So, yeah, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cunningham and Carpenter: Stage Fright is a head-on collision of vintage slashers and Broadway musicals. Once upon a time, Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) was one of the most brightly shining stars on the Great White Way, and the sellout audience for the premiere of "The Haunting of the Opera" looked dead-certain to propel her to super-stardom. Sure enough, opening night was all everyone could talk about for a while. Not because of the show itself, so much, but because some lunatic in the show's Opera Ghost mask hacked and slashed Swanson to ribbons before friggin' goring her with a butcher knife. The newly-orphaned, pint-sized twins she left behind were taken in by her producer (Meat Loaf), who raised 'em as his own.
Flash forward a full decade. Roger McCall hasn't had a show on Broadway in ages, instead running a musical theater summer camp for melisma-tastic, bright-eyed teenagers. Not quite so bright-eyed are his adopted kids Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith), who generally shy away from the theater geek crowd while toiling away in the camp's kitchen. Turns out that the camp is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and McCall's Hail Mary play is to revive "The Haunting of the Opera" -- ten years after the savage murder of its leading lady. Who better to take over the role of Sofia than the late Kylie Swanson's achingly gorgeous daughter? Ask around the camp, though, and the answer will probably be "uh, anyone". The show's skeevy director-slash-star (Brandon Uranowitz) only has Camilla in his crosshairs so he can do the whole casting couch thing. A seasoned actress (Melanie Leishman) is incensed by having to compete with some amateur who oughtta be in the back, slinging spaghetti or whatever. Her brother Buddy just wants to leave everything about this life behind him in the rear view mirror. Oh, and then there's that nutjob with the Opera Ghost mask who starts stab-stab-slash-splatter-splatter-ing damned near everyone on both sides of the spotlight.
It's a slasher. It's a musical. It's a comedy. That combination is more than a little dangerous, and looking at what the cool kids are saying on Rotten Tomatoes, a whole lotta people don't think that Stage Fright sticks the landing. I get that reaction. If you're a frothing-at-the-mouth slasher fanatic, Stage Fright may disappoint since something like half the movie passes between on-screen kills, and the body count is pretty much microscopic until the final reel. There's also the whole thing that your Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm St.s aren't fat-packed with more giddy, exuberant singing than spoken dialogue for long stretches. Theater nuts, meanwhile, probably aren't gonna be thrilled about barrel drums of blood getting sloshed all over the stage. Whatever. No one makes a slasher-comedy-musical if they're desperate to reach some mainstream, four-quadrant audience.
Let's just break that down a bit. It's a slasher. Though Stage Fright shrugs off the usual stalk-and-slash rhythm of a scare popping up like clockwork every 8-10 minutes, with maybe too much of its carnage reserved for the final act, it still delivers the goods. You've got goring through the back of the neck, a half-severed foot, a human pincushion, and a maniac who's keen on saw blade brass knuckles. Stage Fright toys with the whodunnit angle the way a bunch of slashers and proto-slashers do, and its masked killer is pretty much the best thing ever. The kabuki opera ghost screams his one-liners in a metal falsetto, and strutting around with his guitar and backed by cock rock shredding, he's kind of a dead ringer for Johannes Krauser II from "Detroit Metal City". That's a hell of a plus, and the same goes for the extensive use of practical splatter rather than the digital stuff. Next! It's a musical. The songs throughout Stage Fright are wildly eclectic, bounding between impassioned ballads to chipper, upbeat, infectiously catchy numbers to death metal to rock opera...sometimes several of the above at once, to boot. Nothin' but the very best things to say here. Lyrically and musically, every one of these songs is terrific, and I'm kind of jealous that I'm not the guy who wrote "I'm gay / I'm actually gay / I don't get hard when I see T&A". (If that's making you cringe, it's way better in context. Promise.) The production is world-class, and it sure doesn't hurt that Stage Fright is cast top to bottom with tremendous vocal talent. It's a comedy. I laughed, anyway! Laughed bunches.
When Stage Fright first came across my desk, I kind of wished it had been the Alfred Hitchcock or Michele Soavi films of the same name instead. After plopping it in my Blu-ray deck, though, I'm pretty much blown away. I can't get over how high the production values are on every conceivable level. Despite being an independent Canadian production with what I'm sure is a modest budget, Stage Fright sure doesn't look like any expense was spared. It's brilliantly cast, and Allie MacDonald is now on my list of actresses to watch going forward. I'm not just saying that because she's drop-dead gorgeous or because of that dress she wears throughout the back half of the movie, although...well, there's that too. Skilled songwriting, a small army of immeasurably talented singers, a razor-sharp sense of humor, barrel drums of splatter: what's not to like? Recommended.
Stage Fright is a total knockout in high-def. Though the image does look a bit flat and noisy under lower light, the definition and detail on display here are almost always off the charts. It's also not afraid of vivid colors the way so many slashers are, especially early on under the bright of day. The authoring of the disc doesn't leave a whole lot of room for complaint either, thanks to skilled compression and no sign of overzealous filtering. Stage Fright looks so impressive that in those very brief moments where it stumbles, those missteps really, really stand out:
Oversharpening to compensate for an out-of-focus shot? Beats me, but that kind of makes my skin crawl. I'm kind of honor-bound to nitpick, and to be fair, not much else like that really happens anywhere else throughout the movie. Even the noisier shots with unusually flat contrast only add up to a few seconds of footage, all told. Stage Fright boasts an overall extraordinary presentation, and that's why it's okay that this isn't some combo pack with a DVD and digital copy code riding shotgun. Why settle for second best?
Stage Fright makes its bow on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The movie's presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and has been encoded with AVC.
Stage Fright doesn't get the usual 24-bit treatment I'm used to from movies fresh out of theaters, but I wouldn't have known that by listening to this 16-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The instrumentation throughout this musical boasts levels of distinctness and clarity that are second-to-none. Every line -- doesn't matter if it's sung, spoken, or screamed -- is delivered flawlessly and couldn't be more perfectly balanced in the mix. As you'd hope out of a shiny, new musical, the highs are crystalline and the lows are substantial. Bass response is especially impressive throughout all that black metal percussion. One thing that surprises me a bit is that the surround channels are seemingly reserved to reinforce the music exclusively. Even atmospheric effects that I'd expect to creep into the rears, such as an audience's riotous applause, are completely anchored up front. It's possible that I'm just losing my hearing and missing out on certain subtleties, but I didn't notice much of anything from behind aside from the musical numbers. That's not a complaint, though, just an observation. Again, wonderful work.
There aren't any dubs or alternate mixes this time around, but Stage Fright does deliver subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.
The first press release listed "The Legend of Beaver Dam" as an extra, but it turns out that's a Best Buy exclusive. (Thanks to Garrett Solomon and Jeffrey N. McMahan for pointing that out in the comments!) That version wasn't available for review, but if you can't make it to Best Buy, you can still watch the short online for free.
I miss the more retro-style poster art that was making the rounds at SXSW, but this cover's pretty great too.
The Final Word
Full disclosure: I'm a sucker for gruesome, offbeat musicals, and I'm kinda thrilled that I now have a new flick to join that list alongside Phantom of the Paradise, Repo! The Genetic Opera, and Cannibal! The Musical. If you've read "slasher-comedy-musical" this many times and have still managed to scroll this far in the review, chances are you'll nod knowingly when I say that Stage Fright very much comes Recommended.