Stage Fright Review [SXSW 2014]
South By Southwest has been full of slow-burn horror this year, creating a pattern of early calms followed by short bursts of pandemic horror – some good, some bad. Film festivals aren’t meant for routines though, they’re meant to be places where a large variety of genre insanity can be found, insanity exactly like Stage Fright. Think The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Friday the 13th, with ample doses of Dimebag Darrell level shreddage, and you’ve got the formula for a face-melting horror musical ripe with infectious energy and deadly sing-alongs. It’s a rare treat when a horror film can have me smiling from start to finish, but a continually inviting rock opera drenched in blood and littered with guts? That’s an event I’d put on my Sunday best for.
Taking place at a struggling theater camp where future stars come to hone their passion, producer Roger McCall (Meatloaf) struggles to regain critical acclaim with the next big Broadway-bound hit. Hosting a slew of talented singers and dancers, Roger also takes care of Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) Swanson after the death of their mother, spending time at Roger’s camp as cooks. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Camilla has no desire to serve meals day after day, and she ends up secretly trying out for the program’s feature performance – competing for the female lead. Practicing with the camp attendees every day, Camilla starts to imagine the prospects of hitting it big – until a psychopathic murderer starts killing camp members left and right.
When a horror movie starts being billed as “Glee meets a slasher film,” I understand where many fans might immediately pull back (like the guy in line who bailed as soon as myself and another journalist explained the movie to him) – but fuck that guy (not really, he actually seemed nice). Stage Fright not only wittily bashes theater culture, satirically sing-songing through every misconception and flamboyant stereotype, but it also kicks into overdrive when blending orchestral broadness with hyper-aggresive metal. This isn’t your Mama’s primetime, high school entertainment though. Each advancing song is funnier than the last (especially the credits overlay), only outmatched by headbanging thrash metal, guitar solos, and a sinister villain with the hybrid voice of Axl Rose and Alice Cooper – my kind of sadistic psychopath.
Let’s also get something else straight – Stage Fright brings buckets full of gore, and not “goofy stage production” gooeyness. Writer/Director Jerome Sable displays unfiltered 80s love by paying homage to a magical time in horror when disgusting liquid concoctions sprayed out of every hacked-open orifice, heightening musical hilarity as rooms are painted red while children joyously lyricize. Utilizing a bevy of different stage equipment and props, our kabuki-mask-wearing slasher playfully exercises his creative freedoms, paying respect to legendary slasher icons along the way (Hellraiser!). Stage Fright isn’t just a horror musical, it’s a passionate love letter to horror’s glory (gory) years, enhanced by composer Eli Batalion’s gleefully twisted and demented musical stylings – a perfect accompaniment to Sable’s raucous screenplay.
At a post-movie Q&A following Stage Fright‘s SXSW premiere, our creators revealed that they were given a pick of the litter in reference to their cast, and boy did they choose correctly. You certainly can’t go wrong by starting with legendary rocker Meatloaf leading the band, and Minnie Driver showcases her pipes for an endearing opening act, but credit the entire cast of terrified artists with balancing the projected antics of theater types with more grounded personalities required in cinema. One might assume boisterous stage performers would be perfect for horror death scenes, selling every traumatic moment, but movies require a more sedated characterization so audiences can connect. The action is on camera – it doesn’t have to be projected over a massive balcony audience. Stage Fright strikes that perfect balance, blending hilarious theatrics with gritty, grotesque kill sequences.
Lead star Allie MacDonald lights up her role as Camilla, not only asserting herself as a strong horror vixen, but also a dazzling starlet. She’s a typical girl next door, too innocent for the sleazy backdoor politics, but what a fantastic interpretation by the wonderful MacDonald. In all honesty, every actor injects vivacious life and heart into their performance, down to the youngest child actor, but most memorably I have to mention Thomas Alderson’s overwhelmingly lavish turn as David, the stage manager who yearns for spotlight treatment. Watching Thomas compete with Todd & The Book Of Pure Evil alum Melanie Leishman in front of a packed audience remains a highlight of Stage Fright, even amongst the slashings and ripping guitar work. Proper comedy is universal, and Stage Fright is bursting at the seams with belly laughs. Our cast absolutely explodes with energy, each player upping the next – just watch the movie and you’ll understand.
Stage Fright IS the next great midnight movie experience, attracting addicted audiences singing and screaming with every perfectly scored movement. I can already imagine the Alamo Drafthouse sing-along screenings, full of fans sporting makeup and belting their favorite tunes – something I’ll gladly participate in. With a soundtrack you’ll want to blast on repeat, Sable’s production achieves prime enjoyability for entirely too many reasons. Musical hilarity that satirically attacks Glee culture? Check. Practical effects driven horror rivalling anything the 80s has to offer? Fuck yeah (R-rated movies get R-rated reviews). An ingeniously self-aware atmosphere necessary for comedic horror, favoring audience entertainment above all? Absolutely. It’s Phantom Of The Opera with the heart of John Carpenter – WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Stage Fright rocks hard, sings proud, and leaves audiences begging for a wild, bloody encore.