StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, StageFright: Aquarius is a 1987 giallo film directed by Michele Soavi, who got his start assisting Dario Argento and shooting second unit work on Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. His second film was the previously reviewed La chiesa in 1989, but this freshman feature has a lot of style, which spackles over the occasional slip-ups that are common in debut films. 

Our film opens on a grimy street, as a woman in a platinum wig seeks an honest night’s work, only to be attacked and pulled into a shadowed entryway. This causes a commotion as a dozen people gather and stare at her murdered body, only for the killer to suddenly and energetically burst forth from the door and begin to dance as we pan out to see that the street is just a set on a stage in a modestly sized theater, and our characters are but actors on it. Well, most of them are actors; some are dancers, and there’s also an inexplicable saxophone player in a billowing Marilyn Monroe dress perched on one of the faux rooftops. The killer happens to be wearing a giant owl head, and it’s one of the strangest but most fascinating openings I’ve seen in a film in this genre. The choice to open with offscreen traffic noise and slowly pan up a city street makes for a clever misdirect that is also ultimately a metaphor about the film’s own method of doing more with less

After wounding her ankle on-stage in the opening scene, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) acquiesces to the prompting of Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) to sneak out of the side door and get her ankle treated, without the permission of egomaniacal director Peter (David Brandon). They charm affable theater owner/property manager Willy (James Sampson) into letting them out through the side door. It turns out that the hospital that Betty knew about that was nearby is actually a psychiatric hospital, but as Betty points out, psychiatrists do attend medical school, so after an encounter with an unfriendly nurse, Alicia sees a doctor. On the way out, she asks about the room that has bars over the door, and the women learn that the prisoner is serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who’s awaiting trial. Wallace escapes from his room due to an orderly’s carelessness, and, hiding in Betty’s trunk, returns with them to the theater. Alicia is immediately fired upon return, and while Peter is dressing her down, Betty is killed outside with a pickaxe. 

Surprisingly, Alicia discovers this almost immediately and the police are called and arrive at once. Her body is taken away, there are reporters, it’s a whole deal. Two patrolman (Soavi in a cameo, with Mickey Knox as his older partner) are stationed outside of the theater and Willy clocks out for the night, entrusting Peter to lock the place up. Instead, he has “ingenue” Corinne (Loredana Parrella) hide the key so that everyone is locked in and forced to participate in an all-night rehearsal so that they can open the play early and capitalize on the tragedy. Of course, that means that Irving is now locked in with the cast as well as their producer, Ferrari (Piero Vida). The first to be subdued is Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, credited as John Morghen), who portrays the killer within the play; Irving takes his owl head mask and uses it as his disguise to get close to Corinne in the scene in which she dies, only for onlookers to respond too slowly to the dawning realization that she is actually being murdered. And, as she’s the only one who knows where the key is, they’re in for a long night. 

The play within the movie is about a fictional killer named The Night Owl who preys on vulnerable women and murders them. The characters within the film also recognize that the play is a stylish but trashy cheap thrill masquerading as something more; one character describes it as a “thoughtful musical” when asked, but this “artistic endeavor” is fully funded by a sleazy businessman who doles cash out of a briefcase like a gangster. The director of the play, a possible jab at Argento, is fully invested in his artistic vision … but that vision proves to be completely malleable if it sells a few extra tickets. There’s also a moment in which the director is confronted by the killer wielding a chainsaw and just throws a woman directly into the path of the blades, which, as someone whose knowledge of Argento is … extensive, seems like a pretty good jab at the older filmmaker’s less-than-modern take on gender dynamics. 

