Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Jerome Sable
Writer: Jerome Sable, Eli Batalion
Producer: Ari Lantos, Jonas Bell Pasht
Stars: Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Brandon Uranowitz, Kent Nolan, Melanie Leishman, Ephraim Ellis, Thomas Alderson, Steffi DiDomenicantonio, Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf Aday
A summer camp for musical theater has its production stalked by a masked maniac on the anniversary of a tragic murder.
Upon reading descriptions of the ten Midnighter movies for SXSW 2014, “Stage Fright” went immediately to the bottom of my priority list. Even after hearing positive word of mouth from other festivalgoers while passing time in various lines, I still shrugged my shoulders, frequently replacing the title on my schedule with no worry of a broken heart should I miss it.
Devout fright film fan though I may be, I simply assumed “Stage Fright” was not a movie made with me in mind as the target audience. Comedy-horror already has a hard time pleasing my personal tastes. And if there is any surefire way to set my predisposition to unfavorable, simply add some Broadway-style showtunes into the mix and watch my eyes roll.
So it was that I put off “Stage Fright” until its very last screening and begrudgingly settled in for an experience sure to annoy, if not anger me altogether. When the prologue scene ended with an unexpectedly brutal throat stabbing, the movie suddenly had my attention. Shortly thereafter, virtually the entire cast broke into a song and dance routine and I was instantly back to silently groaning my displeasure.
But I’ll be damned if my disposition didn’t do a complete 180 before the opening credits even finished. Maybe the joke was on me. Perhaps writer/director Jerome Sable’s intent all along was not narrow appeal to horror-loving theater geeks, whoever those people may be, but to simply win over anyone who appreciates clever, fun, and well-made movies, no matter the genre.
Ten years after her marquee mother’s backstage murder on opening night of “The Haunting of the Opera,” Camilla Swanson decides to follow in the family footsteps when a summer camp dedicated to the performing arts stages an amateur revival of the production. Of course, history has a habit of repeating itself on anniversary dates in horror films. It isn’t long before a masked maniac starts stalking the silver spooned young thespians and turns their camp into a modern day Crystal Lake.
“Stage Fright” channels all of the familiar elements of 1980’s woodland-themed slashers with a cast of characters that ribs horror movie tropes as well as backstage Broadway stereotypes. Camilla is a virginal Final Girl whose status as a lowly camp cook casts her as the equivalent of a frowned-upon townie. Liz is her catty rival jealous over a starring role snub. Artie is the narcissistic stage director who does his casting with a couch. And among the suspects in the masked murderer whodunit are a hillbilly janitor with shifty eyes and a jilted suitor who may or may not be willing to kill for true love.
Writer/director Jerome Sable makes the comedy, horror, and musical genres his playground for providing playful yet sincere entertainment. As out of place as song and dance might seem for horror, the songs slide in so seamlessly that they never become a distraction. And Sable commands a masterful control over keeping the tone balanced throughout. “Stage Fright” is broadly funny without being overly silly, gory without being grotesque, and unique in its appeal without ever compromising its identity.
As much as I feared having to sit through chorus lines and spotlighted solos, the movie actually needed more theatricality to keep its step lively. The middle act drags its feet in a long lull before the final performance takes place. Whenever the movie is merely advancing its plot instead of indulging in its genre mashup flavor, it tends to spin its wheels like familiar teen slashers usually do.
Rarely is it a problem that lasts long, however. The plot is mostly secondary to the performances and the presentation anyway, and “Stage Fright” hits homeruns in those departments with a game cast that carefully rides the line between horror and humor.
You’ll know if “Stage Fright” is for you depending on how you react to the leitmotif of a kabuki-masked killer wailing in death metal vibrato before putting a saw blade into someone’s torso. If that sounds too silly to stomach, stay away. But even if you are a hard-to-satisfy film fan who takes his/her horror seriously, don’t be so sure that “Stage Fright” will be unable to work its charms on you. That is exactly what I mistakenly thought. Yet here I am ready for another musical horror-comedy to come my way, provided it is as inventive and as enjoyable to watch as this one.
Review Score: 80