A theatre, at night. Permanently perspiring director Peter (David Brandon) presides over rehearsals for a horror musical entitled "The Night Owl". He's becoming frantic because there's only a week left until opening night and his dancing cast still aren't up to snuff.

When lead actress Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) hurts her ankle, she defies Peter's orders and sneaks away from the production - her assistant Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) drives the pair of them to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to them, the clinic they arrive at is actually an asylum for the criminally insane. As one psychiatrist kindly tends to Alicia's ankle anyway, what the ladies don't witness is former actor-turned-madman Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) escaping from the madhouse and hitching a lift back in the back of their car as they return to Peter's production.

Back at the theatre, Peter goes apeshit when he finds out where Alicia's been and promptly sacks her. All that changes a short while later when they discover Betty has been murdered outside the theatre - and that an escaped lunatic is responsible.

As the press gather, police sniff around the place and the cast members fret, Peter has a quiet word with his producer Ferrari (Piero Vida): if they bring their opening night forward and change the name of their serial killer character to "Irving Wallace", he reasons, they will have a smash hit on their hands.

With that, he arranges for his cast and small crew to be offered cash bonuses to stay indefinitely in the theatre and rehearse. Furthermore, he ensures no-one can leave by having a lackey hide the only key to the place. The only problem with this is that they now all happen to be locked in the soundproof theatre with a deranged killer...

Having started his career as an assistant director to the likes of Dario Argento, and helming the documentary DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR, Michele Soavi directed this wonderful and stylish horror thriller in 1987. He also cameos as one of the witless policemen assigned to keep watch over the theatre after Betty's murder.

STAGEFRIGHT is a joy. It's not overly gory and certainly never nasty, and you could argue that the plot - the screenplay comes courtesy of Luigi Montefiore - is by-the-numbers, but the flair with which everything is shot and performed really helps this rise above many of its era's output. It stands the test of time spectacularly as a result.

Some of the early faux frights are a little laughable nowadays (a black cat pouncing on superstitious folk moments before they die; the clich�d hand on the back of the shoulder) but these are minor quibbles when you consider the great, wryly humorous characters (Giovanni Lombardo Radice offers a memorably camp turn as one of the dancers), stunning photography, Argentoesque coloured lighting and even Simon Boswell's ambient electronic score.

Perfectly paced, always engaging and endlessly inventive on a visual level, STAGEFRIGHT continues to be one of the best horror films of the late 80s. It's also one of the last truly wonderful Italian genre films, and remains a joy to lose yourself in to this day.

New label Exposure Cinema have released the film as a dual format blu-ray and DVD package. We were sent the former to review.

STAGEFRIGHT is presented here on a BD50 dual layer disc as a handsomely sized MPEG4-AVC file, in 1080p HD, It's uncut (90 minutes and 21 seconds long) and newly restored from the original Italian vault elements. Yes, it looks great.

Colours, clarity and detail are all vastly increased over previous releases, while deep blacks and acute contrast ensure a sense of depth true to the nature of 35mm film. As it progresses, the film just gets more stunning. Wow, just look at the actors' faces, their hair, the feathers, the fish ... yes, there's grain, but only of the natural variety. Naturalistic, sharp and vibrant, STAGEFRIGHT looks as good as any contemporary film here - kudos to Exposure Cinema for doing such a sterling job.

One potential bone of contention for some will be the framing of the film. It was shot in open matte format but with the intention of being matted when shown theatrically. We get the matted version here - 16x9 1.85:1. No qualms from me: it's how Soavi intended the film to be shown in cinemas and, having owned the EC DVD which provided both aspects on one discs, definitely looks more stylish.

Audio is provided in English LPCM 2.0 stereo (as originally filmed) and sounds similarly marvellous. Well-written, easily discernible optional English subtitles are also a boon for the Hard-of-Hearing. The disc opens with an insanely long (5 minutes and 33 seconds), gory trailer for ZOMBI HOLOCAUST. Following from that we're greeted with a colourful static main menu.

A pop-up scene selection menu allows access to the film via 12 chapters. Alas, when you select the pop-up menu while viewing the film, it takes you back to the main menu.

Extras begin with "A Bloodstained Featherstorm". This is an excellent 28-minute featurette produced by Nocturno Cinema, in which Cupisti, Soavi, screenwriter Luigi Montefiore (credited on the print used for this release as Lew Cooper) and co-star Mary Sellers. It's a great companion piece, offering insight into the reason for the film's various titles, how the crew worked around its tight budget, the tensions on set and much more.

Always good value for money, Giovanni Lombardo Radice turns up in his own featurette - "Giovanni's Method" - in which Nocturno scribe Eugenio Ercolani interviews the illustrious cult actor about his relationship with cinema in general, how he fell into the Italian exploitation scene and, of course, his time on Soavi's film. His anecdote about first meeting the director, having previously stolen parts from him in previous films, is amusing. This makes for a most entertaining 20 minutes.

Nocturno have also donated their mightily fine 1999 documentary "Joe D'Amato Totally Uncut 2". Clocking in at 54 minutes in length, it's a great addition to the set and - despite a disclaimer warning that it's been sourced from the limited materials - it looks perfectly good in its pillar-boxed, video-origins state. D'Amato (or Aristide Massaccessi, to employ his birth name) makes for an affable interviewee as he looks back on his work - incorporating BEYOND THE DARKNESS, ABSURD, ANTHROPOPHAGUS THE BEAST, CALIGULA THE UNTOLD STORY and so on). Luigi Montefiore (a.k.a. George Eastman) is also interviewed, offering his own accounts of certain productions. It's a fascinating insight into an oft-underrated filmmaker. Its inclusion here stems from the fact that Massaccessi produced STAGEFRIGHT. Interestingly, he reveals how he met actor Brandon - and cast him as Caligula in his own violent cash-in movie (cue clips of virgins being assaulted with wooden dildos ...).

All of the above are in Italian with English subtitles.

Next we get a 28-minute visual essay from Alan Jones, complete with snazzy shirt, discussing his appreciation of the film. He reminds us about Soavi's early connections with Argento and then goes on to elaborate on the sequences that impress him the most, as well as pointing out less obvious influences such as a very early version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

"Revenge of the Videocassette" uses electro pop sounds and lo-fi aesthetics to evoke the 80s during a 25-minute celebration of the not-quite-extinct medium. It consists of random people discussing their love of VHS and how they first discovered horror films in their local rental stores, along with footage of shop shelves, testimony to the love for the format in the guise of people who converted their VCRs into toasters etc ... All fun, though what this is doing on this disc is anyone's guess.

There's also a split-screen 98-second comparison between three scenes that were trimmed for the 1987 Avatar video release in the UK, and the uncut version of the film. The Avatar release was my first experience of the film; it's insane in hindsight to think it was ever cut by the BBFC.

An 8-minute gallery offers an abundance of artwork and production stills.

The film's original trailer is just over 2 minutes long and doesn't really do the film justice.

The DVD houses the film and all of the extras, save for the D'Amato and VHS documentaries.

Finally, we get a glossy 24-page booklet containing biographies plus essays by Ian Hill and David Gresham, which is a fun read and certainly eye-catching, peppered as it is with lots of colourful stills.

STAGEFRIGHT continues to age extremely well, emerging as one of the most stylish and enduring horror pictures of the late 1980s. This region-free release from Exposure Cinema, in terms of both presentation and extras, is definitive.

Highly recommended.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Exposure Cinema
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review