Review: STAGE FRIGHT (2014)

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The “horror musical” concept is a bit of an oddity in cinema history. Surely, everyone is aware of the most popular grandaddy of them all, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, or Brian DePalma’s underrated classic (that came one year prior in 1974), THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, which has found a new appreciation in later years. Most of these films are deeply-rooted in cult cinema, as not everyone is as receptive to the genre-smashing as others. In the following decades, similar films have periodically taken stabs; such as LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS in 1986,  South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL in 1996 and Tim Burton’s 2007 revision of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (which, like ROCKY HORROR, originally hails from the stage). However, in the last decade, similar films have begun to surface and also attract cult status. Darren Lynn Bousman’s 2008 REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA managed to find a dedicated/rabid enough fan base that he was able to release another, THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL in 2012. Now currently available on VOD is a new addition, Jerome Sable’s debut, STAGE FRIGHT. (This review contains a spoiler or two, so be warned)

 

 As the story goes, Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) dreams of singing onstage just like her mother, Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver), who ten years earlier was a rising star that was brutally slain while playing the lead role in The Haunting of the Opera. Now Camilla and her brother (Douglas Smith) are under the care of Kylie’s manager, Roger McCall (Meat Loaf), who runs a theater camp where they are the cooks and she has put her dreams on the back burner, no pun intended. Behind on rent, Roger needs a hit again, so naturally, the next play he intends to put on is the one that still  haunts Camilla’s past, The Haunting of the Opera . After Camilla surprises herself by auditioning for the lead and being chosen, people start to die at the hands of a masked killer who really,really, doesn’t like musicals. It all leads up to opening night where her debut could be the death of her.

 

 Let me start with the bad because it’s always better to end with the good. The film is constantly teetering between trying to be a musical and then a horror film and because neither is completely successful, it becomes distracting. There was hope that the film would continue in the same vein as its opening, which had similar vibes to Dario Argento’s OPERA, however the quirky insistence of the film negates any intended fright. Sable has no problem spilling blood and getting graphic with the kills but the gratuity just causes a more jarring experience and seems forced, as though it’s only being done to be shocking. Shifting between the two tones only neglects the other and leaves you feeling like you’d rather it were more of whichever genre you prefer.My other major complaint is also a question: in modern day, do we still need to have cartoonish gay stereotypes just because musical theater is involved? There are only two gay characters in the film and they both are played for laughs; one is overtly flamboyant and sassy while the other denies his homosexuality so emphatically that he even declares in a song that he “really isn’t gay”. After he possibly finds love and finally accepts himself, he gets killed anyway. Even though it may not be intended, it portrays a negative message. Now if the film was made in 1980, I could  at least excuse its generic characterizations.

 

 As far as the good, the aforementioned gore and slayings that don’t really work are still great scenes and the ending was a nice touch and actually quite chilling, Jerome Sable would likely make a good straight-up horror film. Even though I wasn’t a fan, it’s still an interesting debut and it shows promise from him. He’s a brave man to attempt a horror musical for his first feature and I found it much more entertaining than Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! the Genetic Opera, which I suspect will not age well. Accessibility to everyone isn’t a trait of the cult film and you never know whether you’ll be the next midnight movie or the kind that some enthusiastic fans gather around  to watch in their basement. There’s no doubt that Stage Fright is a cult film, likely to divide the opinions of it’s viewers like day and night. Regardless, I’m sure this film will find an audience to obsess over it and sing its every line. Ironically, all this talk is making me want to watch it again.

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