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Courtesy of our friends over at Cinematic Void, a monthly touring “film party” with a focus on the bizarre and obscure, The Frida Cinema recently hosted a killer double feature as part of their annual “January Giallo” series. Highlighting the works of Italian horror auteur Michele Soavi, whose talents have gone tragically unsung by non-genre fans, especially when compared to increasingly celebrated directors such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava. We screened Soavi’s debut feature, StageFright, and cult classic Cemetery Man, also known by its original, significantly more poetic title, Dellamorte dellamore, back-to-back for an evening of pure giallo indulgence.
Despite Cinematic Void’s dedication to creating a dedicated space for and by genre fans, the atmosphere of the double feature, even before it began, was anything but exclusionary towards those who might be less versed in horror cinema than its founder, James Branscome, who injected the night with an enjoyable jolt of energy courtesy of his hosting and pre-screening introductions for both features.
While the audience for the evening was, by my estimation, composed of about half horror fans, rocking all manner of themed merch and clothing, and half soon-to-be horror fans, Branscome’s monologue set an engaging and accessible foundation for the double feature. He provided a lightning-round crash course for Michele Soavi’s niche but impressive impact on the genre, ranging from Soavi’s beginnings as the director of a documentary about Dario Argento to his work as assistant director to Terry Gilliam on the troubled production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to his current career in Italian television.
StageFright – alternatively released under several titles including Deliria, Aquarius, and Bloody Bird, so you know it’s gonna be good – was the first feature of the night. StageFright, for all its merits, is admittedly, carved from a very familiar set-up. Our protagonists are stuck in an isolated location with a homicidal maniac, who picks them off one by one. In his introduction, Branscome even conceded that it sat at perhaps the very border between a slasher film and a giallo film, a division between the two subgenres that has always been malleable, nebulous, and largely subjective.
To its credit – and it deserves a lot more than its elevator pitch might suggest – StageFright is, to my knowledge, the only slasher that opens with a fully choreographed musical number. It doesn’t immediately let the audience in on this little secret, instead indulging in a fake-out kill that quickly communicates both its premise, focusing on the cast and crew of a murder-themed musical, and its semi-self-awareness of the tropes of its subgenre, which by 1987 had already crystallized into a near unbreakable formula.
While it doesn’t fully disrupt this formula or deconstruct it to the degree of second-wave slashers such as 1996’s Scream, StageFright does execute it skillfully, putting it a cut above the bargain bin horror flicks that began to accumulate in the era. Possibly my favorite review of the film comes courtesy of the Twitter user who called it “easily the gayest and most fun Italian horror movie I’ve seen,” an incredibly concise encapsulation of StageFright’s cinematic ambitions.
It’s ridiculous and campy in all the most enjoyable ways. A good amount of the fun of the film comes from its willingness to mine the tropes of its theater setting for entertainment. These archetypes will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever been involved in the art form and amusing to those who haven’t. The bitchy gay guy, the megalomaniacal director, the two-faced supporting actress who’s gunning for the leading lady’s part, and an annoying couple all round out the cast.
For those in search of thematic resonances, StageFright is not completely hollow. There are moments and lines of dialogue hinting at something resembling commentary on the phenomenon of true crime, a subtextual exploration of how fiction can make a spectacle out of real tragedies. It’s possible to argue that the killer of the piece, himself a former actor, is simply playing out the performance of his lifetime, making an art of his murders.
Despite this, StageFright’s most notable trait remains how unexpectedly funny it is. A particularly lengthily wrought joke towards the film’s final moments earned a sustained and raucous response from the fully engaged audience, which perhaps made its humor all the more infectious
In his introduction for the night’s second feature, Branscome did not hold back his enthusiasm. He describes his experience of watching the film for the first time as undeniably life-changing and expresses his hope that the same will be true for us.
There is both poetry and irony in Cemetery Man’s original title, Dellamorte dellamore. In addition to its surface meaning – being the surname of our protagonist, the cemetery man himself, Francisco Dellamorte, followed by his mother’s maiden name – its direct translation hints at the central duality at the heart of the film. Death and love are in constant competition and intersection, as are horror and comedy.
The film’s two leads, Rupert Everett and Anna Falchi, give impressive and tonally perfect performances, often behaving in a completely ridiculous manner but never treating their own absurdities, or the absurdities that surround them, as anything other than entirely real. Everett’s is, admittedly, strange casting in retrospect, following his breakout role in Another Country but preceding arguably his most popular appearance in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
His performance as Francesco is a delight, increasingly unhinged and morose enough to make the moody antiheroes of Tim Burton’s repertoire look downright cheerful. Anna Falchi, best known outside Europe for her work as a model prior to this role, does admirably with what little the script gives her character. While her function in the film is primarily to be eye candy, the object of obsessive romantic fixation for Francesco, Falchi’s performance also reveals her natural charisma and impeccable comedic timing.
Cemetery Man, like all the best Italian horror films, borders on incomprehensibility at times and makes several hard veers away from what would be considered its main narrative in service of reveling in practical effects and set pieces that are as beautiful and grandiose as they are shocking and grotesque. Horror for horror’s own sake, one might say, skewing closer to the filmmaking philosophy of Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy than the more critically respected works of Dario Argento or the majority of American horror cinema.
Pairing StageFright and Cemetery Man as a double feature not only makes for a crowd-pleasing combination, it also serves as a fascinating representation of Michele Soavi’s evolution as a filmmaker. By pairing his first narrative feature with his last major release, an audience can observe not only his latent skill in the medium and genre but also the impressive improvement in his craft in the years between the two films. His sharp eye for mise en scène, particularly dark sense of humor, and glorious exploitation of practical effects may remain the same, but Soavi’s sensibilities are fully unleashed when given the opportunity to paint upon the expanded canvas that Cemetery Man provides.
Despite StageFright’s very vocal fans, no doubt due to its sharply enjoyable take on the classic slasher, Cemetery Man was the undeniable highlight of the evening, both as a standalone film as well as when gauging the audience’s reception to it. If you missed the double feature but are interested in diving into the works of Michele Soavi, hope is not yet lost. Although The Frida Cinema is not currently scheduled to play StageFright in the near future, Severin Films’ gorgeous 4K restoration of Cemetery Man will be returning to our screens in February!
The 4K restoration of Cemetery Man returns Friday, February 16th.