Stage Fright

No mere mortal could make a film that lived up to the awesomeness promised by Stage Fright‘s log line.

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.

Stage Freight poster

Rubber

An unexpectedly philosophical film, like a verbal game of “what if?” played by a pair of stoned college students in a dorm room.

France. Directed by Quentin Dupieux, 2010. Starring “Robert,” Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida. 82 minutes.

A group of spectators have assembled in the desert. They are addressed by a man in a state trooper named Lt. Chad (Stephen Spinella). He delivers a monologue on the topic of things happening in movies for “no reason.” Why is E.T. brown? No reason. In JFK, why is the president assassinated by a complete stranger? No reason.

He then informs the gathering that, in the film they’re about to watch, everything happens for exactly no reason whatsoever.

The assembly is given binoculars, and their attention is drawn to a nearby junkyard, where a discarded tire (identified in the credits as “Robert”) has suddenly come to life. It rolls along under its own power, awkwardly at first, but soon with confidence. Soon it discovers it has the power to destroy. It encounters a plastic water bottle and rolls over it, crushing it. It encounters a scorpion and does the same. When it fails to crush a beer bottle, it concentrates and causes it to explode by the force of its will alone.

It continues on its journey, killing anyone and anything that gets in its way, and drawing a variety of bystanders into its crime spree: Sheila (Roxane Mesquida), a young woman on a road trip; Zach (Remi Thorne), a teenager who works at a motel; even Lt. Chad and the police.

Is the tire really alive? Are these bizarre events really happening, or is it all some sort of trick? Will the audience, stuck in the desert with binoculars and no food, live long enough to see any of these questions answered?

Let’s be honest here. No film is ever “just a movie.” All movies are products of the people who make them: their obsessions, their anxieties, their fears. What makes them laugh, what frightens them, what turns them on. It doesn’t have to be conscious. Most of the time, it’s unconscious. But anyone who creates art will find the things they think about reflected in that art. It’s inevitable. When you watch a movie, everything you see and hear is the result of a conscious choice. Mistakes are a choice. Randomness is a choice. As Neil Peart once pointed out, even the refusal to make a choice is a choice.

At the beginning of Rubber, Lt. Chad asserts the opposite, but his argument gradually negates itself. He says important things in movies happen “for no reason,” but not only are there reasons for most of the examples he gives, those reasons are glaringly obvious. That says a lot about what follows.

Let’s compare Rubber to two other films that explore why things happen the way they do in violent movies. The Cabin in the Woods addresses the issue of inexplicable character behavior in slashers. Like Scream, it’s pure entertainment with a meta level. You can play along at home if you like, but it’s not necessary to enjoyment of the film. On the other hand, Funny Games isn’t entertainment and I’m sure Michael Haneke would be pissed at the idea of anyone, anywhere, actually enjoying it. Not only does it nakedly manipulate events to fit a predetermined outcome, it literally tells the audience that it’s doing so.

For the purposes of the point I’m making, the crucial difference between the two films is that Funny Games features a character who knows he’s in a movie. Rubber either splits the difference or takes it a step further. Lt. Chad knows he’s a character in a movie, but he doesn’t know where that ends and where his real life, assuming he even has one, begins.

Horror-comedies are expected to have a degree of self-awareness these days but what I hope I’ve communicated here is that Rubber has a bit of a philosophical bent to it, definitely more than you might expect from a movie about a tire that comes to life and starts Scanner-ing people to death. But it’s not an intellectual approach to philosophy: it’s more like a verbal game of “what if?” played by a pair of stoned college students in a dorm room, or an 80-minute-long Conspiracy Keanu meme.

This means that the film is going to be an acquired taste from the get-go, and has a tendency to be uneven, probably by design. It’s amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, but not consistently so. It has a tendency to drag a bit in places, particularly at the beginning (the sequence depicting Robert learning to roll and kill is a particular offender…I think I get why writer/director Quentin Dupieux filmed and edited it the way he did, but sometimes that footage seems endless). It’s definitely more than a little indulgent.

It’s also one of those films that’s largely resistant to element-by-element breakdowns of its quality, because many of its flaws (uneven pacing, stilted performances) seem to be part of the point of the film–features as opposed to bugs.

Ultimately Rubber seems to be the kind of movie you either get or don’t get. I get it to an extent, and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it felt like certain thematic/narrative choices got in the way of me embracing it fully. On the other hand, I don’t think it could be “fixed” without taking its uniqueness away from it; art’s like that sometimes. Maybe it’s your kind of thing more than it is mine–hopefully I’ve given you enough information so you can tell whether it is. But despite my mixed emotions towards it, I’m rather glad it exists.