Speaking of the play, in order to enjoy the movie, it’s important not to worry about what the production’s narrative is or how it could possibly work, and I think this might be an intentional comment on Italian horror as a genre as well. We see several disparate scenes, included but not limited to: 

  • The aforementioned scene in which a sex worker played by Alicia is pulled into a dark alcove/building and murdered, then the owl-headed killer bursts out and dances while a woman plays a saxophone on a rooftop above. This appears as the film’s opening but is presumably not the beginning of the play, as Alicia’s role is repeatedly referred to as the “lead role,” despite her being killed in this scene. 
  • A scene in which Laurel (Mary Sellers) is dancing on a bed while wearing a red wig and dressed as Raggedy Ann–not just a dress like Raggedy Ann’s, but literally dressed as the doll, apparently. We later see that she’s even wearing pads that simulate a body shape that’s essentially identical to the patented Ann doll. This part is apparently non-essential to the plot, as Laurel is tapped to replace Alicia in the aforementioned lead role when Alicia is briefly fired for getting her ankle checked out, and there’s no mention of someone else taking on Laurel’s old role. 
  • The love/killing scene in which Corinne does an interpretive dance around her bedroom while mooning after but also fearing The Night Owl. Although Corinne is intentionally styled to appear more prudish/innocent than the other female characters, there’s no doll on the bed in this scene or any indication that she has a Raggedy Ann. 

I leave it to the giallo fanfiction writers of the world, which I assume exist (if only because I can’t be the only one, right?) to put together a feasible narrative in which these scenes might appear, but I like to think that this is supposed to reflect how most giallo films are often composed of striking individual scenes that ultimately add up to a whole that is greater—but less comprehensible—than the sum of its parts. This film is no exception, although it’s much more fun and compelling than many of its peers, despite occasional wonkiness. For one thing, I fully support the decision to get up in the catwalk above the stage more than once; in a theater, that’s a natural place to stage a scene, but the film puts both of its catwalk scenes in Act III, which makes it feel narratively unbalanced. The dubbing in this one is particularly funny, as there’s the characteristic slight syncing/emphasis issues that are pretty common in Italian cinema, but while most characters are clearly speaking (possibly phonetically memorized) English that’s been dubbed over, there’s no attempt to do so with Ferrari. Either he’s just straight up speaking Italian or every one of his lines was rewritten between filming and voiceover. There’s also an inconsistency of verbiage, as the events of the night are given the nickname “The Sound Stage Killings,” but this isn’t a sound stage; it’s a live theatrical performance space. Those quibbles are fun and easily ignored, but I did have some qualms with the finale. The movie reaches a natural conclusion (our final girl defeats the real Night Owl and escapes to notify the police), but it keeps going for some reason, following her return to the theatre, where she reunites with Willy. In shoddy ADR, he endlessly repeats a line about how the apparent prop gun that was found in one of his desk drawers and which turned out to be useless against Irving is, in fact, a real gun as the play crew had initially guessed, but that none of the actors had figured out how to turn the safety off, only for there to be one final altercation with Irving. The pacing of it is all off, and it feels like it was added to pad the runtime (even with this scene, it’s a lean 86 minutes); forgivable, but not very fun. 

StageFright: Aquarius is currently streaming on Shudder, although the title is styled much less interestingly as Stage Fright.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

La chiesa (The Church, 1989)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Following the completion of my Dario Argento project, I felt myself suffering from a distinct lack of Argento in my life. As such, I had to try and fill this lack with some of his other work. Upon beginning the retrospective, I decided not to include films that Argento had written but not directed, as this would have included a large body of films that were never released in the U.S. and would thus have been nearly impossible to track down. Most of the films to which he contributed a story or script idea in the heyday of his career did cross over, however, and I was able to track down a DVD copy of La chiesa (The Church). La chiesa was intended to be the third film in the series and is considered to be an official sequel according to some sources, but it’s unclear how it fits into that series.

Lamberto Bava (son of director Mario Bava) had previously served as the assistant director on Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae, and the two collaborated again on Demoni and Demoni 2, the latter of which was the film debut of a very young Asia Argento, with Bava directing and Argento contributing to the script. However, a film originally titled The Ogre (directed by Bava and written by Dardano Sacchetti, who contributed to the scripts for Demoni and Demoni 2) was released as Demoni 3: The Ogre in 1988, with La chiesa following in 1989. 1991 saw the release of yet another film titled Demoni 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi, who had previously directed 1969’s Legion of the Damned from a script by—you guessed it—Dario Argento. Adding to the confusion, Bava did not direct La chiesa; it was instead directed by Michele Soavi, another member of that generation of Italian horror directors. All of this also fails to note that there were at least three other films that had the name “Demoni” applied to them as a marketing strategy; simply put, it’s ultimately unclear whether or not this film should be considered as a text which is part of an official ongoing narrative or simply as a text to be discussed in relation to the other texts made by its creators.

