Stagefright (1987) Blu-Ray Review

SFSTAGEFRIGHT (1987) Blu-Ray review

Also known as StageFright: Aquarius, Deliria, Bloody Bird, Sound Stage Massacre

Directed by Michele Soavi
Written by Lew Cooper [George Eastman, aka Luigi Montefiori]
Starring Barbara Cupisti, David Brandon, Giovanni Lombardo Radice

RRP £17.99
BluRay Region B released by Exposure Cinema (Ltd to 3000)

Schlepping out now onto blu-ray, almost completely devoid of the kind of fanfare it deserves and very nearly lost amidst numerous release date changes, is StageFright; a rip-roaring Italian shocker and the first feature proper of Dario Argento protege Michele Soavi. Though Soavi would later go on to helm much more ambitious and more epically scoped projects like the Argento-presented The Church and The Sect, and the exquisite, Rupert Everett-starring Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man), it’s this lean and mean offering that is his crowning terror achievement.

Soavi’s StageFright producer, the late Aristide Massaccesi (or ‘Joe D’Amato’ to give the spaghetti schlock maven his better known alias), thought so too and cited Soavi’s subsequent work – somewhat harshly – as overblown and unfocused; a fact recounted by Alan Jones in one of several solid special features that fill Exposure’s tasty limited edition disc. Entitled ‘The Critic’s Take’, Jones – an undisputed high priest of genre film criticism, the Italian stuff especially so – makes for terrific company as usual in a fascinating twenty-odd minute long dissection of the film and Soavi’s career. “It’s an amalgam of the best of American and the best of Italian movies,” he explains, and it’s hard not to disagree with him.

sf1Blending both his home countries unique giallo vogue with the distinctly American slasher formula that sprung from it, Soavi crafts an enthralling and slick popcorn scare flick; sumptuous Italian murder mystery by way of crowd-pleasing, Friday the 13th-style primal brutality.

Working from a story by Big Boot B-pic mainstay George Eastman – perhaps best remembered as the titular gut-muncher in Massaccesi’s charmingly lousy video nasty Anthropophagus, and credited here as ‘Lew Cooper’ – Soavi’s set up is a bog standard body count scenario: A masked maniac, fresh from the local mental institution, bumping off a slew of thinly drawn characters in a typically isolated location. Though such a conceit was already stretched to breaking point even by this late eighties stage in the stalk and slash cycle, the ferocity and the pizazz with which Soavi knocks down his stacked dominoes is what truly elevates StageFright far beyond cliche and into the realms of not just a great slicer and dicer, but to the upper echelons of essential must-see horror status.

Soavi milks the tension of his playhouse setting for all it’s worth, delivering plenty of jolts as his bloodthirsty killer – deranged ex-actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker) – prowls the shadows of the stage and the labyrinthine dressing and storage rooms. Hidden by a giant owl mask that is at once both completely absurd and surprisingly creepy, Wallace has taken a particular shine to ingenue Alicia (Barbara Cupisti, who would appear in Argento’s similarly themed Opera less than a year later), the lead in the bonkers erotic performance piece that is being rehearsed at the theatre. With a troupe of thespians and backstage talent (including gore icon and Soavi regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice, aka ‘John Morghen’, as the deliciously preening Brett) locked in for the night by their highly strung director (a fine scenery-chewing turn from David Brandon), it isn’t long at all before the corpses start piling up…

sf2Pre-cut by distributor Avatar upon its original British tape release, StageFright has appeared uncut in two notable reissues since from Redemption and the infamous Vipco; most notably as part of the latter’s budget Scream Time DVD collection (“Scare yourself shitless for £5.99!”) a little over a decade ago. Exposure, of course, carry on this uncensored tradition and even go as far to add a lovely little comparison featurette spotlighting the differences between theirs and Avatar’s print.

StageFright’s status as something of a minor rental tape classic seems to be the real theme of the blu-ray, with Exposure’s key art replicating Avatar’s original sleeve right down to its inclusion of an old style 18 certificate – a cute touch. Modern VHS culture is explored too in the disc’s breezy doc ‘Revenge of the Video Cassette’; a fun addition. Also included is an illustrated booklet, ‘Video Chillers’, that was sadly unavailable with the press copy.
On the transfer front, Exposure have unleashed a pleasing affair: The odd burst of visual noise and haloing due to slightly overdone edge enhancement aside, it’s quite the eye-popper, with natural flesh-tones and well-balanced grading.

