Friday, July 20, 2012

ITALIAN HORROR WEEK: What Have You Done with Argento? or... The Stendhal Soavi

*A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Theater: You Should Watch Michele Soavi’s Stagefright.”

(Author’s note….consider part of this piece with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I don’t want to receive any death threats about my pretend mythology.)

Let’s start at the beginning.

Dario Argento is a supremely talented filmmaker. The first film of his I saw was Inferno, and I was mightily impressed. I continued on, slowly but surely viewing all of his feature length films and while for the most part I found him to be a spectacular visual storyteller something stood out like a sore thumb to me….after 1987’s Opera, Argento hasn’t technically made a good feature film. I say technically because 1990’s Two Evil Eyes was a good one, but since that was a co-production with George A. Romero I’ll just leave it at Opera for the sake of obnoxiousness.

Yes, I said it. Dario Argento hasn’t made a good feature length film since Opera. I have no idea what happened to him in the early 90s but he’s tra-la-la’d into WTF land with the exception of a Masters of Horror episode entitled Jenifer. Before the Argento fanatics come out of the woodwork let me remind you, I am one of you. Deep Red, Phenomena and Opera are three of my all time favorite horror movies. But I do believe that in order to be a diehard fan you must also admit faults in your favorite filmmakers work. You have to take the good with the bad and be able to concede the good and the bad, otherwise you’re just an uncultivated, frothing, foaming fanboy/girl.

While when I started this venture into writing about films of Argento’s that missed the boat I realized I wanted to keep in the spirit of Italian Horror week and stay upbeat. So instead of focusing on where I felt Argento faltered I decided to focus on something really wonderful he did in the 80s. He mentored Michele Soavi, a budding filmmaker who played bit parts in Argento films like Tenebre, Phenomena and Opera. But Argento didn’t do it alone, no, Soavi was also guided along by other Ital-horror greats like Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava and Joe D’Amato. In also keeping with the whimsical nature of a week dedicated to fantastical Italian horror, I’m going to spin you a yarn that happens to be a lie. But in my mind this is how it happened. Argento and Soavi worked together on Opera in 1987, the same year Soavi came out with Stagefright a.k.a. Aquarius and roughly 7 years before he made one of the foremost Italian horror masterpieces, Dellamorte Dellamore a.k.a. Cemetery Man. It’s plain to see. In 1987, Argento passed his mastery on to Soavi. I just created new mythology. Anyone with an internet connection can do it. But let’s get to the real discussion here….let’s talk about Stagefright, Soavi’s first feature length film, produced by Anthropophagus himself, Joe D’Amato.

Spry man with gigantic owl head leaps out from darkened alley and pounces on hookers.

On first glance that description sounds a bit chintzy, you’re absolutely right for thinking that. In fact when you see the opening scene of Michele Soavi’s Stagefright, if you don’t chuckle a bit at the imagery then I think you take yourself and cinema way too seriously. Seeing an oversized, garish owl head on a man dressed in a black suit is enough to reduce anybody to giggles. You’d think that there’s no way for a serious horror film to recover from that start and still remain suspenseful and genuinely creepy. You’ll have to trust me. Stagefright is a film that does.

The premise revolves around a floundering stage production, one week out from what is sure to be a dismal opening. They’re staging a play based on a killer and in a strange turn of events, a killer manages to pay a surprise visit to the cast and crew and locks them in the theater for a night of carnage and theatrics, just not the kind of theatrics you’d associate with a stage show. There are some familiar faces, namely that of Barbara Cupisti (The New York Ripper, Opera) and Ital-horror staple Giovanni Lombardo Radice (City of the Living Dead, Cannibal Ferox, House on the Edge of the Park). Radice plays against type ferociously as a flaming actor, cracking funny most of his time on screen. The rest of the surrounding cast melds in- they don’t stand out, but they aren’t meant to either. The glamour in this film is in the set- an ornate stage environment where you feel like the Phantom of the Opera could pop out at any moment. In a sense he does as Cupisti unwittingly allows the killer into their midst.

The scares are both commonplace yet wholly unique. It’s in the delivery of the scares, some expected and some surprising where Stagefright really pleases. The kills hearken to films like Pieces, the screams gut-churningly palpable; the mounting suspense as an owl-masked psychopath stalks and murders this crew. I really dare not go any further and let you enjoy this one for yourself.

You have probably assumed that Stagefright was like twenty other Ital-horror opuses you saw on the video store shelf growing up, but it isn’t. And for anyone who adores Dellamorte Dellamore, you really owe it to yourself to watch this tale unfold- a pre-cursor to Soavi’s mastery when 1994 rolled around and Anna Falchi invaded our dreams forever more. 

KRISTY JETT handles all customer service for Fright Rags. She also goes to conventions for them. She wakes up excited to go to work every day. She loves her job and her boss, and her co-workers too. She sometimes gets to come up with ideas for shirts. Her claims to fame are: You're All My Kittens Now, Send More Muppets, May, Popcorn and Wizard Master. She makes magic happen. She also hands out the sass.

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