Rubber poster

All Cheerleaders Die

I expected more from a Lucky McKee movie than hot chicks and fun kill scenes

United States. Directed by Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson, 2013. Starring Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Brooke Butler. 89 minutes. 4/10

At the end of her junior year, Mäddy Killian (Caitlin Stasey), interviewing her fellow students on video for a class project, asks her childhood friend Lexi if cheerleading really is the most dangerous high school sport. Lexi insists it is, and proves it by dying in a fall during a botched toss.

Three months later and senior year is about to begin. Lexi’s boyfriend Terry (Tom Williamson) is now dating Tracy (Brooke Butler), the new cheerleading squad captain. Mäddy, having ditched her girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and the rest of her geeky peer group, surprises everyone by trying out for the varsity squad…and shocks everyone by making the cut.

Mäddy has an agenda: she resents Terry and Tracy for hooking up so quickly after Lexi’s death, and wants to destroy their relationship by spreading rumors and seducing Tracy. But she doesn’t expect to develop a genuine affection for the cheerleading captain…and her plot goes awry when violence erupts between Terry and Tracy at a party. The car chase that ensues results in an accident that leaves Mäddy, Tracy and sisters Martha and Hanna (Reanin Johannink and Amanda Grace Cooper, respectively) dead.

Enter Leena, who resurrects the dead using a pagan ritual that links all five girls together in a supernatural bond. Mäddy and her friends find themselves possessed of unnatural powers–and an unholy thirst for human blood. They resolve to take vengeance on Terry and his buddies.

In 2001, Edward “Lucky” McKee and Chris Sivertson, fresh out of film school, made their first film, a low-budget horror movie called All Cheerleaders Die. It got a limited release and garnered little attention. McKee went on to write and direct acclaimed genre exercises such as May and The Woman. Sivertson had the misfortune to make I Know Who Killed Me during a period of time when everybody hated Lindsay Lohan. All Cheerleaders Die developed a small following, but remained more heard-about than actually seen.

But everything old becomes new again, especially when it comes to horror movies. And so Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson have remade All Cheerleaders Die. Should they have bothered? W-e-e-e-e-ll…

It’s not a bad little movie, not really. It’s well-directed and has a lot of funny moments (such as Leena leading the vampire cheerleaders into school on the first day, all of them with rock-star swagger, even Hanna in her mascot costume). It always nice to see McKee working through his pet obsessions: lonely, awkward outcasts, male-on-female cruelty and, of course, lesbians. Butler steals every scene she’s in, even when she’s not clad only in her undies, and Williamsons’ unhinged performance towards the end is a joyous thing. And, of course, attractive young cheerleaders in cheerleaders’ uniforms–can you tell I’m still bitter over Cheerleader Massacre?

And yet, as a rabid Lucky McKee fanboy (I’m not much familiar with Sivertson’s work), I can’t help but be disappointed.

The characterization simply isn’t as strong as I expected. The press materials refer to Mäddy as a “rebel,” but the writing doesn’t do much to develop that (other than the pretentious heavy metal umlaut in her name) and Stasey never really sells it. Johannink and Cooper barely seem aware that they’re supposed play each other when a (rather pointless) subplot involving Martha and Hanna body-swapping manifests. I found it hard to sympathize with girls who constantly call each other “bitch” as a sign of affection, or to buy a virgin so stupid he actually thinks women are (literally) cold inside during sex. (Although I can almost forgive that last one because it leads up to the “sweet, sweet freezebox” line.)

The storytelling also isn’t entirely up to snuff. A third-act revelation comes out of left field, as if McKee and Sivertson decided late in the writing process that Mäddy’s motivation wasn’t strong enough, and the script never seems to know where it’s going. While there aren’t any bad performances, the only cast member other than Butler and Williamson who distinguishes herself is Smit-McPhee.

But for me, the biggest disappointment was how typical it all was. One of the best things about McKee’s films is how distinct and quirky they are, even when they’re at their darkest; and, although I had a lot of problems with Sivertson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Lost, at least he nailed the mood and feel of a Ketchum novel.

On the other hand, All Cheerleaders Die is…well, it’s just another teen-scream horror movie. There are too many teen movie clichés in play here and the filmmakers don’t put much effort into subverting them or even poking at them. The film needs the bite of Heathers, but ends up feeling like a third-rate episode of Buffy or Charmed.

To be fair, sometimes you want to watch a movie with hot chicks and fun kill scenes, something you don’t want to think too much about. And if that’s what you want, All Cheerleaders Die is a whole lot better than most. It’s just that, at the very least, one half of the filmmaking duo is capable of a lot better.

All Cheerleaders Die poster