[With deepest apologies to my kind and lovely friend, Gus, who loves the musical theater almost as much as he loves summer camp slashers.]
Jerome Sable’s satirical slasher movie, “Stage Fright” (not to be confused with Michele Soavi’s superior 1987 giallo of the same name), wants desperately to be all things to all people, but, ironically, ends up being not much of anything at all. It starts out as a sharp and hilarious satire of everything from “Meatballs” to “Glee” to “Psycho Beach Party,” before abruptly deciding to throw in the Phantoms of both the Opera and the Paradise, a little bit of “Rock ’n’ Roll Nightmare,” and sundry other 80s horror movies that probably didn’t require such fervent homage.
The set-up is pretty basic: a broadway diva (played inexplicably by Minnie Driver) is murdered on the opening night of a new musical, leaving her young son and daughter in the permanent care of her lover, and the show’s producer, Roger McCall (played a little more explicably by Meat Loaf. Yes, that Meat Loaf.). A flash-forward finds the children, now teens, slaving away as the kitchen crew at Roger’s secluded mountain drama camp. Buddy (Douglas Smith) thinks that the theater kids set to descend on the camp at any moment are a bunch of geeks worthy only of contempt, but his sister, Camilla (Allie MacDonald), disagrees: she harbors a deep desire to be one of those theater kids, herself; after all, her mother was a beloved star, so it’s in her blood, and she does have a pretty nice singing voice. Unfortunately for Camilla, Roger isn’t keen on the idea of his ward becoming famous.
The kids arrive in a splashy song-and-dance number that cleverly highlights how oft-tormented theater folk enter an alternate dimension while at drama camp. One day their heads are being forced into dirty toilets at school, and the next, they’re royalty, creating and maintaining a complex social hierarchy that isn’t much different from their daily lives, and contains only marginally less bullying. The characters are just as colorful as the musical number that introduces them: there’s the kid who doth protesteth his heterosexuality too much (“I’m gay, I’m gay, but not in that way!”), the lighting guy whose crush on Camilla borders on stalking, the director with the ego of Lars Von Trier and the sex drive of Warren Beatty, the bitchy chanteuse who does not care for her competition, and a girl with a disturbingly deep lisp.
Sable has a lot of fun establishing his characters and their place in the world, going about it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek — until one afternoon, when Roger decides to re-stage the very musical Camilla and Buddy’s mother was to have starred in. Resistant at first to Camilla’s desire to audition with the rest of the kids, Roger, hellbent on making his way back to New York, finally relents when an opportunity to impress a local investor presents itself.
And that’s when “Stage Fright” becomes just another poorly-executed slasher flick. As soon as Camilla belts out her joy over being cast as a co-lead in the musical, a masked killer, seemingly preferential to rock music over the legitimate thee-ater, starts picking people off at random, and all the rousing musical numbers get pushed to the back of the chorus line in favor of a series of uninspired murders. People run around doing dumb things, trip and fall when they aren’t supposed to, and generally manage to run headlong into sharp weapons. The identity of the actual killer (there are two) comes off as uninspired, mainly because the movie pretty much gives it away in the first twenty minutes. (You can apply Roger Ebert’s famous Law of Economy of Characters here, which states that all characters in a movie are necessary — even those that don’t seem to be. Find the character that seems otherwise extraneous, and you have your killer. For the most part, it’s infallible.)
I can’t help but ask myself what kind of movie Sable wanted “Stage Fright” to be. What exactly was the tone he was going for? It isn’t exactly a comedy, it isn’t exactly horror, and it isn’t exactly a musical, although it fails spectacularly at being all three. “Stage Fright” really isn’t very good at being any one thing, and the more I think about this movie, the more it sets my teeth on edge.