Friday, April 4, 2014

Killer Show: "Stage Fright" fun but doesn't go all-out as musical slasher

Stage Fright (2014)
89 min., rated R.

Fuse the 2003 indie musical "Camp" with a 1980s summer camp-set slasher pic, whether it be "Friday the 13th" or "Sleepaway Camp," and what you get is "Stage Fright," a fun but equally lacking horror-comedy musical. The writing-directing debut of Jerome Sable shows no lack of eagerness or trying, as it is unfettered in its vocals as it is in its bloodletting. The concept of a slasher terrorizing a performing-arts summer camp—how's that for a show?—sounds tailor-made for the horror-obsessed person who also checks out a Broadway performance without guilt, but what's on the drawing board far outweighs the actual execution. With all the ingredients to make a cult favorite, "Stage Fright" doesn't quite go all-out. It has its alternately catchy and bloody moments, though.

After the big night of famed actress Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) being on stage in "The Haunting of the Opera," she is brutally murdered in her dressing room by someone dressed as the phantom in the play. Ten years later, her two children, twins Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith), grow up under the wing of Kylie's close producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf Aday) and work as cooks at his all-ages theatre camp called Center Stage. When smarmy director Artie (Brandon Uranowitz) decides on this summer's production to be a revival of "The Haunting of the Opera" transplanted to Japan, Camilla decides to sign up and audition for the lead role of Sofia, just like her mother. It's announced that she gets the part as an understudy, losing out to spiteful prima donna Liz Silver (Melanie Leishman), but before long, the director will give it to Camilla if she sleeps with him. The backstage politics become trivialized once a killer in the show's kabuki mask starts offing the talent even before opening night. Despite the production being cursed with a trail of dead bodies, the show must go on.

Spattered with singing voices that get stifled by knives and decked-out tin can lids, "Stage Fright" surely gets off to a promising start. There's an amusing "based on true events" primer: "While the names have been changed to respect the victims and their families, the musical numbers will be performed exactly as they occurred." After Minnie Driver is dispatched in gnarly fashion, the film soon sets its flippant tone with a spontaneous song-and-dance number, "We're Here," performed by all of the giddy theatre kids stepping off the bus onto the grounds of the camp. It's a broad, silly, and exuberant number with infectiously clever lyrics, written by Sable and Eli Batalion, but once the film gets underway, nothing ever comes close to that genius four-minute moment. Before he first strikes the night prior to the show's big opening, the killer is seen growling and screaming in his hideaway with a wall of the campers' photos, but writer-director Sable relegates his minimal killings to the third act that the horror elements almost feel like an afterthought. When finally getting to it, he does offset most of the slashings with campy humor and the masked psycho's penchant for screamo, KISS-style rock 'n' roll. For instance, when entering to the cue of head-banging music, the killer breaks one victim's leg after quipping, "Break a leg!" After a make-up artist gets a face full of nails, the male lead gets told, "Nailed it!" It's that sort of thing.

As it goes with a genre mash-up, "Stage Fright" gets one thinking afterwards about what could have been to warrant an encore. It could have been even the least bit scary. It could have been funnier. However, what is there is a general air of enthusiasm for what kind of movie the filmmaker was trying to make within two disparate genres. The sincere, apple-cheeked Allie MacDonald has sympathy and a girl-next-door innocence as Camilla, but her voice careens between a lovely soprano and off-key trilling during some of the high notes that the coda can't really be bought. Meat Loaf Aday is also a sight to see, getting the chance to show his bread and butter in a horror-movie setting. The rest of the characters are either red herrings or colorful cartoons. Could it be the suspect janitor? The jealous stagehand (Kent Nolan) smitten with Camilla? It can't possibly be the flamboyantly gay, Andrew Rannels-lookalike assistant director (Thomas Alderson) or the lispy, frizzy-haired young girl (Adrianna Di Liello) in a tutu. When it comes to the unveiling of whodunit, it isn't all that surprising or satisfying. Horror fans will drool over the stylish one-sheet poster and some of the splattery set-pieces, while musical theatre geeks with a sense of humor might have a little fun. Don't get me wrong, "Stage Fright" is a larky hoot as far as it goes, but a slight missed opportunity just the same.

Grade: C +

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