'Stage Fright' is a promising but disappointing slasher/musical hybrid
Stage Fright Magnet Releasing
Director: Jerome Sable
Screenplay: Jerome Sable
Starring: Allie MacDonald, Brandon Uranowitz, Meat Loaf Aday, Kent Nolan, Douglas Smith, Melanie Leishman, Thomas Alderson and Minnie Driver
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
There's something instantly charming about Stage Fright's mashup of slasher horror and musical theatre, until you come to the realization that writer/director Jerome Sable isn't particularly adept at slasher horror or musical theatre. (Or comedy, for that matter.) His camera just sort of roams around languidly during the musical sequences, rarely (if ever) channeling the energy of the performers or the music. Meanwhile, the horror element is made up of clichés - the black cloak, the white mask, the butcher knife, the shrieking damsel murdered for her improprieties - that Sable does nothing to reinvent or enliven. They're just there, and the music is just there, and the film has smashed the two together under a marginally clever conceit but without the necessary flair to really pull it off.
The thing about doing a mashup like this is, it's not about doing either/or halfway, or simply juxtaposing one against the other. You've got to know them both well, and be able to do them both well. Sable doesn't*, and isn't. Stage Fright is set at a summer theatre camp for teens, and it suggests Sable's know-how musically is right about at the teen summer camp level. His attempts at horror make it seem like he's seen little more than a few '80s slasher flicks - and Scream, probably, for good measure. The John Carpenter font he uses for the opening title cards comes across as a cheap affectation rather than any indication he's learned the lessons of Carpenter's horror filmmaking.
* At least, he doesn't appear to. However, his background suggests an enduring interest in musical filmmaking, so I can only assume he's well-versed in the subject. The problem here is that none of that comes across in the final product.
Moreover, the film is uncertain what exactly it wants to do with the styles it cheerfully emulates. There are satirical threads in place - the predatory male director hoping one (or both) of his would be leading ladies will sleep her way into the role; the closeted gay teen who keeps singing about how straight he is - but they never land anywhere. Even the production the campers are putting on - a thinly veiled Andrew Lloyd Webber ripoff called The Haunting of the Opera - strangely never takes advantage of its satirical target, but simply takes the play for its face value. So what's the point? The film uses an existing property without technically using it, yet doesn't even take the time to find any real purpose for it.
Well, that's not entirely true. Stage Fright does play with Phantom's narrative framework, but in dishearteningly straightforward fashion. A masked stalker just like the one in the play is terrorizing the cast and crew as they're rehearsing in advance of their big premiere. Who is that masked man? One of a select number of suspects, each equally dull from a storytelling standpoint.
The one person we're reasonably sure is not the slasher is our ingenue, Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald). Her mother (Minnie Driver) was a stage actress who briefly reached stardom before being stabbed to death in her dressing room after a performance of - you guessed it - The Haunting of the Opera, killed by someone dressed in the costume of the slasher from the play. (And if you're thinking - or hoping - that Stage Fright does something - anything - with all of the ironic possibilities in play, you will be sadly disappointed.)
Following that tragedy, Camilla and her brother Buddy (Douglas Smith) were taken in by their mother's producer, Roger McCall (Meat Loaf Aday), who has raised them and put them to work in the kitchen at the summer camp he owns and operates. The years since Kylie Swanson's death have not been kind to Roger's career prospects, but he clings to the thought that a breakout production (or performer) one of these days will finally get him back in Broadway's good graces.
Finally, this year, he believes he has just the project in the revival of Haunting - which gets an even bigger boost by Camilla's sudden interest in auditioning for the lead role of Sofia once made famous by her mother. She auditions - against the objections of both her brother and the camp's resident diva, Liz (Melanie Leishman), who thought the role was hers for the taking - and impresses the director, Artie (Brandon Uranowtiz). He casts both Camilla and Liz in the lead, allowing them to battle it out for opening-night duties during rehearsals. All is going swimmingly until a camper or two winds up dead.
Plenty of other details come into play - the prestigious critic that Roger intends to impress on opening night; various supporting-character idiosyncrasies that don't go anywhere - but ultimately the film has to live or die by its final act, when the musical and horror elements necessarily combine. And unfortunately, that third act is a messy concoction of the two, ruined even further by a disastrous attempt at slapstick situational comedy. The final half-hour or so is the only part of Stage Fright that I actively disliked - the rest is tolerable, occasionally clever, generally mundane. It could have saved itself with the ending, but instead it flatlines.