Stage Fright (1980)
Directed by John D. Lamond. While preparing for the opening night of a play, a young actress notices that her cast mates keep meeting gruesome ends. Could this bloodshed be tied to a dark secret from her own past?
Due to similar titles, this one is often confused with the 1983 Emilio Estevez horror anthology Nightmares and the 1987 Michele Soavi slasher film StageFright.
Australian cinema’s answer to Halloween and the American slasher film begins in 1963, the same year Michael Myers first picked up a knife. A little girl named Cathy wanders out of her room at night and witnesses her mother having sex with a strange man. The next day, February 23rd, Cathy and her Mommy take a drive to pick up her OTHER lover. Jeez! This randy gentleman gropes and kisses, so Cathy leaps out of the backseat and punches him to ‘save’ Mommy from his naughty advances. All this commotion causes the car to crash, ejecting dear Mommy straight through the windshield. She bleeds to death slowly on the hood amongst shards of broken glass, while the male passenger and Cathy both survive. The opening credits show us Cathy making a pouty face as the police arrive to the accident scene. At the hospital, a traumatized Cathy learns that her mother died from a slashed throat and that her mother’s lover blames her.
“You killed your mother. You killed your mother.” he tells the frightened girl.
As if this poor child’s life couldn’t get any worse, an orderly at the hospital attempts to molest her while she’s recovering. She pushes him away, knocking a glass vase from the nightstand and shattering it. Cathy picks up a gleaming shard and slashes the man while reliving the car accident ad nauseum.
16 years later, on February 23rd, actress Helen Selleck awakes screaming in her bed from a nightmare of breaking glass. She takes a look in the mirror, seemingly forgetting her awful dream. Helen is in the process of auditioning for a play called The Comedy Of Blood, and her work catches the eye of two men: snippy writer/director George, and horny actor Terry. The latter is a popular soap opera star trying his hand at performing in weightier material, and George hopes Terry’s fame brings in audiences. As soon as they meet, Terry asks Helen out. He also brazenly walks in on her changing in the costume department, angering the play’s costume designer, Judy. After some hesitation, Helen relents and they begin dating.
The supporting characters are just sketches. There’s blowhard actor Bruce, arrogant stage manager Angela, etc. They pop up and say a couple lines, and that’s about it.
A couple having sex in an alley near the play’s theater are interrupted by a hooded figure holding a large shard of glass. Both are slashed to death in short order as frantic strings blare. The score for the film, your basic fast paced violins meant to induce sweaty palms, is present in more scenes than the lead actress.
Do we need suspenseful music cues as we watch people harmlessly get coffee?
One night, Helen suddenly flees a dinner date and Terry secretly follows her to her second floor apartment. On the stairs, he overhears a loud conversation between Helen and an angry woman with a rough voice. Helen’s door opens and a figure wearing a hooded black rain coat descends while Terry hides. He then discovers that Helen’s apartment is empty.
Back at the theater, Judy is working on the costuming when she is propositioned for sex by Bruce, and then stabbed to death by the killer. Her body is found on the stage, and the police interview each actor involved in the production. Meanwhile, Helen is having disorienting flashbacks to the alley murders and stabbing Judy. After the cops wrap up the body and head out, George shrugs off the whole nasty business and everyone seems to instantly forget that they just saw Judy’s corpse completely covered in blood. Everyone forgets except Helen, who watches her get slashed about 10 times in her mind.
These choppily edited and distracting sequences get old quickly.
Eventually, Helen breaks it off with Terry because “Cathy” won’t let her be happy in a relationship. Meanwhile, cast members, theater critics and crew workers are dropping like flies.
It all comes to a head on opening night, with an impressively thorough murder marathon.
Like Helen, “Stage Fright” has some pretty serious issues. First of all, it has no mystery to offer. Most slasher films are whodunits that feature red herrings and few twists leading up to a reveal. Not here. We know from the outset that Helen is just troubled Cathy all grown up with a meaningless alias.
What would have worked? Showing Cathy as a teen in psychiatric care, developing the Helen persona as a means of protecting her fragile psyche. Since Helen repeatedly flashes back to Cathy’s memories of childhood, it’s obvious who she really is and why she doesn’t like people trying to get laid. She sees them all as the groping man in the front seat of her mother’s car.
In Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece “Psycho,” we are introduced to amoral thief Marion Crane. She rips off her company for $40 grand and, after being noticed by the State Police, dumps her car and buys a new one. While hiding out from the authorities, she meets hotel proprietor Norman Bates. Unlike Crane, Norman is an upstanding and responsible young man who cares for his ailing mother. He is her polar opposite on the surface, and throughout the film, they switch places as character types. Her murder is the catalyst, since being stabbed to death is a much too grievous punishment for the theft she committed. As more and more is revealed about Norman, his initial facade breaks down and he takes the place of Marion as the antagonist. The shock and impact of Psycho was learning that Norman Bates and his mother essentially occupied the same fractured mind. But that impact would be nullified if we had already sat through several hundred flashbacks of Norman visibly murdering Marion before the big climactic reveal. “Stage Fright” shows us why Cathy is so traumatized, shows her slashing a man with a glass shard and then shows us her as a troubled adult surrounded by murders committed with pieces of glass. There’s no dynamic arc or reveal. The characters in this one are static entities. What we learn about them early on never changes and is never added to.
The killings themselves also suffer from dull repetition. The victims each notice the killer’s presence because a nearby glass object must be shattered to provide a weapon. Despite the fact that it would be remarkably easy to either flee or fight, the victims instead stand there with a blank expression until the shard strikes them. They then stagger painfully a short distance away, where they are again confronted and do nothing. Cut to a gloved hand holding the shard and a canned scream. This scenario is the description of nearly every murder in the film. And while glass is certainly available in various thicknesses with differing integrities as far as breakage, it seems unlikely that it could easily penetrate sturdy objects like the back of a theater seat. Or the top of a human skull.
“Stage Fright” has the general concept of a slasher film, but it feels like a body without a soul. It’s a flat imitation of the art form, and it ends with the seeming hope for a sequel that never coalesced. It’s for the best that the curtains closed.
Body count: 7
- A woman dies in a car accident.
- A man is stabbed in the groin.
- A woman is stabbed in the chest and torso.
- A woman is stabbed in the neck and back repeatedly.
- A man is stabbed in the top of his head.
- A man is stabbed in the back through a theater seat.
- A man is stabbed in the throat with a mirror shard.