It's no secret that the line between comedy and horror is a particularly fine one, but even the most fearless of genre filmmakers rarely possess the confidence to try to add musical numbers into that fickle mix; in his debut feature Stage Fright, director Jerome Sable attempts just that. Thanks to his perceptive talent for riffing on horror and theater tropes, as well as a keen ear for a catchy tune, Sable largely succeeds at this endeavor. It's only in the bloody dash to the finish line that the cracks begin to show, but by then, few who have stuck with Stage Fright through its breezy 88-minute running time will find that to be cause for total condemnation.
As a young girl, Camilla Swanson dreamed of becoming a theater actress like her mother (Minnie Driver), who was brutally murdered following her Broadway debut in a musical called The Haunting of the Opera. Years later, a teenage Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and her younger brother Buddy (Douglas Smith) are working in the kitchen of a performing-arts camp when she crashes the audition for their big summer production -- a Kabuki-style revival of The Haunting of the Opera -- and lands the role made famous by her late mother. As rehearsals get under way, however, a maniac turns the theater into a slaughterhouse, and the murders seem to be linked to Camilla's tragic past. But while desperate producer and camp owner Roger McCall (Meat Loaf) convinces the eager young actors that the show must go on, there may be no one left to take the stage when the curtains part on opening night.
With Glee finding success on the airwaves, it was only a matter of time before the show's influence bled over onto the big screen. Thanks to their penchant for music and mayhem, Sable and his songwriting partner Eli Batalion have crafted a movie that owes as much to that contemporary TV hit as it does to such cult films as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (most obviously in the casting of Meat Loaf) or Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise. Given the broad range of influences and targets on display, it would have been relatively easy for Sable to lose sight of his goal, but despite taking his time with the setup by exploring the surprisingly gruesome murder that sets the story in motion, his playful riffing on theater stereotypes and horror tropes (the creepy maintenance man, the killer's corny one-liners) keeps the mood light and the laughs flowing for those in the know.
That would have been a difficult task to pull off had Sable not assembled a talented young cast capable of capturing just the right tone. Fortunately, in that respect, he succeeded admirably. As the traumatized yet ambitious Cammila, MacDonald mostly earns our sympathy, despite making a few questionable judgment calls in order to get her big break. While the rest of the characterization is frequently limited to shorthand, Thomas Alderson, Ephraim Ellis, and Brandon Uranowitz are standouts as, respectively, the outwardly gay stage manager, the closeted actor, and the sleazy director. Somewhat surprisingly, it's film and music veteran Meat Loaf who has trouble with the vocal requirements in a key scene that finds him convincing the campers to cover up a shocking murder until opening night; his character continues to prove troublesome, at least story-wise, as Sable attempts to connect the dots during the movie's blood-soaked climax.
Still, it's hard not to be charmed by a film that hits most of its satirical targets with such knowing accuracy, and that occasionally manages to get your toes tapping with its show-tune-inspired melodies. Stage Fright is a cult hit in the making for fans of movies like Repo! The Genetic Opera and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, as well as a campy treat to savor with all of your misfit friends.