Canada. Directed by Jerome Sable, 2014. Starring Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Brandon Uranowitz, Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf Aday. 89 minutes.
The idea of a musical slasher comedy that takes place at a theater camp that’s preparing to stage a revival of an obvious parody of The Phantom of the Opera is so adorable that I find myself tempted to just give the endeavor four stars and not even bother writing the review. Sadly, that’s not how we work here at the Gallery.
The setup is archetypal summer-camp slasher. Once upon a time, someone murdered singer/actress Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) after the curtain closed on the début performance of The Haunting of the Opera. Ten years later, the show’s producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf) runs a musical summer camp for teens, employing Kylie’s orphaned children Camilla and Buddy (Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith) in the kitchen. This year’s production might just be Roger’s ticket back to the big leagues: a post-modern reimagining of Haunting set in feudal Japan. With kabuki makeup. And Camilla dreams of singing the part her mother originated, even though she’s not even a camper.
That’s a lot of pins to keep in the air, and to his credit, Sable usually makes whatever the film is trying to do at any given time work. The musical number establishing the camp is a riot, poking fun at musical-theater stereotypes (“I’m gay, I’m gay,” sings the Designated Hunk, “but not in that way”). Meanwhile, it’s hard to avoid the word “classic” when discussing the slasher elements: the creative kills, the rampant horndoggery, the masked killer with the motivation ten times more complex than required, plus an added layer of callback and reference for the generation that grew up on Scream.
All of this is delivered by a killer cast, if you’ll pardon the pun. Not a single performance falls flat; I could literally write all night about how much I loved the ensemble. I won’t, but I’d like to single out the adorable MacDonald in the Final Girl role, and Meat Loaf in the role he was born to play. Even the mustache looks perfect on him.
Yet there’s a feeling that all these genres might mix together a bit more thoroughly. There are times when Stage Fright is a movie musical, and times when it’s a slasher movie about a musical; there are damn few times when it feels like a musical slasher movie about a musical, even when the killer sings his lines in hair-metal fashion. Some of the second act drags, when the story switches over from “musical” mode to “slasher” mode.
I also feel that the film’s third act, when the campers actually perform the musical, represents something of a missed opportunity. This chunk of the film is funny and entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but it could (and I’d say it should) be a lot more clever than it ends up being. The events of Haunting don’t really comment on the characters putting on the show. And killer’s reveal felt, well, wrong to me. In order for relationship between the story of Stage Fright, the story of Haunting, and the implied story of The Phantom of the Opera to resonate properly, the slasher needed to be someone (one of two characters) that it didn’t end up being.
Still, Stage Fright is a marvelously entertaining production that will delight fans of both musicals and horror, particularly devotees of the ’80s slasher formula. It’s not an unqualified success, but it was never going to be. No mere mortal could make a film that lived up to the awesomeness promised by that log line…even with Meat Loaf in the cast.