1980’s slasher film throwbacks have been pretty popular over the last few years, with some films trying to directly mimic the era (like Justin Russell’s THE SLEEPER) and others content to just bring the familiar “stalk ‘n slash” storyline into present day more or less untouched (see Steve Goltz’s DON’T GO TO THE REUNION). While varying in terms of entertainment value, most of these films don’t really bring much (if anything) new to the table. However, a few particularly clever filmmakers have recognized the rigid structure of the early-80’s slasher template means even the slightest tweaks can completely reinvigorate the formula and feel like something totally new. This is definitely the case with debut feature director Jerome Sable’s STAGE FRIGHT, which mixes comedy, buckets of blood, and musical theater with wildly entertaining results.
After the opening night performance of The Haunting of the Opera, star Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) is viciously murdered, leaving her twin children in the custody of her partner Roger McCall (Meat Loaf). Ten years later, Roger has established a musical theater camp where theater kids can come from all over the country to learn all about putting on a show. Twins Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) work as cooks in the camp canteen, but Camilla wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and sing on stage. Buddy just wants her to stay away from the “theater geeks” so she doesn’t get her feelings hurt.
This summer, Roger decides to try to relaunch The Haunting of the Opera, and Camilla sneaks into the auditions, catching the eye of the production’s camper director Artie (Brandon Uranowitz) with her spectacular singing. Artie uses his position to pit Camilla against one of the older campers, Liz (Melanie Leishman), casting both of them in the lead female role. And, naturally, casting himself as the male lead so he gets plenty of on- (and off-) stage make-out time with both of them. Meanwhile, an angry figure lurking in the shadows steals the “Opera Ghost” mask and bangs out distorted chords on an electric guitar in a dark room pasted with pictures of the cast, screaming at them with 80s metal wails.
There is quite a bit of singing in STAGE FRIGHT, and writer/director Jerome Sable also co-wrote the film’s music and lyrics with Eli Batalion. The pair also collaborated on the short film THE LEGEND OF BEAVER DAM, which had a hugely successful festival run with its similar mix of comedy, music and bloody horror. It’s not hard to see how the short naturally led into the feature, and the two films make good companion pieces, although the severe tonal shifts from the relatively light “puttin’ on a show” sections of the film and the brutal killings don’t work quite as well in the context of a feature, where the audience has more time to engage and identify with the characters.
And make no mistake, the murders here are nasty business. Sable doesn’t hold back and really splashes the blood around, thankfully entirely through practical effects. The body count isn’t particularly high, but the quality of the makeup and effects is great. If there’s one major problem with the film, it is that once its climactic guitar solo attack is finished near the start of the third act, the musical numbers all but disappear as STAGE FRIGHT turns into a more familiar kind of stalk ’n slash for its final stretch.
Despite its flaws towing the line between musical and horror, STAGE FRIGHT is a very funny, highly unique take on the familiar slasher film formula. It’s definitely worth a look for horror fans looking for something different, and it confirms writer/director Jerome Sable as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. STAGE FRIGHT is available now on various VOD platforms and will be released in theaters starting May 9th.
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