'Isn’t it Wrong to Sing and Dance When Someone Just Died?'

Stage Fright
(Canada, 89 min.)
Written and directed by Jerome Sable
Starring: Allie MacDonald, Meat Loaf, Douglas Smith, Minnie Driver, Kent Nolan, Melanie Leishman, Brandon Uranowitz
Meat Loaf and Allie MacDonald star in Stage Fright, an eOne Films release.

“Isn’t it wrong to sing and dance when someone just died?” says one of the glee campers at Centre Stage summer camp in Stage Fright. The budding songstress voices her concern around the halfway mark of Stage Fright when the bodies start to pile up at Centre Stage. It’s around this time, too, that writer/director Jerome Sable brings Stage Fright towards a second act that is far heavier on the blood and gore than its first part is. It’s a tricky thing, making a slasher-musical (or musical-slasher given Stage Fright’s inclination towards songs over splatter), but Stage Fright is a hoot even if it never entirely works. Problems of tone and questions of pace make this a tough sell either for the Glee crowd or for horror fans, yet Stage Fright has a novel strangeness that should please the midnight madness crowd. This blood-soaked riot demands a cult following.

Sable should at least be commended for trying to revive the musical spirit of Canadian cinema after it seemed all but dead after Score: A Hockey Musical! Stage Fright encourages audiences not to take the film the least bit seriously, for it offers a whacky opening number that is so ridiculous that one can’t help but go along for the ride. Stage Fright begins with truly operatic splash of violence when reigning diva Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver, hilariously memorable in far too brief a cameo) sees her beau sliced and diced, and then lets out a haunting, if hilarious, “♫♪Noooooo! ♪♫” Kylie’s falsetto sets the tone for the action to come as she grabs the body of her lover and sings her heart out for the film’s theme “Sofia’s Aria.”

Kylie then becomes the victim of a backstage butchering after her kids, Camilla and Buddy, congratulate her and her manager Roger (Meat Loaf) on a great performance. A masked killer, draped in the same theatrical Ghost Face garb of the onstage killer in The Haunting of the Opera, the play that Kylie has just performed, makes Kylie the victim of a brutal hack job while Camilla takes the stage and revels in the thrill of the spotlight. Cut to ten years later, though, and Kylie’s curtain call still gives Camilla nightmares.

Camilla (played by Score: A Hockey Musical’s Allie MacDonald) now works as a cook at Centre Stage summer camp. She’s forever haunted by her mom’s death, but when Roger (now the director of Centre Stage camp following his departure from Broadway) decides to restage The Haunting of the Opera a decade after Kylie’s death, Camilla decides to put her stage fright behind her and reclaim her mother’s role. Someone at Centre Stage clearly doesn’t like musicals, though, and begins to pick off campers one by one until the final number.

Sable revisits the horrifying terrain of camp songs after the success of his hilarious short film The Haunting of Beaver Dam, but Stage Fright never quite exceeds the novelty of its premise. The spectacularly staged slaying of Kylie is macabre musical theatre at its finest, for Sable’s direction and Driver’s go-for-broke performance tread a perfect balancing act of camp and splat-n-chuckle mayhem. Stage Fright then switches gears when it moves to Camilla’s story in the present day and introduces the kids of Centre Stage with an amusing musical number full of Glee parody and self-deprecating humour that pokes fun at musical escapism through song. Yes, stories in which characters sing are silly and they might make people feel gay (but not in that way), and the second number of Stage Fright makes the violent aria of Kylie’s death doubly disturbing by following it with a healthy dose of upbeat whimsy.

The transition from backstage to Centre Stage suggests that Stage Fright will be a gleeful mix of camp and carnage. Stage Fright, however, doesn’t really blend the two genres. It separates them with a slash.

Stage Fright follows Camilla and her fellow campers—including a poncy director (Brandon Uranowitz), a wannabe diva (Old Stock’s Melanie Leishman), and a creepy guy with an eye for Camilla (Kent Jones)—as they prepare for the kabuki-themed production of The Haunting of the Opera. (The kabuki theme doesn’t really add much besides a perverse nod to Gilbert and Sullivan and one good bukkake joke.) The horror elements mostly take a backseat during the proceedings, except for the odd cutaway to the mysterious Metal Killer, who growls one-liner hisses from behind a kabuki mask that adds a KISS-ish hint of death metal to the merry sunshine of the musical numbers.

Stage Fright spends the next half-hour unfolding almost entirely as a backstage musical. One problem, however, is that the soundtrack consists of only a few unique songs that appear throughout as themes and reprisals, and pretty much all of the musical numbers appear as montages save for the those in the first ten minutes of the film. The absence of strong musical numbers nevertheless furthers Stage Fright’s anti-musical irreverence, although Stage Fright might have more credibility if it fleshed out the thematic overtones of The Haunting of the Opera or imbued more of the songs with a hint of the speculative potential of its premise. Stage Fright stabs the inanity of song-and-dance pics in the heart when the innocence of musical numbers clashes with the monstrosity of the horror elements, but Sable brings the generic hybridity of Stage Fright together too rarely.

The film, however, comes to life after the brisk montage-heavy overture of the campers’ preparations. The staging of The Haunting of the Opera is a marvellous bloodbath. This latter half of the film is delightfully bonkers with Sable and company imbuing the carnage in allusions to iconic moments from Broadway and horror alike. The cinematography by Bruce Chun returns Stage Fright to the haunting theatricality of its opening number with the frenetic close-ups of Camilla’s frazzled face putting the Final Girl in the spotlight, and letting Stage Fright bring the two halves of its personality together for a wild finale.

Stage Fright pours buckets of blood in its second act and compensates for the slow flow of the beginning. Some nasty stuff happens behind the curtains of Centre Stage, and the ending provides a healthy R-rating for anyone who thinks Stage Fright seems too PG-13. Stage Fright has a great sense of humour with how holdly it maims the cutsey singing dandies of the glee camp. There's no shortage of camp, though, for the spirited efforts of the cast of Canuck up-and-comers, especially MacDonald’s strong lead, help control the silliness and the sinisterness of this slasher-musical. Musicals can be murder to sit through, yet Stage Fright is a blood-curdling scream.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Stage Fright is now playing in Ottawa at Landmark Kanata.
It is also available on YouTube VOD and iTunes.