the Opera”) sings about being gay, but not that kind. At first, this phrasing sounds almost gay-bashing, but as another character, the stage manager for the production, announces and sings a verse about actually being gay, it wipes out that initial impression. It also sets up a frequently-hinted switch at the end where the gay-happy character kisses the gay-homosexual character. The moment isn’t precisely fumbled, but it feels manipulative.

One of the facets of 1970’s and 1980’s horror was that the kids at the various locations who were being killed were typically engaging in risky, amoral or otherwise questionable behavior. For much of this film, that same behavior is seldom rewarded with death. Half of those killed don’t fit this type.

The teenage makeup and costume designer, who is at one point seen placing pins into a wig-head, obviously resembling Pinhead from the Hellraiser films is never mean, deceitful or otherwise bad, yet she get the pinhead treatment anyway. They aforementioned romantic lead is also killed as is the young thespian who tries to help Camilla stave off nerves before going live in the production.

All of this is while the foundering and vengeful lead actress whose role in the play was stolen by Camilla and who attempted to dump a Carrie-like bucket of red paint on Camilla’s head gets away scot free. I would have preferred to see more “just desserts” revenge killing the film to better align it with the horror films to which it pays homage. Of course, modern horror films have been rather indiscriminate with their slaughter, which could be part of the influence for not using it as a tool to call out bad behavior.

Oscar Prospects
Review Written
May 23, 2014

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