Stage Fright - Aquarius (1986)

(aka: Deliria; Bloody Bird)

Directed by Michele Soavi

Produced by Donatella Donati & Aristide Massaccesi

Starring Barbara Cupisti, David Brandon, Robert Gligorov, Martin Philips, Ulrike Schwerk, Mary Sellers, Joanne Smith, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Domenico Fiore, Clain Parker, Loredana Parrella, James ER Sampson, Piero Vida

Stage Fright

Michele Soavi only seems ever capable of fine genre cinema. Through four theatrical features he hasn't turned out one dud yet and, thanks to his directorial debut on "Stage Fright", he even managed to score second unit duties on Terry Gilliam's boisterous epic "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen". What did the former Python see in Soavi's debut feature that won him the job? Without question the same thing most serious fans of Euro-horror saw: unmitigated genius on a tight budget. Soavi infused his stab (sorry!) at the slasher genre with enough of the right elements to make it a sure-fire winner. And unlike the wealth of filmmakers that jumped on the band-wagon when Wes Craven revitalised the genre with "Scream", he took the possibilities of his source material (Luigi Montefiore's script) and ran with them. I'm not sure how respectful/playful Soavi was with the genre in "Stage Fright" but one thing is certain�even now, over a decade after it popped its owl-hooded head up, it still works like a charm!

Scarcely a week from opening their serial killer musical, a crew of near destitute actors headed up by the beautiful Alicia Alvarez (Cupisti) seem hopelessly short of necessary preparation time. Production Manager and Stage Director Peter (Brandon), manically entrusting his virtually washed up chances for a sure-fire hit to his cast of flailing thespians, isn't so nearly convinced as his troupe. A troupe who consist of lovers Danny (Gligorov) and Sybil (Smith), prima-diva Laurel (Sellers) who craves Alicia's leading role, camp ex-rent boy Brett (Radice), and production assistants Mark (Philips), Betty (Schwerk) and Connie (Parrella). Not forgetting philandering producer Ferrari (Vida), who is intent on seeing a positive return on his investment. When Alicia injures her ankle, a visit to a local psychiatric hospital picks up an unwelcome guest in the form of escapee Irving Wallace (Parker), a deranged serial killer. Once back within the theatre, locked in overnight for exhaustive rehearsals, Alvarez and her fellow dancers swiftly become targets for Wallace's murderous rage. A rage that threatens to leave all dead by dawn!

Okay, so the central premise isn't all that original (murderers running loose in old theatres is nothing new�lest we all forget Peter Walker's overlooked "The Flesh & Blood Show"), but Soavi's Continental spin on the material gives "Stage Fright" a unique freshness that elevates it above its source derivatives. Enlivened by a compelling score by former Andi Sex Gang member Simon Boswell, Soavi creates a fervid atmosphere of deep-rooted claustrophobic terror, only ever sinking to cheap slasher scares on a handful of occasions. The cast is an engagingly attractive ensemble of relative unknowns, barring of course the striking Cupisti and genre veterans Brandon & Radice, who (thanks to Montefiore's above average script) do NOT act in unison with the standard slasher conventions. It's a real delightful pleasure to witness potential victims banding together under duress, rather than split up only to be slaughtered in solo, grisly fashion. Former British stage actor Brandon pulls off a joyously tour-de-force performance as production director Peter, rushing from sensation-driven lunacy to desperate fait-leader with aplomb. Soavi's direction is solid, displaying a keen visual eye for audacious giallo-styled frissons that bolster the production with a classy elegance all its own. In true Italian style, Soavi pulls no punches either when it comes to his marvelously gruesome murder setpieces, even managing to generate some well-handled tension along the way to the obligatory twist ending. Clearly derivative, but eminently unforgettable.

EC Entertainment are fast becoming the European DVD distributor to keep a close eye on. First up were their anamorphic remasters of "Eaten Alive!" and "Cannibal Holocaust" (dealt with elsewhere), and now comes this�an excellent presentation of an even better film. I grew up on this film in two VHS spawned editions: the slightly censored fullframe edition from Avatar, and then later the slightly widescreen (1.66) uncensored edition from Redemption. I could count into that the alternate edit of the film available on Italian language cassette from Avofilm, but I won't as that's an extremely long story! Suffice to say, EC's DVD edition supercedes every prior version of Soavi's film available and I happily concur with Alan when he says that Anchor Bay and Salvation will have a hard time topping this disc. The image quality is striking to say the least, with strong colours, fine detail and a clarity I thought I would never see of this film. There are a few tiny issues with negligible print damage and some mild macro-blocking amidst smoke in an early scene, but otherwise the print is spot on. Presented fullframe (which sadly does not allow for 16:9 enhancement), EC have at least provided an optional "theatrical matte" that replicates the film's screen ratio of 1.66 (although this seemed closer to 1.77 to my eyes).

Like me and never heard "Stage Fright" as the director intended with its Dolby stereo track present (per Avatar & Redemption's mono cassettes)? Well, good news, EC have mastered this with a Dolby 4 channel surround audio track that is probably as close to what Soavi & Dolby consultant Federico Savina intended. Yes, the voice track does commence a tad low, but as time passes this hiccup irons itself out and the audio surrounds you with a nice ambience. Stefano Mainetti & Simon Boswell's original music now sounds like it was meant to, most notably Boswell's "Stairway To Hell" really comes alive in the sequences it is utilised. Nice work EC�:)

Extra features consist of the original theatrical trailer, a Stills & Artwork gallery, and the very curious music video "Mystery Rouge" by Mia. You see the word "Music Video" and you would expect maybe a clip of Simon Boswell's "Stairway To Hell" directed by Soavi, right? Well, this is an odd one! Mia's very-eighties Euro-pop single seems to have been inspired by Soavi's film, which is pretty unique in anyone's book! Imagine walking into your local music retailer and finding a dance single "inspired" by, say, "Eaten Alive!"�wouldn't that wig you out? Anyhoo, the music video has been mastered from a "seen better days" video source, and is a curiosity at best. Just be sure you don't watch it more than twice like I did, or else the annoying chorus will stick in your head for days! (In case you got the wrong idea there, the song is truly awful!)

Mmm, a bit of a corker all 'round, this one. A sure-footed debut from Soavi, and a professionally executed disc from (seeming global whipping posts) EC Entertainment. The UK's Salvation label, and the US's Anchor Bay, have also announced imminent releases of Soavi's seminal serial killer opus, but I feel they'll both be working extremely hard to exceed the standard set by this Dutch release, which also benefits from sleeve art that is a reproduction of the film's excellent Japanese theatrical materials. An extremely impressive package all 'round, and one well worth your hard-earned pennies if you're a fan.

Review by M.C.Thomason

Released by EC Entertainment
Classified 18 - Region 2
Running time - 90m
Ratio - Fullscreen & Widescreen 1.77
Audio - Dolby surround 4.0
Extras :
Theatrical trailer, Music Video, Artwork & Stills gallery
� 2001, Icon In Black Media