31 Days of Halloween, Allie MacDonald, Brandon Uranowitz, campy films, cinema, Douglas Smith, feature-film debut, film musicals, film reviews, films, horror films, horror musicals, Jerome Sable, Little Shop of Horrors, Meat Loaf, Melanie Leishman, Minnie Driver, Movies, musical theater, performing arts camp, Phantom of the Opera, Phantom of the Paradise, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Scream, slasher films, Stage Fright, The Devil's Carnival, The Haunting of the Opera, writer-director
For some reason, there just aren’t a lot of cinematic horror musicals. Oh, sure…we’ll always have the rogues’ gallery of The Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). There are even a few new ones that slip through now and then: Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) is pretty great, as is his The Devil’s Carnival (2012) (Who knew that one of the folks associated with the Saw series would go on to helm two of the better modern film musicals? Not I, said the fly.) There’s also the odd musical episode on genre shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Todd & the Book of Pure Evil. That being said, you can pretty much count the number of horror musicals on your hands, excluding, of course, filmed versions of stage plays like Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd.
If you think about it, however, that kind of makes sense: movie musicals, in general, haven’t been popular for some time (unless we’re talking about animated films, of course, which seem to be as popular as ever) and musicals and horror have never been the most natural fit, despite the genre’s origins with silent films. Musicals tend to bring their own unique sets of problems to the table, not the least of which is that you have to actually have good songs: if the tunes aren’t catchy or memorable, what’s the point, really? I’m not going to argue that every song in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is memorable in its own right: some tunes exist merely to push the narrative forward, plain and simple. Without showstoppers like “The Time Warp,” “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and “Eddie,” however, I doubt that the film would have as much resonance as it does, cult status or not.
One thing that really worked for me about Repo! (and there were plenty of things that didn’t work at all) was that it had actual powerhouse songs: it wasn’t loaded with them, mind you, but there were enough there that I found myself singing along more than a few times. While there were plenty of narrative holes, confusing plot elements and an over-reliance on jaw-dropping gore to pad the slow spots, there were also some pretty damn glorious musical set-pieces, such as the industrial-rocking “Zydrate Anatomy.” Without at least a few strong songs, however, the film definitely wouldn’t have stuck in my mind like it has. It sounds a little obvious but there it is: songs are pretty important for a musical.
All of this is, of course, a roundabout way of bringing us to writer-director Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright (2014). Stage Fright, you see, is the latest entry in the aforementioned cinematic horror musical sweepstakes. It features a pretty decent cast, including a few well-known names (Mini Driver, Meat Loaf). The production values are, generally, pretty good and the gore is exceptionally well-done: several of the kills in the film are at least as brutal, if not more so, than similar setpieces in “regular” horror films. For the most part, Stage Fright is a pretty average, if rather campy, horror film. As a musical, however, the film is decidedly less than average, featuring very few memorable songs and plenty of wasted potential. How could you have Meat Loaf in a horror musical and not shoot for the stars? The mind just boggles.
In many ways, Stage Fright is like a musical retelling of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) mashed-up with Fame (1980): when she was a wee child, Camilla Swanson’s (Allie MacDonald) actress mother, Kylie (Minnie Driver), was brutally killed on opening night of her starring role in The Haunting of the Opera. Fast forward a decade and Camilla and her twin brother, Buddy (Douglas Smith), are now working in the kitchen of the Center Stage Performing Arts Camp, a facility run by Kylie’s former manager/boyfriend, Roger (Meat Loaf). The camp puts on a musical ever year: last year was a musical rendition of The Vagina Monologues (cute) but this year, Roger wants to pull all the stops out…he wants to mount a staging of The Haunting of the Opera for the first time in ten years. When Camilla hears this, she’s determined to play the part that “killed” her mother, as some semblance of closure.
The theatrical world is a shark tank, however, and Camilla is pretty much immediately over her head: she has a rival for the lead role, Liz (Melanie Leishman), who will stop at nothing to sabotage her; the director, Artie (Brandon Uranowitz), is a single-minded sleaze who plays each of his potential lead actresses against each other in order to secure sexual favors for himself; her twin brother is acting moody and kind of shitty to her and someone is running around killing the cast and crew in various creative ways (the light bulb in the mouth was a personal favorite of mine). Camilla will need to figure out who’s picked up the Phantom’s mask and resumed his killing spree before she becomes the next victim. This is one situation where the phrase “break a leg” takes on a whole other meaning, let me tell ya!
As previously mentioned, Stage Fright functions just fine as a medium-grade, youth-oriented slasher film. The kills are creative and intense, the acting is pretty enjoyable and the script is just self-aware enough to seem “deeper” than the typical “dead teenager” fare without seeming as smirking and self-referential as something like Scream (again, an obvious influence for the filmmakers). The film isn’t overly goofy or ridiculously hyperactive, which is a definite plus, although it’s also not particularly brilliant, either. Minnie Driver does just fine in a role that’s essentially a cameo, although it’s a little disappointing to see Meat Loaf be relatively wasted, especially when it comes to the singing parts. Allie MacDonald is a (mostly) likable heroine, although Douglas Smith (son Ben in TV’s Big Love) often comes across a bit too cartoonish and over-the-top. The final “twist” revelation is pretty silly but the film maintains its convictions, which is, at the very least, admirable. The movie looks pretty good, although it didn’t blow me away (there are some nice things done with shadows and framing).
The biggest issue with the film, however, is the relative weakness of its songs. With the exception of the opening number which amusingly contrasts “being gay for theatre” with “being gay in general” (one student proclaims that he’s “gay but not in that way” while another student cheerfully exclaims that he is: T & A does nothing for him, at all), there really isn’t anything vaguely memorable. Worse yet, the film completely squanders almost all of the Phantom’s opportunities for busting out sweet tunes: his songs tend to be garbled and clunky, at best, or reduced to ridiculously stereotypical “heavy metal falsettos,” at worst. I was constantly reminded of the musical episode of Todd & the Book of Pure Evil (without a doubt, one of the high-points of Canadian TV, period): in that show, the villain was given some appropriately kickass heavy metal to rock, contrasted with the rest of the cast’s more “traditional” stylings and it worked wonders. Here, the Phantom ends up with absolutely no personality, aside from his quips during the kills: it’s a huge wasted opportunity and a real head-scratcher.
The Phantom is only the most obvious victim, however: no one really gets much to do. Despite the opening song being clever (albeit in a juvenile way), none of the singers/performers stand out whatsoever: they all just blend into the woodwork. Ditto for any of the film’s big musical numbers: anonymous actors sing generic lines, shrug, rinse, repeat. Not every song in Repo! or The Devil’s Carnival was a bulls-eye, mind you, but both of the those films still managed to hit their marks roughly 200% more than Stage Fright does. Ultimately, this leaves you with a musical where the songs end up being the weakest link: yikes!
Despite my criticism, I definitely didn’t hate Stage Fright: hell, I didn’t really even dislike it, to be honest. There was plenty of potential here and I’m really curious to see what Sable comes up with next: Stage Fright was his feature debut and those can be a little rough going, at times. For the most part, Stage Fright hits its horror beats just fine, even if it owes quite a bit to Craven’s Scream franchise. The film’s big problem comes with its almost total lack of memorable musical numbers: so few stick that it almost makes them seem like an after-thought, throwing into question the whole point of a musical in the first place. Nonetheless, I’m interested to see where Sable goes from here. Who knows: in the future, he might just have a new Rocky Horror Picture Show in him. Or, at the very least, another Repo. Stage Fright isn’t quite there but I don’t hear the fat lady singing, either.