When it comes to horror genre hybrids, the horror-musical may not be the first one to jump into fans’ heads. However, the classic entries in the field are really strong. Films like Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Sweeney Todd have set the bar pretty damn high and their cult followers who can sing every song by heart will attest to that. Now Jerome Sable’s debut film Stage Fright hopes to enter the horror-musical ring with its own unique blend of camp slasher and macabre musical numbers. It works well for the film’s first half, then Sable fumbles and never manages to successfully blend the song and the slash.
In the film’s pre-credit sequence, the lead actress (Minnie Driver) of a new musical called “The Haunting of the Opera” is slaughtered in her dressing room. The murder makes the musical a one-time-only affair, ensuring its place in stage infamy. A decade later, the actress’ daughter Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and younger son Buddy (Douglas Smith) are dish dogs at a performing arts camp. The musical number introducing the camp’s many personalities is fun and genuinely entertaining with its tongue-in-cheek humor and catchy hooks. It’s easily the best song in the whole film.
The camp’s manager is none other than Roger, the producer of “The Haunting of the Opera.” He’s played by Meat Loaf, aka one of my favorite singers of all time. I was excited for him to be in another musical (a horror-musical no less!), but I’m sorry to say he’s terribly underused here. The man can sing his ass off like no other, though he’s brushed aside so these damn kids can hog the spotlight. His character isn’t too involved in the bulk of the plot, so I understand the lack of numbers he gets to do. But c’mon, Sable. You’ve got Meat Loaf in your bullpen and you’re not going to give him a number where he can really wail? Lame.
Anyway Roger decides to stage a revival of “The Haunting of the Opera,” which I would find painfully inappropriate if I was Camilla. The same producer, who’s now your boss, wants to revive the musical that basically killed your mother. There’s a faux pas there somewhere. To everyone’s surprise, Camilla tries out for the play instead. She has to duke it out with another talented young woman going out for the lead and also prove herself (sexually) to the director.
Everything leading up to the musical is played light, sorta in the vein of Fame. It’s done pretty well too. Sable has an obvious talent for music and lyrics, but it’s when the horror elements come into play where he starts dropping the ball. The musical numbers dramatically taper off during the second half, when Stage Fright delves into the slasher mystery killer realm. Who is butchering people in a kabuki mask? Is it the creepy Scooby-Doo-esque janitor? Fame-hungry Roger? The weirdo stagehand crushing on Camilla?
The presence of the whodunit element to the story is fine, however it overwhelms the second half of the film, leaving its musical aspirations in ruins. The terrific musicality is there in a strong way at first, but Sable is never able to make it work with the horror. There are some poor attempts to give the killer a hair-metal sounding music trademark. They just sound incredibly silly though. He solos on a guitar at one point. It sucks.
Rather then be a solid blend of horror and musical, Stage Fright winds up being a generic slasher with a strong musical start.