In what may very well come to be one of those films revered like Repo! The Genetic Opera or Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright lights up the screen with over-the-top musical numbers and over-the-top slasher movie kills. It is the connective tissue between those kills and those songs and the rest of the film, however, that are somewhat challenging and make the whole thing a tough one to weigh out one way or the other.
Because at its best moments, Stage Fright is a total blast. The opening number of the film is a great example. We see busloads of campers headed for a summer theater camp who break into song and dance of the full-blown Broadway variety. They sing about being singled out in everyday life and how this camp and these people are their release, their safe place. The lyrics are flat-out brilliant, the choreography is fun and the whole thing is just a hoot and a half.
We soon learn (both from the opening scene of the movie and soon after the aforementioned musical number that follows it) that the camp cooks are the children of Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) who was brutally murdered on the opening night of the musical The Haunting Of The Opera ten years before. This scene starts the film and introduces the connection between her short-lived character and the camp’s director Roger McCall (played with gusto by Meat Loaf). Her children are taken in by Roger which places them at the camp in present day.
Roger is a mess of a human being and seems to be clinging to the chance at the next great star to come out of his camp serve as his ticket back to Broadway and out of near financial ruin. Roger is earnest but less than trustworthy and you wonder almost immediately how these kids ended up under his care. This might be a memory problem on my part but I thought there might be a chance the kids were his, but, it might’ve been that they were Kylie’s and that she and Roger were seeing each other when he was producing her play. Either way, it seems a bit funny in the more literal understanding of child custody.
Regardless, both actors are pretty solid, with Douglas Smith playing the aloof brother Buddy and the effortlessly talented Allie MacDonald playing his sister Camilla. They work off each other very well and once Camilla becomes focused on trying to audition and be cast in the camp’s ‘revival’ of her mother’s fateful play, the dynamic between the two of them is strained and evolves in a well-handled way. Good actors, both these kids are.
Further, the whole ensemble of child-actors are pretty darn good, headed by the insufferably annoying Artie Getz (Brandon Uranowitz), a theatre geek turned director brought in to bring Roger’s vision of repeat glory to the stage. Artie reminded me of more than a couple big-headed, small-talent twerps I spent time with in the theatre programs in high school and college. The types that seem artsy and creative but are mostly just insecure bullies and braggarts just the same as those they fear from the sports programs. Kudos to the actor Brandon Uranowitz for capturing the essence of what his character really is.
Beyond him, there are great turns by actors Ephraim Ellis, Thomas Alderson, Melanie Leishman and many others tapping into the insecurity and brash-over-the-topness of what it means to be a ‘theatre kid’. You don’t get the sense that the film is picking on these kids as much as it is highlighting what might frustrate an outsider about them. The self-centeredness, the obsession with approval and the need to be the center of attention. However, when things start to go badly and the slasher film buried under all this musical theatre rears its head, you see these kids as nothing more than real people. Scared and uneven and struggling with identity and self-worth just like everyone else. It was a good choice to not completely demonize this subset of adolescent humanity but instead show the amusing and the human sides of it all.
So does all this add up to the next great horror musical? Kind of. The highs (like that opening musical number) are just wonderful and sharp and super fun. The slasher elements are done with style and flair and are (in more than one instance) a damned bloody mess. But the balance, at times, feels off. Not to make a pun, but the rhythm of the film sometimes feels about a beat slow from where it should be so when we get to that big slasher-reveal and culmination, the up and down nature of everything taken all together leaves said reveal and the climax not as scary or gut-punching as it should be.
If you want the human element to really resonate in a story like this, you really have to put humanity on trial. Because when it is all said and done, slashers work best when the perpetrator or perpetrators of the violence are revealed to be either completely irredeemable or just another victim of someone or something else. Humanity, or the lack thereof is the real culprit and in Stage Fright it just feels like that gets lost a little bit as we streak to the finish line.
All in all, this film is often fun and impressive, charming and smart. The violence is brutal and mean and funny often all at the same time. The cast is good and is energetic in their efforts. Is it worth the time? Absolutely. Is this the next great midnight movie for horror nerds and theatre geeks to bond over? Maybe not – but – time will tell.