Are there any more frightening words in a horror movie synopsis than “five friends head to a remote cabin”? That phrase has been the starting point for many scary scripts, conjuring up visions of ancient evil life forms, dangerous hillbilly types, mysterious incantations and lines like “No matter what, we have to stay together.”
The “cabin in the woods” genre is decades old, but almost always follows the same formula—five good-looking teens, say, a jock, a stoner, some hot girls, one a brainiac, and a party girl—go to a cabin, only one or two make it home.
The remade Evil Dead shakes up the formula to an extent. In it some handsome people head to an isolated cottage not to drink and party but to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick her addiction to drugs. The details are different, but the outcome—and this isn’t a spoiler, just a statement of fact—is the same and that’s what we like about the genre.
The most well loved “cabin in the woods” movies must be the first two Sam Raimi Evil Dead films. The original, and namesake of the series, was actually shot in a real life abandoned cottage. In it five friends go to a cabin in the woods (sound familiar?), discover a ‘Book of the Dead’ and unleash flesh-possessing demons. It made a star of Bruce Campbell and lead to a sequel, Evil Dead II, another cabin movie that is equal parts silly and scary.
Eli Roth made his directorial debut with Cabin Fever, a movie inspired by real life events. The idea for a film about a group of friends in a (you guessed it!) cabin in the woods, tormented by a flesh-eating virus and homicidal townsfolk, came to him as he worked on a horse farm. “I was cleaning hay out of this barn and got this infection on my face,” he says. The rash got so bad that, “I went to shave and I literally shaved a third of my face off.” It hurt, but he looked at the bright side. “I thought, ‘This is actually going make a great movie one day.’”
Sleepaway Camp—ignore the sequels, although the number two’s title Unhappy Campers is pretty great—sets the action at a summer camp. This gory slasher flick is most notable for a wild twist ending that has been called a “jaw-dropping, tape-rewinding, pause-and-stare-and-call-your-friends-over-to-stare” moment.
“Stage Fright” feels like a classic Canadian tax dodge film. From the imported lead actors propping up the unknown Canadian cast to the slightly vulgar tone, the movie feels like it might have earned a dentist or some other wealthy person a massive write down on lines 205 to 485 of this year’s tax form, which, I suspect, is part of the joke.
Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) is the daughter of murdered opera singer Kylie (Minnie Driver), a diva who was killed on the opening night of her greatest triumph The Haunting of the Opera. The young girl was raised by her step-father Roger (Meat “Bat out of Hell” Loaf) and now works at his performing arts summer camp as a cook. She puts down the ladle when Roger decides to mount a new production of his ex-wife’s big show at the camp.
She wins the lead role, but soon bodies start piling up—“The show must carry on,” they sing after the death of one character—and she wonders if the show is cursed.
Like the bold musical reimagining of “The Vagina Monologues” they mention in the movie, “Stage Fright” is an audacious idea; a slasher musical. That it doesn’t quite work as either an operetta or horror film doesn’t take away from the brashness of the concept but it does beg unfavorable comparisons with other movies containing scares and songs. From “Phantom of the Paradise” to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and ”Sweeney Todd,” tunes and terror have frequently co-existed, but rarely has anyone tried to mix-and-match the down-and-dirty scares of movies like “Sleepaway Camp” with “Glee.”
This isn’t new territory for director / writer Jerome Sable. His short film short film, a horror musical called “The Legend of Beaver Dam,” debuted at Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival and won awards all over the world. Perhaps “Stage Fright” is an idea that might have worked better as a short film. That way he might have found a better balance between the music and the mayhem.
The opening, with Driver, is a grabber, but thirty tune-filled minutes pass before anything gory happens and even then the second kill isn’t particularly gory or even interesting. I’m not sure that the bloodhounds will be interested in the songs, so the gruesome stuff has to be wild to get them onside. As it is “Stage Fright” feels like they tried to please both horror fans and musical aficionados. As it is, it falls somewhere in the murky middle.
The lyrics to the closing credit song has a couple of lines that musically question what the audience is still doing there, asks why they are watching the credits, and urges them not to pirate the movie. If the rest of the movie had been that clever in its presentation of the material “Stage Fright” might have delivered more on the promise of its premise.