Directed by Michel Soavi (the Argento mentee behind CEMETERY MAN), with mouth of the actor lip sync matching and recording so good as to be invisible, this HALLOWEEN meets 42ND STREET 80s slasher film is riveting, scary, funny, catty and post-modern without being tedious or sadistic. See it alone in the dead of night, with headphones blocking all outside noise, and all the lights off, tune body and soul to the "tick-tock momentum" (as discussed in PHANTASM, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) and thrill to one of the best WTF moments of metatextuality since the first Jet fell out of rank in a sudden graceful ballet move, Action.
So it's a dark and rainy night. An old rehearsal space way outside of the city is preparing a sleazy pre-Giuliani Times Square-style Abel Ferrara-ish dancetacular: A fire in a trash can blazes center stage for crazy flickering shadows, graffiti adorns the fake alleyway walls, second floor windows hold agape witnesses, a subway-skirted Marilyn blasts her saxophone on the balcony, and then a crazy killer in an owl head comes diving out in a swirl of dance, the mob of angry citizens catch him like Sharks on Baby John, and take his trousers off for some payback forced faux fellatio? Wait, what? The director, Peter (David Brandon), gets angry because star Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) doesn't quite get it either, but he thinks the public will line up. The suit-wearing producer civilian worries they'll get closed down by the cops (Italy has a long history of 'regional' censorship). When, in a classic move right out of pre-code Warner Brothers, Alicia sprains her ankle, Peter doesn't believe her, won't let her leave, and is a dick about it.
The deliberately artificial performances of some of the actors are meant to heighten their stock theatrical 'types': temper tantrum-tossing director, lecher producer, bitchy but nurturing gay dancer (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), catty slut-and-comer (Mary Sellers), and a black cat (Lucifer) crossing the superstitious wardrobe mistress's path. Turns out Peter was right not wanting to let her leave, as the hospital she goes to turns out to be a mental institution, and a notorious axe murderer has just been admitted, tied to a stretcher... and he doesn't intend to stay long. He and Alicia share one of those uncanny 'see you soon, Clarice' glances as they pass each other in the hallway, like they get a weird glimmer of their own killer-final girl pair bonding to come.
This all may smack of ROTM slasher antics, but as soon as the killer first appears in the giant owl's head, walks nervously on stage and actually strangles and stabs his victim in the show, while Peter yells encouragement and applauds her realistic dying noises, any planned pause for a bathroom trip and drink refill is forgotten. It's a funny but scary moment that has real world echoes where I can imagine seeing this in a theater might make one worry the dude behind you is going to lean forward and slit your throat in order to add an extra layer of meta refraction. When what's on stage is so close to what's going on behind you that you can't tell if you're acting or really dying then you know it's going to be a bumpy ride, and there's no seat belt left to fasten..
And I know the feeling. True story: Years ago I was studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor and was interning at Bellevue, and smitten by the drama therapist. I dislocated my kneecap playing a Jim Morrison-esque drunk rock star on the crumbling Bellevue theater stage. None of the fellow actors--all residents of the alcohol clinic-- thought I was really hurt as I screamed in the worst pain of my life. They only feigned calling an ambulance and feigned concern until finally I got them to stop feigning and follow my pointing finger down to where my knee cap was hanging down to the side, leaving my thigh and shin bone without proper capping. No joke. The pain was so bad I couldn't scream it justice, but lord I tried. There was nothing to do but laugh at how inauthentic my screams sounded, a grim horrifying laugh, like John Barrymore cackling at the irony that he couldn't act 'real' pain when it struck him. In its utter realness my pain had stylized itself into a burlesque of pain. Meanwhile the emergency room of Bellevue was literally right next door but they wouldn't just wheel me over. The ambulance had to drive me around the block and rattle off my other options. Sure it was 14 years ago, but Obamacare, am I right?
That's why there should always be a safe word. And a contingency plan. If you're going to get hurt while uninsured, do it on hospital grounds. I still got bills and threats from collection agencies long afterwards, even though the billing dept. waived all fees. Thrice. If I hadn't finally just left, I'd still be in the waiting area of the physical therapy dept. Whoa, way off topic... back to the show.
Soavi uses every opportunity to fuck with the fourth wall in ways not seen since the musical numbers of Busby Berkeley spilled off the stage and into the dilated pupil of a twirling dancing girl-cello hybrid. The only key out of the building begins to loom overhead like a giant mirage, running killer POVs following electrical cord paths as if on wings of a dream, weird mannequins gawk idly and you don't put it past Soavi to substitute real actresses in mannequin poses in some shots and not even call attention to it; a reel-to-reel tape of the Bernard Herrmann-ish musical score that the killer blasts at inopportune times makes Peter's determined vengeance seem like a Warner Brothers cartoon turned opera; a broken bottle of stage blood that looks exactly like the fake-ish 'real' blood, run together.
There is no safe word and yet on some level it's already been said.
The initial effect of all this, at the start, is giddy confusion, with actors and set and costume designers scurrying all over the place and the genres and layers of textuality muddled but that is just what made SCREAM scary, because horror movie trivia and overlapping confusion was such an integral part of our heritage that we felt vulnerable watching, out of our safe zone of set responses. Where did the VCR playing HALLOWEEN in the climactic party end and ours playing SCREAM begin? HALLOWEEN's is spent watching THE THING, and FORBIDDEN PLANET (see my analysis here), just like we would be doing. That kind of intertextual realism is still underused in horror cinema, as if its so obvious it slips their minds. Soavi doesn't name check, he's way too subtle. I'm not even sure some of the brilliance I glean in his films is intentional, and that only adds to the luster.
The only way it could be better is if it ended at dawn. The awesome first rays of dawn ending always bumps a film up a star for me. (that made THE WARRIORS and SCREAM's endings so awesome), but other than that there's little fault to find, especially not in the amazing performance of Barbara Cupisti. We can read her thoughts as they flicker across her face as easily as if it they're in an old lady font, yet she's never overacting. She's a frickin' genius.
Just when you think it can't get any weirder or cooler, the killer, thinking everyone is dead, takes the stage. Man, oh man. I like that he treats Lucifer nicely, and the cat rewards him by... well I wouldn't spoil the tale but anyone who likes their post-modernism rich in bright reds, purples and dark grays, and doesn't mind their soul becoming temporarily stained and bent out of shape like the first time they saw DEEP RED, then Soavi's StageFright (the title's actual spelling) is the girl for you. There's even a great little wink trick ending that's just enough weird to blow your mind figuratively, diegetically, and metatextually, leaving you with shaky hands eager to applaud... even though you're all alone and it's three AM, and you don't want to arouse the attention of whatever's flapping outside your chamber door... maybe it'll just go away... but you know how we night owls love a receptive audience.