Owls are creepy. I mean, okay, they’re beautiful animals that bring a certain otherworldliness to things, and they can be quite adorable. But they’re also one of nature’s most efficient assassins and they can turn their head around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
The reason I say this is that the killer in Michele Soavi’s entertaining 1987 Italian slasher/giallo hybrid Stagefright wears a giant owl head. Seriously. Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers ain’t got nothing on this guy, and he looks creepy as anything even when he’s just standing still and not dismembering people, which he does often. If you’re wondering why he has an owl head and if he had a traumatic incident in the past with Harry Potter, the answer lies in the conceit of Soavi’s film, which was written by Sheila Goldberg and none other than George Eastman under the pseudonym Lew Cooper. (For those who keep count, Eastman was the star of many an Italian genre flick including the infamous Antropophagus (1980) where he played a cannibal that ended up eating his own entrails.)
Stagefright begins with the murder of a sex worker on a gaudily lit street. After we see her strangled by the man with the giant owl head, we pull back to see that it’s a play being staged, a play about a serial killer called “The Night Owl”. Director Peter (David Brandon) is typically angry and blasé at the same time, so doesn’t care that his lead Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) has hurt her leg. Bad form, Pete.
The wardrobe lady drives Alicia to get some medical attention, but the nearest facility is a psychiatric hospital that holds one of the most notorious serial killers, who just happens to escape and hitch a ride in the back of their car. You can see where this is going, and we get to see how much of an absolute melt Peter is when the poor wardrobe lady is found dead in the car park. He sees ticket lines around the block and locks the cast and crew inside and hides the key. But who’s inside with them? Well, it’s not Daniel Radcliffe.
The killer gets rid of the actor playing the killer owl and dons the outfit himself, taking care of the poor locked in folks one by one. It’s a neat little setup and the film does well to keep it up, mainly due to the inventive direction of Soavi – who is making his directorial debut – and Simon Boswell’s insistently creepy music. Soavi flies his camera through the backstage areas and up in the rafters and you almost feel like he gets itchy if he doesn’t move the camera after a few seconds. Couple this with an entertaining if expendable group of actors and crew, including a newly-discovered mother and a prankster that’s campier than a month at Butlins, and you’re in for a wild time.
It’s also a gory time. Soavi had worked previously as an assistant director for directors such as Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava on films like Tenebrae (1982) and Demons (1985) so he knew how to bring a fierce style to the film while also making it as full of bloody carnage as he could get away with. Subsequently, the film is full of murders by axe, power drill, and chainsaw, and it uses buckets of claret, although you’ll be cheering when our knob of a director gets his very violent comeuppance.
It’s a credit to actor David Brandon really, because he’s easily the standout performance. Everyone is a little bitchy as they always are in films set in the theatre, especially Giovanni Lombardo Radice (or more accurately whoever dubbed him), and there’s a creepy performance by Piero Vida as the sleazy investor, but on the whole, you don’t care that much about the people being killed, but Soavi leverages this with making the film so damn entertaining.
Stagefright is getting a Blu-ray and Digital release from Shameless Films; we were provided with a digital copy for review. It looks good, probably the best the film has ever seen, apparently taken from a 4K scan, but it’s impossible to really properly grade that when watching a streaming version. It sounds beautiful though, especially Boswell’s undulating score.
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Stagefright is a fantastically entertaining picture that feels like a genuine child of the Italian gialli of the ’70s and ’80s. The owl head makes for an unnerving killer and Michele Soavi’s stylistic tendencies elevate what could be a rote slasher in someone else’s hands into a pop classic. Also, owls are creepy.
Stagefright is out now on Digital on Demand and Blu-ray from Shameless Films.