Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Peter Strickland’s Italian horror homage, Berberian Sound Studio, has us thinking back on our favorite giallo movies.
Stage Fright (1987)
Stage Fright, a late edition to the Italian giallo cycle, opens with a fantastic fake out. As a seductive streetwalker meets her grisly end in a darkened alley, locals take to the street to mourn her loss in song, the owl-masked culprit dances out of the shadows, and the camera pulls back to reveal this is all happening on a stage. In one fell swoop, Michele Soavi introduces both his milieu—a rundown inner-city theater—and the sometimes cheeky tone of his directorial debut. Turns out the troupe is putting on a musical about a serial killer called the Night Owl. Art imitates life when one of the company is butchered by an actual maniac, recently escaped from a local mental hospital. Smelling a PR opportunity, the fascist bully of a director (David Brandon, wonderfully hammy) decides to re-christen his avian-themed killer, giving the fictional fiend the same name as the on-the-loose psychopath who killed one of his people. For reasons less clear, he also opts to lock his whole cast—including a bitchy understudy, a flagrant gay stereotype, and a guy who looks a bit like Joel McHale—inside the theater overnight. Guess who else has slipped inside for the dusk-to-dawn rehearsal.
The bleak joke here is that Brandon’s actors are so hard up for work, so desperate to hold on to their parts in a pretentious art musical, that they agree to stay on lockdown despite the threat of a rampaging lunatic. (Yes, it’s hard out there for a budding thespian, but jeez.) Given that the killer is also a former devotee of the Stanislavski school, there’s a hint of a thesis here, something about the divide between method acting extremes and a more pragmatic, job’s-a-job approach to the craft. Then again, maybe that’s way too much weight to put on this fleet, often preposterous giallo, which—like most of its kind—gets by on glorious surface pleasures. Soavi worked for years as an assistant director to Dario Argento, and the latter’s mastery of both barf-bag gore effects and Hitchcockian suspense appears to have rubbed off. These twin talents converge in Stage Fright’s incredible climax, which involves carefully arranged body parts, narrow floorboards, an inattentive murderer, an attentive feline, and one tightly lodged key. That all of this mayhem is occurring within earshot of a pair of cops, sitting outside in their squad car and cracking jokes, is indicative of Soavi’s crooked sense of humor—a quality his better-known Italian peers don’t really possess. All together now: Right between the eyes.
Availability: Just a DVD, which can be ordered from Amazon.