Perhaps the most reviled branch of horror is the horror musical. Sure, we can name some unquestionable successes in this offbeat genre, from Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horror or Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to and the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But these victories are few and far between, standing out amid a flock of forgettable and uninspired features that either failed to thrill with their music, their terror, or both. Into this problematic subgenre comes Stage Fright, a slasher flick set at a summer camp that caters to musical theater kids.
Stage Fright stars Allie MacDonald as ingénue Camilla Swanson, a timid singer haunted by her past. Since Camilla was a little girl, she has dreamed of following in the footsteps of her Broadway star mother Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver). Not even her mother's horrific murder following the opening night performance of "The Haunting of the Opera" can deter Camilla's drive. So when the summer camp where she works decides to stage "The Haunting of the Opera," Camilla does anything it takes to land the lead, a role originated by her mom. But this revival also raises the bloodlust of a killer, who stalks the camp slaughtering any who believe the show must go on.
It's concept is imaginative, allowing writer-director Jerome Sable to poke fun at Glee-like theater geeks as well as slasher-horror conventions. Coming off its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, Stage Fright heads toward its theatrical debut with some impressive buzz. But does it deserve it? Yes and no.
I was pleasantly surprised by the film's first act. The setup of Kylie's debut and subsequent murder are done with a confidence, and a surprising amount of style considering the film's low budget. Better yet, Sable shows he won't shy away from gore just because there are showtunes in the mix.
Then we leap to 10 years later, where Camilla is grown, shy, and dying for her moment in the spotlight. The camp is introduced with a jaunty and irreverent musical number, where all the campers rejoice about coming to a place where they can be their weird selves without worry. It's sweet, silly and speaks to a feeling that many a theater kid will recognize. But in this number, we begin to see where Sable's ambition outpaced his ability.
While many of the lyrics are clever and cutting; the performers singing them are serviceable, but far from great. MacDonald sings a lot throughout the film, and regrettably, her charm doesn't extend to her singing voice, which is shrill. I had hoped Meat Loaf, who plays Camilla's guardian and owner of the camp, would bring his trademark pipes and bravado to the soundtrack. No one could accuse Meat Load of phoning it in as an actor here. He commits to this campy camp film with all he's got. But his singing in the film in no way compares to the glory days of Bat Out of Hell. And when we get to our heavy metal-singing serial killer, his shrieks undermined what could have been a truly scary villain. I get that it's a musical, but Sable should have taken a cue from the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. Slashers are scariest when they are silent.
Halfway through the film, I was wishing someone would give Sable a bigger budget to remake Stage Fright. He's got a great concept. The song numbers and set-ups are pretty solid, and the violence is brutal in a way that should appeal to horror lovers. But his cast lets him down, and the orchestration for the film often sounds amateurish. Had the music been better performed or bolder, Stage Fright's stumbles--including a third act that proves pat and predictable--could be more easily overlooked.
Stage Fright clearly suffers from a low-budget that hurt Sable's ability to bring his vision into better focus. Nonetheless, the film is sick, silly and entertaining. It's got a daring sense of humor and admirable earnestness. With allusions to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, Mean Girls and Hellraiser, it's culled together from a strange snarl of inspirations. But even with its bumps and warts, it works. Best of all, Stage Fright has a playfulness in its mix of music, comedy, and horror that make it an inventive and worthwhile addition to this tricky subgenre.
Stage Fright is now available on VOD and opens in theaters May 9th.