In the fall of 2010, everyone at Fantastic Fest was talking about The Legend of Beaver Dam, a short film that looked like a spooky horror flick until it burst into a musical. The short captured the disparate moods required for both types of movies to succeed, and did so in spectacular fashion. It seems like everyone wanted more of that type of delightfully bent genre-mashing.
Now we have more from writer/director Jerome Sable, in the form of Stage Fright, a full-bore, feature-length horror/comedy/musical, set at a performing arts camp for kids, where everyone is free to be a theater geek without fear of standing out from the crowd. It's an ambitious, enthusiastic effort, and when it hits the right chord, it's great fun. When it doesn't, well, it's a musical performed by young people.
I'm not a particular fan of modern musicals, which has more to do with my personal taste in music than any objective dismissal of their relative merits. (Broadway show tunes and heavy metal music both drive me nuts.) Those who love Glee and similar material featuring kids with smiles painted on their faces are more than welcome to it. Yet it points to a key difference between The Legend of Beaver Dam and Stage Fright: the former was horror with a subversive twist of an inappropriate musical, while the latter is a musical with the subversive twist of an inappropriate slasher flick.
Before the musical portion explodes across the screen, Stage Fright begins with a classic slasher scenario. Broadway star Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) is brutally murdered in her dressing room while her young daughter Camilla stands on stage, dreaming of the day when she can be a star. Cut to years later, as grown-up Camilla (Allie MacDonald) is working as a cook, together with her twin brother Buddy (Douglas Smith), at a performing arts camp. Camilla still dreams of Broadway stardom, so she sneaks her way into an audition for the camp's summer showcase and finds herself in a fierce competition with high school diva Liz Silver (Melanie Leishman) for the lead role.
The musical-comedy portion of the movie holds sway for much of the running time. A big opening number is impressively staged and choreographed on the camp grounds, and then most of the action moves indoors as rehearsals start for the summer showcase, an inspired kabuki version of "The Haunting of the Opera." Clues are dropped, foreshadowing the bloody mayhem that is to come, and also creating a roster of possible suspects: the wild-eyed janitor; the manipulative, sexist young director; a jealous campgoer; maybe even the camp director, Roger McCall (Meat Loaf), who loved Kylie dearly, and took in the twins when their mother died.
All of this is set up with the greatest of cheer on the part of the performers and the filmmakers. Bruce Chun's cinematography showcases the bright and sunny camp landscapes, as well as interiors that become menacing with shadows only when needed. Sable and Eli Batalion collaborated on the score and songs, swelling with the spirit of joy and frivolity.
When the film starts to emphasize the darker side of its personality, however, it struggles to maintain a good balance between the genial laughs and the explicit bloody violence. It may be that Sable and company were a bit too successful in creating likable characters. Some of the kids are annoying in their selfishness and immaturity, but they never sink to the level of behavior that could be termed monstrous; it's more a case of misplaced enthusiasm. So when bad things start to happen, I found it difficult to laugh at them or the situation; too much empathy had been built up, even for a cold-hearted bastard like me.
It may appear strange to criticize a movie for making me care too much about completely fictional characters. After all, the context suggests that nothing should be taken seriously; it's a goof, it's a lark, it's all in fun, it's a horror/musical/comedy, and what's the harm? Perhaps it's simply that sunny optimism and cynical humor don't mix well in my head.
Putting tonal issues aside, Stage Fright is well-crafted and evidences a sincere devotion to the art of the musical, as well as a welcome willingness to take chances.
(Full disclosure: XYZ Films, in which ScreenAnarchy founder and editor Todd Brown is a partner, was involved in the making of the movie. He was not involved in the editing of this article.)
Review originally published during SXSW in March 2014. The film is currently available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms, and will open in select U.S. theaters on Friday, May 9. Visit the official site for more information.