Review: STAGE FRIGHT (2014){0}

At first glance, “horror movie” and “musical” would seem like a terrible mix. Musicals are often a celebration of human emotions whereas horror films frequently try to evoke and provoke those unpleasant things that terrify us all. But of course there is the cult classic granddaddy called The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which is not only a horror movie and a musical, but also a maniacal love letter to old-fashioned horror movies and musicals. (Brian De Palma’s 1974 film The Phantom of the Paradise also deserves a mention in this category.)

From Rocky Horror on there has been a calm but steady trickle of films that have little to no problem combining singing and dancing with scary stories. Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Cannibal: The Musical (1997), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Repo! The Genetic Opera (2009) still find new fans today because they’re able to introduce horror ideas to musical presentations with various types of comedy (of course) to help sweeten the deal.

 Those last two paragraphs are an elaborate way of saying that the amusing new indie flick Stage Fright is sort of like a cross between Glee and Sleepaway Camp, and while it struggles with a few slow spots and occasionally offers some tonally confused signals, there’s certainly enough to please horror buffs, musical geeks, or anyone who has tried to make an indie film or stage musical.

 Debut feature from writer/director (and composer) Jerome Sable (his 12-minute “The Legend of Beaver Dam” is pretty great), Stage Fright is about a theater camp that is suddenly plagued by a masked murderer. (Already you know if this movie is for you or not.) Our heroine is Camilla Swanson, a lovely young lady whose mother was viciously murdered (ten years earlier) just as her stage career was taking off. Probably not a great idea for Camilla to work at a “theater camp,” but of course she manages to land the lead role in a revival of “The Haunting of the Opera.” Yes, the very same play her mother would have…

Let’s just stick with “a theater camp is suddenly plagued by a masked murderer.” The story of Camilla, her dead mom and her unhappy brother makes more sense in the movie. Suffice to say that Camilla is still being looked over by failed producer Roger McCall, a guy who has his own motives for re-staging the play. None of this stuff really matters, because Stage Fright is not only a horror flick and a musical but also a frequently broad comedy, but it’s important to note that the Roger McCall character is played by the legendary Meat Loaf, and the man gets several chances to A) be funny and B) belt out some brief songs. His presence alone might make Stage Fright worth seeing.

Fortunately Mr. Sable has a good eye for young talent, and Stage Fright is at its best when it’s focused on the kooky ensemble of “theater kids” who attend the camp. (There’s a little girl with a lisp who almost steals the whole movie.) Come to think of it, virtually everything that surrounds Camilla’s central story is more amusing than Camilla’s central story. That’s not a knock on the very talented Allie MacDonald, who clearly has gifts in the singing, acting, and silliness departments, but Stage Fright is, at its heart, a slasher flick. And really, who cares about the plot in a slasher flick?

Horror geeks need not worry. For a weird genre mash-up that’s both legitimately funny and graced by a handful of great original songs (yes, it’s that kind of musical!), Stage Fright is not dainty when it comes to the kills. The movie is not very scary, which is fine, given what the filmmakers are clearly shooting for, but it is occasionally creepy and frequently quite gory.

But what’s most appealing about Stage Fright is simply the sincerity. This is a horror / musical that’s also a comedy; not a mean-spirited satire of horror films or musical theater. If you’d take some cinematic delight in seeing a Glee-like ensemble stuck inside a summer camp slash-fest, Stage Fright will work for you — but if you’re actually a huge fan of horror flicks and musical theatre in equal measure, this scrappy little indie just might be your new favourite movie. (Doubly so if you love Meat Loaf.)

Scott Weinberg