It certainly showcases Soavi’s mastery – even at this fledgling stage – of colour and depth far better than Vipco’s orange-tinged hues ever did; although, in the old V’s defence, their StageFright’s picture quality was infinitely superior to most of the ugly-looking hooey they usually belted out. Don’t be getting rid of that version quite yet, however: While this blu-ray marks the first time StageFright has been available upon these shores in its correct 1:85:1 aspect ratio outside of the import market, Vipco’s open matte release reveals more information at the top and bottom of the picture. For Soavi’s cheeky, fourth wall-breaking final shot, the open matte is actually more preferable.

sf3Soavi himself pops up in ‘A Bloodstained Featherstorm’; Exposure’s good if somewhat rambling half hour making of piece. Thankfully, Soavi, along with the still beautiful Cupisti, scripter Eastman and actress Mary Sellers, share enough anecdotes to make it well worth dipping into; the best of which being Sellers’ explanation of the film’s subtitle ‘Aquarius’ and Soavi’s recollections of working with Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava and the aforementioned Argento and Massaccesi both in front of and behind the camera.

Massaccesi’s involvement is discussed in the excellent, fifty minute long ‘Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut”; an in depth archival chinwag with the Euro-pud icon that, along with the film, is worth the price of admission alone. It’s the highlight of Exposure’s package – though actor Radice’s interview feature ‘Giovanni’s Method’ comes a very close second, with the cult hero on fine droll form. Rounding things out is the film’s trailer and a thorough stills gallery.

Strangely, composer Simon Boswell is nowhere to be found. Considering just how integral the Brit maestro’s rousing and atmospheric score (which rattles around Exposure’s serviceable 2.0 stereo track rather nicely too) is to Soavi’s haunting imagery, and with it being on the cusp of a deluxe vinyl reissue, his non-inclusion is something of a missed opportunity. Overall, however, Exposure have assembled a damn good set well worth picking up. Collectors take note though: With Blue Underground’s region free Stateside edition landing in the next couple of days, and with its specs identifying a completely different set of extras to Exposure’s release, it looks as though devout StageFright disciples – and, personally, this writer includes himself in that bracket – will have to fork out for both versions. It’ll certainly be interesting seeing how they weigh up against each other…

The film 9 out of 10
The disc 7 out of 10

sf4Special Features:
⦁ Dual format edition: contains both Blu-ray Disc and DVD versions of the film
⦁ High-bitrate, dual-layer encoding for high picture and sound quality
⦁ New restoration, colour-timing corrected and produced from original vault elements
⦁ Original trailer
⦁ Still, poster and behind-the-scenes gallery featuring rare photos and international artwork
⦁ Cut version comparison
⦁ A Bloodstained Featherstorm
⦁ Giovanni’s Method: Interview with star Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen)
⦁ Alan Jones: The Critic’s Take
⦁ Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut
⦁ Revenge of the Video Cassette
⦁ Video Chillers booklet
⦁ Limited Collector’s Edition (3,000 copies)
⦁ Original artwork used on front cover

Disc Information
⦁ Feature Running Time: 90 minutes approx.
⦁ Picture: Colour | 1080p/24 | Widescreen 1.85:1 / 16:9
⦁ Sound: English language | Uncompressed audio (BD), Dolby (DVD)
⦁ Subtitles: English for the hard-of-hearing (removable; main feature only)

Buy StageFright from Exposure Cinema

Follow Matty on twitter @mattybudrewicz

UKHS Does the Nasty! CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)

CF1UKHS Does the Nasty!