Regardless, the film works well as a standalone horror movie, and has Argento’s fingerprints all over it even if it was directed by someone else. Long ago, Teutonic Knights came upon a village that was supposedly inhabited by witches. An inquisitor damned the village when he saw one of the inhabitants with crucifix-shaped scars on her feet, and the knights slaughtered the entire population and buried all of the bodies in a mass grave; the location was then consecrated with a giant cross, and a church was built atop this grave to seal the great evil inside. One child (Asia Argento) almost escapes, but is simply the last victim—or so it seems. In present day (1989) Italy, Evan Altereus (Tomas Arana) arrives at the titular church, where he is taking over as the librarian. He meets art restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is working to revitalize a mural that shows the image of souls being tormented by a giant demon and his smaller attendants. Evan also meets the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), who is obsessed with the maintenance of the church, and Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie), who spends a great deal of his time practicing archery and imagining that he is either a Teutonic Knight or shooting at one. Lotte (Asia Argento), the preteen daughter of the church groundskeeper, lives in the church as well.

Evan becomes fascinated by the gothic cathedral’s history, talking incessantly to Lisa about the designs of gothic churches and the oddness of the fact that no royal or high clergyman had ever been buried there. Renovations in the basement lead to the discovery of a scroll that becomes the focal point of Evan’s obsession, ultimately leading him to find the cross/seal; he breaks this seal and becomes the first person possessed by demonic spirits. Ultimately, as the groundskeeper and others fall under the influence of evil, the church’s built-in failsafes, designed by the alchemist architect, seal the church’s doors, trapping the aforementioned characters inside along with a field trip group of about twenty nine-year-olds, an argumentative young biker couple, an elderly couple, and a small bridal party. As the hand of evil closes around them, Father Gus races to save himself and Lotte.

First things first: this movie, like a lot of Argento’s directorial work, doesn’t hold up narratively or logically. The opening scene, featuring the slaughter of an entire village, raises a lot of questions from the first moments. Are the inhabitants of this village actually witches? Is Asia Argento’s character immortal, or is she reborn in the present day? I want to say that the backstory would have a stronger impact if it was made clear that the villagers were innocent and that the possessing entity was created out of the evil of slaughtering so many innocents, but there’s not enough evidence against that reading to definitively state that is not already the case. Even if we accept that (a) the villagers were witches, and that (b) the witches were in league with demons, and thus (c) the demons are entombed evil who escape and begin to possess the church inhabitants, there are still so many things left unexplained. Why does the demon-capturing failsafe only take effect after possessed Evan returns from ripping out his own insides and stalking Lisa at home? He could have never come back, in which case a demon made it into the real word beyond the church without consequence. Why does Father Gus have flashbacks about Teutonic Knights, and is he the knight in that sequence or the knight’s killer?

So much is left unexplained that the film fails under minimal scrutiny. That having been said, this is still a very effective and scary film. The gore here is shocking because so much of the terror comes from slowly-building tension of watching possessed people act in eerie and creepy ways toward the unsuspecting innocents they have infiltrated. Evan’s full on demonic appearance is deeply unsettling in all of its practical effects glory, and it’s only one of the haunting images on display throughout. There are visuals here that I don’t think Argento would have been able to realize with his own skill sets, and there’s a writhing mass of dead bodies at the end that’s truly glorious in all its grotesque hideousness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the film ever got a DVD release in the original Italian, and the dubbing work here is notably bad; Lotte and an adult woman even have the exact same voice in the dub, which is really distracting. Overall, however, if you’re suffering from a lack of Argento in your life, like I was, it’ll help to fill that void, and is an interesting experiment in collaboration for Argento fans.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond