A theater troupe working on a musical suddenly find themselves the target of escaped lunatic Irving Wallace (Clain Parker). When the seamstress is murdered by the killer during rehearsals, the director (David Brandon) sees an opportunity to cash in on the free publicity and orders the actors to work all night so the musical can open early. After the doors of the theater are locked and the keys hidden away, the troupe discover Irving Wallace still walks among them. The actors begin a desperate search for the keys while trying to survive the night.
Stage Fright is one of the last great slashers to come out of the Big Boot before the film industry crumbled. This film marks Michele Soavi’s debut as a director but he’d apprenticed with the biggest names in Italian horror cinema (Fulci, Argento, Bava, D’Amato) for years before getting the opportunity. Joe D’Amato (Aristide Massacesi) worked behind the scenes as producer and Anthropophagus star Luigi Montefiori wrote the script. Also along for the ride are actress Barbara (Cemetery Man and The Church) Cupisti and frequent victim John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Morghen is best known to gore fans as the guy who gets a drill through the skull in Fulci’s The Gates of Hell and suffers an even worse fate in Make Them Die Slowly.
Irving Wallace wears a giant owl mask while stalking his prey. In lesser hands this could have been a major disaster, but Soavi’s direction and Montefiori’s script never lets the character come across as a buffoon. Wallace is a cruel, mean sumbitch who enjoys finding new ways to use power tools. The gory murders include pick-ax to the mouth, chainsaw dismemberment, decapitation, a brutal stabbing, power drill through the gut, and a nasty game of tug-of-war involving a pregnant woman. The final sequence involves Wallace arranging the bodies (or sometimes the bits that are left) on stage and smearing his victims with blood and feathers. It’s a chilling scene yet strangely beautiful at the same time.
A major benefit to the story is the viewer gets to know the characters before Wallace escapes from the asylum. Knowing about their struggles, hopes, and dreams makes the characters more human. Also helping Stage Fright is the dubbing is much better than the average Italian gorefest. Only Morghen’s performance is hindered by an over the top voice actor. At times it sounds like fitness guru Richard Simmons is reading Morghen’s lines. There are a few jerks in the troupe but most of the characters are likable and don’t deserve their grizzly fates.
Stage Fright is one of the last great Italian slashers and one of the best released after the genre’s golden age. The film’s mix of atmosphere, tension, frights, and shocks makes Stage Fright a cut above the average slasher. This film was actually the third slasher made by the team of Massaccesi and Montefiori. Anthropophagus and Rosso Sangue were the first two entries in their slasher trifecta, but Stage Fright is the best of the three. Soavi makes a cameo as a young cop convinced he looks like James Dean.