Continuing our terrific run of special Video Nasty features, Dave Wain dissects Umberto Lenzi’s notorious jungle grue-fest CANNIBAL FEROX…

Also known as: Make Them Die Slowly

“There was no need for them. They were unnecessary… And they were evil” – Graham Bright MP

Of all the evidence that filmmakers Marc Morris and Jake West scoured through whilst producing both their Video Nasty documentaries, I think it’s the above quote that really sticks in my throat. Bright was the Conservative MP for Luton East who, in 1983, introduced a Private Members Bill that formed the basis of the Video Recordings Act. He’s also more comically known for a classic piece of television where he states that “research IS taking place, and it WILL show these films not only affect young people, but I believe they affect dogs as well”. The damning thing is it succinctly represented the views of the sneering, Daily Mail reading middle-classes, delivered by the absolute epitome of what they embody: a stuffy segment of society, out and touch and unwilling to escape the utopian island mentality that they immerse themselves in.

CF2This nasty-era level of censorship and outrage has always existed. Take Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka Fanny Hill), published in 1748. Considered the first erotic novel in the English language, it saw author John Cleland arrested for obscenity, with the book itself banned, seized and smuggled around countries throughout its history. Sound familiar?

Art exists to connect with our primal feelings. The medium in which it’s presented is irrelevant – paintings, literature or film. It should never be censored as all that represents is the more powerful members of society attempting to control what us commoners are permitted to view, read or watch. Like James Ferman, the BBFC director between 1975 and 1999, said, “It’s alright for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker from Manchester happened to see it?”.

Though I disdain censorship of any kind, I have to say that the film I’ve chosen to discuss this week on UKHS is one I find thoroughly grim and disgusting. In fact, after watching it repeatedly over the past few weeks, I really don’t think I could bear to look at it again any time soon. Cannibal Ferox though is a fascinating piece of film-making and is – forgive the cliché – a product of its time.

CF3In 1980, cult Italian auteur Ruggero Deodato released what is perhaps the most infamous nasty of all: Cannibal Holocaust. Its notoriety is the stuff of legend, with classic tales such as its seizure by the Italian courts, and Deodato’s arrest and subsequent charge of murdering several of the actors on camera (!) now a firm part of genre lore. Irrespective of this insanity, such controversy – not to mention such iconic artwork – ensured that the film was a massive success when it hit video worldwide; so much so that Italian film producers immediately requested more of the same.

Director Umberto Lenzi was, at the start of the 1980s, a well-established journeyman whose career had managed to successfully move in time with the various genres that his homeland specialised in. From sword and sandal epics and Euro-spy cheese (Samson and the Slave Queen (1963), 008: Operation Exterminate (1965); to spaghetti westerns and giallo (Pistol for a Hundred Coffins (1968), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972)), Lenzi proved himself adaptable to any style of picture. However, it was with Poliziotteschi – the Italian crime-thriller – where his directorial ability was best showcased, thanks to films like Milano Rovente (1973), Almost Human (1974) and The Manhunt (1975).

“I’m ashamed of this movie. It’s not fantasy; it’s reality. There’s a political side [to it]. It’s a bit fascist, in the deepest sense” – Giovanni Lombardo Radice

CF4By the time Cannibal Ferox came around, Lenzi already had previous form with this niche sub-genre. Some even say that it was he who started the whole Italian cannibal craze with the release of his The Man From Deep River in 1972 – a grisly little flick starring Me Me Lai and Ivan Rassimov which also found itself nasty-fied under its alternate title Deep River Savages. Cannibal Ferox begins in New York City, in the wake of a heroin trafficking scheme gone wrong. We meet Lt. Rizzo (played by Cannibal Holocaust lead Robert Kerman) who is on the lookout for Mike (Radice), the key suspect in this botched drug deal and who appears to have skipped town. Without much in the way of cohesive narrative, we then find ourselves introduced to Gloria (Lorraine de Selle), Rudy (Danile Mattei) and Pat (Zora Kerova); a trio on their way into the jungle for the purpose of completing Gloria’s doctoral thesis about cannibalism. Soon after their arrival in the tropical South American location they run into the fugitive Mike who, along with his friend Joe (Walter Lucchini), claims they have just escaped the clutches of some cannibals. Cue gratuitous mastication!

“The following feature is one of the most violent films ever made. There are at least two dozen scenes of barbaric torture and sadistic cruelty graphically shown. If the presentation of disgusting and repulsive subject matter upsets you, please do not view this film.”

