DeQueue Reviews: STAGE FRIGHT (1987)

My queues across various streaming services are out of control. I’m going to put a dent in these queues and review the movies that I think are worth writing about. And for October, I’ll naturally be even more focused on movies befitting what I consider the “Halloween season.”

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Perhaps my least favorite type of horror character–even more so than “obnoxiously precocious child” or “skeptic turned denier”–is the “irredeemable a-hole.” You might know the type: they’re specifically designed to be the person you’re really rooting to see killed, but personally, I’m usually rooting for them to not exist in the picture at all. I just find them too often overly predictable and uninteresting, whether their actions actually help drive the plot (think Yon-Suk in Train to Busan) or don’t serve any purpose at all other than to be loathed (think Carter from Final Destination, or Carter from The Final Destination). Occasionally, however, you run into a character that technically belongs to this category, but who’s either funny enough to at least be tolerable, or who crosses over into being redeemable. Think Steve and C.J. (respectively) from the Dawn of the Dead remake.

1987’s Stage Fright gives us the rarest version of the irredeemable asshole horror character; one who’s the most interesting person in the movie.

To be clear, this isn’t a movie teeming with compelling characters. Nor is it apparently a movie with a plot capable of sustaining a 90-minute runtime, as we’ll get to. Somehow it remained largely watchable, however, in part because the premise is intriguing enough, and because of our irredeemable asshole, Peter.

Peter is the director of a play. He is arrogant and overly demanding, especially for a guy who will later admit that he hasn’t had much success in the industry. His greed and callousness is partial cause for most of the movie’s carnage (although, to be fair to him, most of the movie’s carnage is the fault of the homicidal slasher killer stalking our victims, as you might expect). He is specifically written to be hated from basically the very first time he opens his mouth.

Stage Fright (original title Deliria) is a fairly direct slasher movie with some noteworthy accouterments. The killer wears an owl’s-head-mask/helmet stolen from one of the actors in the play. Said actors are trapped with the killer in a locked theater where the keys have been hidden (courtesy of the aforementioned Peter). The kills aren’t particularly shocking or gruesome enough to impress most gorehounds, I’d wager, but the opening kill still deserves points for some improbably accuracy. The film also sports a pretty great soundtrack that alternates between sounding like it belongs in an 80’s action thriller, and sounding like it would fit better in a Ben-Hur remake.

What the film lacks is enough story to actually carry it to the length it desires. Most of the killing is wrapped with a third of the movie left to go. The movie burns through two false-finishes to get to an ending with a senseless setup that demands the police to a) not account for the number of bodies that should be present post-massacre, b) not put out any kind of notice that the killer is still at large, and c) leave the scene of this massacre open for the building’s regular custodian to be able to let someone inside the very next day. Even by slasher movie standards these cops are unaccountably incompetent.

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The last half-hour or so of the film features the Final Girl, Alicia, trying to evade, outwit, and finally combat the killer. Unfortunately Alicia is about as unremarkable as a Final Girl can get. She’s not particularly grating or undeserving. She’s not notably brave or feisty or crafty either. She’s not anything. She’s a glass of barely-below-room-temperature water. The best thing you can say about her is that she’s not the worst thing.

All of the things Alicia is missing can be found in Peter, however. Yes, he’s grating and undeserving of survival by slasher standards, given his role in facilitating all of the carnage. But he also shows some bravery and feistiness. He gives reasonable instructions to the others in hopes of ensuring everyone’s survival. Yes, his instructions and instincts prove wrong, but only because slasher villains are notorious cheaters. When it’s time to lead the group through the theater in an effort to escape, Peter takes the lead, not cowering behind anyone else. He tries to be proactive, attempting to trap and take the fight to the killer when he spots him. He’s even armed himself with a better horror movie weapon than the one he thinks the killer might have: so far as he knows, the killer has a fairly standard power drill; Peter has an axe. Alas, he did not foresee that the killer would upgrade his weapon to something that probably should be the last thing you’d expect to be present in a theater. Again, slasher villains are cheaters.

Eventually, Peter comes full circle. While he shows seemingly sincere remorse for putting his cast in their precarious predicament, when the shit finally goes down, he elects not to die in a way that will make him the subject of songs of honor and bravery. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to hate him for this. How many of us would die well when trapped by a weapon-wielding owl-headed madman? Less than half of us, surely.

Final Grade: A decent enough, relatively stylish slasher movie to kick off the Halloween season, though you could certainly do better.

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