There are few things in this world as important to me as musicals and the horror genre. To have both of these mixed together in a gloriously camp film is a surefire way to appeal to me. With my bias plainly stated, I now proceed to defend Stage Fright; a film whose concept alone seems tailored to repel anyone that doesn’t share my tastes.
Practically everything about Stage Fright screams a love/hate relationship with all things musical theatre, theater geeks especially. Ten years after the gruesome murder of a Broadway actress on the opening night of her play, Haunting of the Opera, her daughter looks to take back her role in a new summer camp production of it. In a mirroring of events long past, a new phantom starts killing off cast members as opening night approaches. But, as every tale about a musical tells us, the show must go on!
Not a moment of Stage Fright goes by where writer-director Jerome Sable isn’t hitting every beat of your traditional slasher flick. The setting, the villain, the leading lady, and the collection of dead characters and red herrings all play to the sensibility of an eighties slasher film. It’s clear that the narrative is a conventional one, never straying from the predictable route, but through that dedication to form, Sable finds ways to constantly toy with slasher tropes. Where he finds the most fun, however, is in the film’s gleefully ridiculous tunes.
Sable and co-writer of the film’s music and lyrics, Eli Batalion, take the wise words of Mama Cass Elliot to heart — “Make Your Own Kind of Music” — crafting some surprising tunes for its cast. Its opening song is infectious and hilarious, dropping all kinds of musical theater jokes and firing playful shots at exactly the kind of folks who’d drop them. The problem with the rest of the youth-led tunes is that the voices that sing them fall into a forgettable category, but they bring in solid performances otherwise. At times, it actually seems like Sable wants to give the adults more of a chance to shine than lead actress Allie MacDonald, and that’s not half a bad idea.
For one thing, it offers Meat Loaf a hefty role and a fun song to sing (something other musical productions like Glee foolishly did not). Even Minnie Driver, knocked off in the opening moments of the film, gets to take pride in singing her own song here; something she was unable to do when she was in Joel Schumacher’s awful adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, I’m willing to bet Sable and Batalion have sat through more Andrew Lloyd Webber than they can stomach, which is why they do so well at exploiting how tiresome of a play it is. The industry of musical theatre gets as much of a shake-down as Webber, with the decision to have the characters don kabuki make-up for their revival of Haunting of the Opera screaming contempt for theatre producers and directors looking to cash in on what they deem an edgy fad. Intentionally or not, it calls out the willful ignorance of problematic play adaptations, and that’s something to appreciate.
That weird mix of love and contempt for the musical theatre industry is a big piece of what drives Stage Fright (though not as well as Phantom of the Paradise‘s contempt for the music biz did in its day), with the villain especially adding to that. In a perfect contrast to the showtunes, the phantom delivers all kinds of metal goodness. Just watching them help an actor “break a leg” to the blaring sounds of electric guitar and feedback makes for a killer (pun intended) rock opera number. That sort of thing is what contributes to the mountain of camp that Jerome Sable brings to the table, and that’s exactly why the self-aware Stage Fright is a cut above your average slasher.
Directed by Jerome Sable; written by Jerome Sable; music & lyrics by Jerome Sable & Eli Batalion; starring Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Minnie Driver, and Meat Loaf; 89 minutes.