CF5The first thing you see when you watch Cannibal Ferox, I’ve always treat such scaremongering warnings with a great deal of cynicism. However, with Cannibal Ferox it’s frighteningly accurate, the words “disgusting” and “repulsive” being the only suitable ones to describe this grim-natured movie. The animal cruelty present I find far worse than Cannibal Holocaust. There’s a coati being (very slowly) strangled by a snake with the camera staying fixed on it as it squeals in pain. Radice states that the Italian crew stopped and refused to film any more of the scene until the animal was aided to safety. Elsewhere we have a monkey being attacked by a jaguar, an iguana fending off a snake, a live turtle having its head and legs chopped off and a crocodile being killed and eaten by natives.

It’s depressing viewing, and while most the other nasties have seemed to mellow with age as some of their make-up effects become somewhat outdated, these scenes from Ferox retain the same vomit inducing ferocity as back when it was originally released. It’s not just the animal cruelty that repulses either: nightmarish scenes litter the movie, such as a woman being hung up with meat hooks inserted into her breasts, Radice’s Mike having his penis chopped off and then eaten, and also the top of his skull sliced off and his brains scooped out by the natives.

What makes the animal cruelty worse though is Lenzi’s apparent lack of contrition as he looks back on it: “I think a lot of this movie,” he states in the DVD audio commentary. “I wasn’t sure before now, but I find it very professional”. Even during these barbaric scenes, Lenzi seems to view them with an air of nonchalance in direct opposition to Radice, who, in the same commentary, squirms as he watches the picture. “We should have been forbidden to do things like this,” he says, stating how, even during the shoot, he refused to perform certain acts like killing a pig – despite Lenzi’s dogged insistence.

The irony, of course, is that Radice’s Mike is an absolute horror of a man. He’s arrogantly misogynistic, repeatedly referring to women as “twats”; he’s always on coke; he kills a native woman without any remorse – he’s a thoroughly reprehensible individual. Conversely, Radice in real life is a gentleman and he looks back on Ferox as the biggest mistake in his career. A classically trained actor who prefers the stage to the screen, Radice dismisses the film and Lenzi at every opportunity: “What you’re saying is shit, what you’re doing is shit but you have to [play it] serious,” he says, as well as, “These types of Italian directors were not renowned for working with actors.”.

CF6 Pre CertCannibal Ferox was released on VHS in the UK in 1982 by Replay Video in an uncut pre-cert version, running a little over 89 minutes. Listed as a nasty in July 1983, the later cut version had a whopping 6 minutes and 51 seconds removed from it. Resubmitted again to the BBFC in 2001 by Gold’s in the same pre-cut version, Ferox had another six seconds cut due to the sight of a small animal on the end of a rope banging against the side of a jeep. It is this version that haunts the now discontinued British DVD from VIPCO. In America, it was released uncut by Grindhouse Releasing in 2006.

Critically, Cannibal Ferox pales quite starkly in relation to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, the latter being a far more accomplished production. The fact that Deodato recently prepared a special director’s cut removing all the animal cruelty speaks volumes towards how he views what is contained in his watershed shocker. Cannibal Ferox, meanwhile, remains as vile as always.

Its narrative is haphazardly plotted, while the characters don’t engage you anywhere near as much as their perilous situation needs them to. Perhaps Gloria comes closest to achieving some affinity with the audience but others leave you cold, the aforementioned Mike in particular. Upon its release the horror press condemned it and it’s since fared no better; Cinema Crazed call it “clunky and tedious”, while DVD Talk say it’s “poorly made”.
Personally speaking, I first caught Cannibal Ferox on VHS many years ago as I educated myself about just what video nasties were. At the time – and in its cut form – it seemed fun; it was a badge of honour that this young horror viewer had sat through such a well-known, grisly film.

CF7 VipcoRevisiting it uncut in 2014 it’s striking how rubbish it is. The animal cruelty I had to turn away from – it’s a needless, offensive attempt at basic shock value. In many ways though, Cannibal Ferox has succeeded: thirty-three years after its release we’re still talking about it. And, as a historical document, it certainly has its place within the legacy of envelope pushing horror. It’s not to be celebrated or fawned over, however; instead one should really question if, had it not attracted the attention of the overzealous press and politicians of the period, would anyone really remember it as anything other than a footnote in Italian genre history? Probably not, and that’s the place where it’d be best left abandoned.

Follow Dave on twitter @thedavewain