Stage Fright

Stage FrightWORDS James Gracey

In the past when horror has bred with the musical, it has spawned oddball titles such as Repo: The Genetic Opera, Phantom of the Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, resulting in one of the quirkiest subsets of the horror genre. Similarly, with its admittedly ludicrous blending of musical comedy with slasher flick, Stage Fright sets itself up as an over-the-top, camp romp. Sadly, it never quite nails it.

Much of the plot is dedicated to heroine Camilla’s voyage of self discovery and various backstage hijinks, but the story could be that of any 80s slasher flick: a masked killer with a hatred of musicals menaces the residents of a summer camp as they put together a theatre production. The setting is a fond nod to 80s slashers like Friday the 13th and The Burning, while the backdrop of the theatre production recalls Michele Soavi’s Italian slasher Stage Fright (aka Aquarius) and Dario Argento’s Opera. Neither setting is as fully utilised as it could be, however during the opening scenes, writer-director Jerome Sable manages to pull the rug out from under the audience, not once but twice, by blurring the lines between reality and theatrical illusion. The remainder of the film unfortunately fails to live up to the promise offered by these moments, which also feature operatic violence reminiscent of vintage Argento. 

Given the large cast, the body count is quite low and while lashings of gore don’t necessarily make a good horror film, Sable rejects the opportunity to have some fun with themed murders, à la Dr Phibes or even Urban Legend, with most of the kills occurring off screen. Cheeky nods to Carrie and Scream abound, but seem to be there for the sake of it and don’t really enhance the story — though credit should be given for establishing each of the many red herrings.

While Sable’s love and admiration of both genres shines through, he can’t quite make them work together. It’s not trashy enough to hit the tone he appears to be aiming for and even the high-camp and catty theatrics of the cast aren’t quite vitriolic enough. The comedic aspects hamper attempts at tension and terror and sporadic outbursts of surprisingly strong violence are completely at odds with the light-hearted tone. Various musical numbers slice through the narrative as intrusively as a maniac’s blade, and while fun is poked at both genres, it fails to say much about either; satire and subversion are conspicuous by their absence. Neither element is really given centre stage and as a result Stage Fright, while certainly not a bad film, never feels like the sum of its curious parts.

Stage Fright is available on DVD on 26 January

Iron Doors

Iron DoorsWORDS James Gracey

With an intriguing concept, singular location, cast of two and a highly claustrophobic atmosphere, director Stephen Manuel’s low-budget thriller initially holds much promise. Beginning as a creepy blend of James Wan’s Saw and Vincenzo Natali’s existential horror Cube, it succeeds in defying expectations by veering along a completely unexpected trajectory.

Kinetic camerawork, extreme angles and the character’s gradual realisation of his predicament establish a sense of intrigue and tension, and Manuel does his best to inject a sense of urgency into the story of a man who awakens to find himself imprisoned in a concrete cell by captors unknown. Certain items in the room have an apparent significance attached to them — the dead rat; the locked cabinet — and at various points there are hints that Rube Goldbergesque domino-effect death contraptions may ensue. This is, rather refreshingly, not the case, as Peter Arneson’s screenplay reveals itself to be more concerned with the inextinguishable strength of the human spirit. The nameless man’s sense of exhaustion as he attempts to escape is aptly conveyed, and his gradual desperation leads to various gross-out moments — drinking his own urine; munching on maggots — which Manuel never shirks from depicting in gleeful close-up.

There’s ample heart-wrenching drama to be wrought from such a scenario, as the characters’ will to survive deteriorates, but a weak script means tedium sets in where tension should abound. The plot’s basic but strangely meandering nature provides little in the way of characterisation; it merely skims the surface of how the two egotistical and selfish individuals eventually soften. As the nameless man and woman, Axel Wedekind and Rungano Nyoni can’t compel us to invest in their unsympathetic characters, meaning we only care about them on a perfunctory, basic human level. Indeed, the female character, who makes her admittedly striking entrance halfway through, is one of the most redundant and actually rather insulting in recent memory. Vague parallels between the characters and Adam and Eve, and a bizarre conclusion, reveal lofty ambitions and metaphorical leanings. Indeed, certain moments throughout toy with the fruitful idea of life and sustenance emerging from death and decay: the man eats maggots from the dead rat; the woman initiates intercourse with him to raise his spirits and pull him back from the brink of death. These moments are lost in the increasing tedium, and while the latter appears to be set up as a crucial development in the woman’s character arc, it lacks any sort of impact due to her character being so underdeveloped to begin with. The ending lacks the haunting ambiguity it presumably intended, and while kudos must be given for the filmmakers’ attempts to create something more thoughtful than the usual Saw-inspired torture porn, with very limited means, sadly Iron Doors just lacks the edge to pull it all off satisfactorily.

Iron Doors is available on DVD now

The Remaining

WORDS Rich Wilson

The RemainingIt’s surprising that so few movies have tackled the themes of Armageddon and the biblical end of days; it’s tailor-made for grand Hollywood treatment, with a story that has already written itself. Perhaps the unavoidable religious elements and the ease of slipping into cliché and preaching is what keeps major filmmakers away.

Director Casey La Scala has created an odd mix of genres with The Remaining: part disaster; part horror-thriller; and way too much melodrama. This is also firmly Christian-based entertainment, and will appeal more to those with faith than non-believers. That aside, it’s hard to become invested in either the plot or the thinly sketched characters, as the Rapture here follows a group of twenty-somethings who are attending a wedding when Judgement Day strikes. Those around them who have made the cut have their souls ripped from their bodies for a heavenly journey, leaving an abundance of corpses in the streets. Those left behind make a frantic rush for safety at a nearby church while trying to avoid the winged demons and other horrors that have been unleashed on Earth.

The Remaining generates initial suspense through a solid set-up and by gradually picking off a collection of increasingly desperate characters — a standard horror staple — but quickly runs out of ideas, lapsing into a second half that features long monologues about what has happened and why, and the answers given are less than subtle. “I went to church and did everything right,” one character whines. There’s nothing wrong with putting out a message, but here some of the reasons for non-Rapture are ludicrous (premarital sex and dancing to hip-hop are but two). Much of the unabashed sermonising is handled badly by a weak cast working with a poor script, and unintentional laughs are abound. This is a shame, because La Scala works some impressive effects and visuals on a tight budget, the demons and sound design are effective, and a good story can be told here. It just needs a better approach that will appeal to more than a niche audience.

The Remaining opens today