SXSW Review: Stage Fright


Stage Fright opening scene

This year's SXSW Film Festival has been chock-full of dramatic, emotional features and compelling documentaries, many of which will bring critics to tears, win awards and be remembered for stirring performances.

And then there's Stage Fright.

Stage Fright is the movie you see after one too many features about the fragility of twentysomething love, or docs about serious political issues that have you worried about ever driving again, or eating corn, or using fountain pens. Stage Fright is playing again at SXSW at 11:15 am today, and what I advise is that you stop reading this review and head down to Alamo Ritz right now and get in the line, since it's in the small theater.

It's true that at film festivals, comedies of any worth get undue praise because they are such a relief after weightier films. But Stage Fright is great goofy fun that will hold up in your living room, especially if you invite your musical-theater-loving friends to watch it with you. Writer-director Jerome Sable previously brought us the very funny short horror-musical The Legend of Beaver Dam in 2010 (I notice some of you are rushing out to your cars now and pondering downtown parking), and sustains that level of hilarity in his feature-film debut. 

The movie opens with the starmaking performance of Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) in the musical The Haunting of the Opera (which has nothing to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber, natch) ... after which she is brutally murdered by someone disguised as the Opera Ghost. Ten years later, her producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf) is running a kids' musical-theater summer camp and has taken in Kylie's twins to help him: Camilla (Allie McDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith). Roger has decided it's time to revive The Haunting of the Opera -- kabuki style, Camilla has decided she wants to be an actress/singer like her mom ... and perhaps the Opera Ghost has decided it's time to revive his murderous ways too.

The above paragraph could be the foundation for any dark horror film -- a summer camp with a body count, a guy in a mask, you get the picture. And that's plausible until the bus leaves for summer camp, a kid blows into a pitch pipe, and all the campers burst into song. I love a musical where people just burst into song, and the lyrics are appropriately silly, too. If traditional stage-musical numbers aren't your cup of tea, there's a small sharp dose of heavy metal as well.

The horror-comedy that is Stage Fright tends to lean heavily on the latter (with musical assists) and not so much on the former. However, there are a few messy scenes of violence. Fortunately for gore wusses like me, they're well telegraphed and as soon as you see a murderous weapon, you can look at the floor or focus on your popcorn or mutter "Karo syrup" to yourself repeatedly.

The lead actors all play their roles perfectly straight, with no winks or campiness, which keeps the movie grounded -- to the extent that a movie like this can be grounded. McDonald (Stories We Tell) plays ingenue-in-training Camilla just right ... and it's refreshing to see a female character set up as a Final Girl with somewhat loose morals. Melanie Leishman (Todd and the Book of Pure Evil) makes a good rival, with shades of a failed teenage attempt to emulate Sarah Brightman. I had difficulty distinguishing between several of the teen boy characters, unfortunately, although at least one wears a hat and a couple could be identified by hair color.

Meat Loaf, however, is the shining light of Stage Fright, an unremarkable-looking businessman who nonetheless launches into song like everyone else, and being Meat Loaf, is the strongest singer in the bunch. The kids don't all have perfect voices, but they work well together and thank heaven, there's no autotuning and very little of the American Idol/Glee School of Emotive Screeching.

The plot of Stage Fright is fairly standard and frankly, occasionally illogical. The movie is just plain silly at times -- by the way, you want to stay through all the credits to hear Meat Loaf and some amusingly nonsensical lyrics. I heard an audience member complain that the "Scream meets Glee" description was misleading because the horror aspect is not at all Scream level and his expectations were too high. But if you are fond of musical theater, you are going to laugh your ass off (whle occasionally peeking through your fingers at the gory bits). And sometimes that's just the filmgoing experience you need.

If you miss Stage Fright at SXSW -- or if you saw it and are wondering when you can see it again -- Magnet has the US distribution rights and the movie will be available on iTunes and video on demand starting April 3, with a theatrical release set for May 9. (Speaking of Magnet, I wonder how well this movie would pair with Grand Piano.) Meanwhile, you can buy The Legend of Beaver Dam right now on iTunes.

Texas connections: Actor/musician Meat Loaf is from Dallas.