Monday, October 29, 2012

Break a Leg

Michele Soavi's Deliria (aka Stagefright, 1987) is of its time and place. It's a slasher, of course, but it's a slasher film that exists at the confluence of that subgenre and the Italian giallo. It's not exactly a giallo. It doesn't have the perverse investigative plot of most giallo films, but it borrows the giallo's style, in which massacre is lovingly mounted as slick entertainment. This is the descendent of Dario Argento, of course, for whom director Michele Soavi once worked as a second-unit director. Take out the director's credit, and you might mistake this for Argento's work. It's certainly cruel enough.

The story here finds a theatrical company putting on a show about a masked murderer. The murderer, Judex-style, wears a bird's head (an owl, in this case). The production is overseen by Peter, a domineering director who sees this production as his ticket to the big time. He's a stern taskmaster, too much so for Alicia, whom he berates and fires for heading to a doctor's office for a sprained ankle she suffers during the film's opening number. The nearest doctor, it turns out, is a psychiatric hospital where mass killer, Irving Wallace, is being held in custody. Wallace, it seems, has figured out how to escape custody, and hitches a ride back to the theater. Peter, for his part, wants his people to bear down on the production and to this end, he locks everyone in the theater. Unfortunately, Irving is in the theater, too, and soon, he's bumping off the cast and crew one by one...

My first impression of Deliria? Wow, it's the 1980s. I suspect that fashions are like water for fish. When you're surrounded by them, you don't notice how ghastly they sometimes are. As I say, this is of its time, and its time is 1987, five years before punk went mainstream. The music is of its time, too, a generic echo of the fading New Wave. The early part of the movie, and several other parts of it, too, look a lot like a music video. It's of a piece with other films from the same period, from the mild to the wild.

This is a film that thrives on viciousness. The setting of the story in a theatrical company that is making a musical out of mass murder is a tip off to what Soavi is up to. The violent set pieces in this movie are the attraction, in the same way that the musical numbers in a musical are the attraction. Everything that links the set pieces together is incidental. The subplot where two castmates discuss what to do with her unborn baby? It doesn't save her from being massacred. Or him, for that matter. This is not a drama about people or even about theater (though it perhaps suggests the attraction of the grand guignol). This is about slaking the audience's taste for violence. To that end, it stages its murders with aplomb: the murder weapons are diverse, the situations are varied (one murder happens in front of the entire cast before they realize that they're in the presence of a murder), and the gore is copious and grotesque. The implements of mayhem include a pneumatic drill, a chainsaw, a pickaxe, a fire ax, and a run of the mill knife. A glancing blow from a chainsaw takes off a woman's breast. Another woman is sawn in half. One cast member is trussed up like the killer as a way of provoking his own friends into hacking into him with an ax.

There's a final girl, of course, and the movie counts down to her isolation and her final confrontation with our masked killer. This film's finale is better than one finds in most films: it's more Hitchcock than it is Friday the 13th, but then, the Italians discovered the effectiveness of Hitchcockian suspense as a build up to massacre long before Hollywood caught on. There's a level of craft in these scenes that eludes comparable American films. The final set piece doesn't even hinge on gore. It's pure, object-oriented filmmaking that coincidentally sends its heroine on a kind of hero's journey into the underworld. The owl mask the killer wears tends to abstract the film away from the slasher movie and into a kind of dreamy conte cruel of the sort favored by the Symbolists (certainly, its echoes of Franju and Feuillade are not accidental).

Soavi himself seems to have suffered some of his mentor's fate. After a fireworks display of early movies, his career seems to have lapsed into a long eclipse in which he has mostly worked on television. Pity.

Current tally: 25 films.
19 first time viewings.

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