A snobby musical theater camp is terrorized by a blood-thirsty killer who hates musical theater.
Although the words “Horror” & “Musical” aren’t exactly bosom buddies there have been a few memorable films that dared to combine the two and attempt to make something memorable. Although most would immediately assume that “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) is the great granddaddy of the sub genre, I would consider Ray Dennis Steckler’s “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies” (1964) to be the true progenitor of the horror musical film. But there were others, “Shock Treatment” (1981) was the purported sequel to RHPS, the remake of Roger Corman’s “Little Shop Of Horrors” (1985), Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Repo: The Genetic Opera” (2008), Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” (2007) and my personal favorite (& in my opinion, sadly overlooked) “The Phantom Of The Paradise” (1974) directed by Brian De Palma. Though not all of them can be considered critical successes they have all amassed fans around the world who keep them alive to this very day. Director/Writer/Songwriter Jerome Sable has decided it’s time for a new horror musical and his latest film, Stage Fright is an entertaining, if flawed, little flick about a musical summer camp for kids that just so happens to have a homicidal maniac running around in the background! Who is he and why is he making life so miserable for camp director Roger McCall (Meat Loaf Aday) and company?
Camilla (Allie MacDonald) works at the camp as one of the cooks along with her brother, Buddy (Douglas Smith). Their late mother, Kylie (Minnie Driver), was a very popular star of the musical stage but was murdered in her dressing room years earlier while her children watched. Now as employees of the musical camp they must watch in silence as this year’s production is announced, it’s called “The Haunting Of The Opera” and wouldn’t you know it? It’s the same musical their mom was performing when she was offed. Camilla is vocally gifted though and wants to audition for the lead in the show despite urgings from her brother not to and after finagling herself into the audition she gets the part. This doesn’t please her brother too much since it immediately doubles his workload making meals for the kids at camp but is Roger secretly watching over Camilla and if so why? A lot of people are upset that Camilla snagged the role and there are a multitude of red herrings strewn across Sable’s script. A lot of the fun of the film is just trying to suss out who’s got bad intentions on their mind and who doesn’t. One thing is for sure, one of the campers has a predilection for wearing a kabuki mask & slaughtering his victims while singing rock & roll tunes in a throat shreddingly manic voice, but who is it?
The beauty of the concept is how totally Sable commits his script to it. At times Stage Fright feels a lot more like a musical along the lines of Todd Graff’s “Camp” (2003) and have no doubt, there are points in the film where people just break out into song, this is indeed a musical! The great thing is that the songs aren’t just inserted into the film in a haphazard manner, they actually help to propel the story along which is what every great musical film does doesn’t it? There’s a bit of dancing along with the songs every so often but not much as none of the kids seem to be very proficient hoofers. The film is also very funny, at times it’s laugh out loud funny, and while I expected some humor just due to the nature of the script, I didn’t think it would be as funny as it ended up being. This too is a major plus for Stage Fright. Another big plus is that we get the venerable Meat Loaf actually singing a few numbers in the film and while they lean more towards what you might to expect to hear in a Broadway musical and not a rock album, it’s still very exciting to listen to him crank out a tune every now and again. The sound of his classic “Bat Out Of Hell” albums leaned more towards the theatricality of the Broadway stage anyway in my opinion so it’s not as jarring to hear him singing in a near operatic style as you might expect it to be. Either way, the man can still wail with the best of them.
But there is a problem here and it’s a big one. Sable is so successful in creating the atmosphere of the camp & its attendees that their story practically washes over the story of Camilla and the killer. In a way it seems like he forgot he was making a slasher film at times and to be fair, I did too. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t get back to what the film sets out to be but he takes a good while before he gets to the good stuff. Perhaps this was by design and if so then the ruse of having the audience get into the goings on with the campers is a nice way to throw us off track for awhile, but only for awhile. Every so often there’s a violent murder with the killer using various sharp objects to wipe out everyone connected to the upcoming production but they come and go fairly quickly, as if Sable couldn’t wait to get back to scenes of the props being built while a song is sung. If you’re promoting Stage Fright as a slasher film then there oughtta be more slashing and less singing, not the other way around. But the film is surprisingly gory considering who the victims are and the murders are pretty viscous as well.
As I watched Stage Fright I couldn’t help but notice a lot of similarity to De Palma’s “Phantom Of The Paradise” and I wonder if that wasn’t intentional either. A few times I recognized some shots seemingly lifted part & parcel from De Palma’s film. There’s also a nifty little “Carrie” (1976) homage (Another film directed by De Palma) near the end of the film that made me wonder how much of a BDP fan Sable actually is. But none of that hurts the film and truth be told, how much of De Palma’s early work is based on Hitchcock films? If you’re gonna steal then steal from the best is what I say. The performances in the film are exactly where they need to be though and Allie MacDonald is really good as Camilla offering varying shades of sincerity, fright, anger & innocence. Some of the kids involved are very good actors and some aren’t but isn’t that what you’d find in a theater camp anyway? Good and not so good actors? The cast is pretty much marvelous and really sells the concept.
Sadly, I figured out who the killer was 20 minutes into the film but I seem to have a habit of doing that (If you pay attention it’s not that hard to figure out). It didn’t spoil the movie for me since I had to wait till it was nearly over to find out if I was right but I must admit a bit of disappointment when I discovered I was indeed correct. Another issue is that while it is very entertaining, Stage Fright isn’t exactly what I would call frightening. Actually it isn’t very scary at all so if you go into it expecting to be scared, table those expectations right away. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun plus it’s different and I don’t think that word is used much when talking about new horror films nowadays. I suspect that much like Rocky Horror & REPO, there’ll be a cult formed around Stage Fright in the years that follow. And if my suspicions are correct then Mr. Sable has completely succeeded in what he set out to accomplish.
Stage Fright – 3.5 out of 5 shrouds.