Fright (1983, dir: John Lamond, cast: Jenny Neumann, Gary Sweet,
Nina Landis; aka: Nightmares)
Fright is a low-budget Aussie gem. Released in 1983, at the
peak of the slasher cycle, it remains true to formula. (And not to
be confused with several other Stage Frights, including the horror film by
(Cathy) is traumatized upon seeing her mother fornicating with an illicit
lover. Later, Cathy's unsuspecting daddy bids goodbye as
mommy drive off on a road trip. Cathy awakens in the back seat of
the car to espy the lover fondling mommy's thighs while she's driving. Cathy panics and intervenes. Mommy is thrown through the windshield
in the resulting accident. When Cathy tries to drag mommy back into
the car, she inadvertently slits mommy's throat against windshield shards.
in a hospital, Cathy overhears a nurse mention that Cathy killed her mom. Daddy accuses Cathy likewise, apparently ignorant or indifferent that his
daughter was defending him from cuckoldom. With all that guilt and
ingratitude, what's a girl to do?
attacks a hospital employee with a glass shard.
begin to detect a familiar pattern?
Flash forward. Cathy grows into adulthood, changes her name to Helen (played by Jenny
Neumann from Hell Night), and becomes an actress
who is cast in a theatrical "comedy about death."
in their roles and Helen is always in character. The character she
portrays onstage, and the character of normalcy offstage. In her
offstage role, Helen evokes Norman
Bates. She strives to remain self-possessed but lives on an emotional
edge, her composure masking inner turmoil. Like Norman, she fears
her sexuality. Helen tells Terry, a fellow actor, that she's "Never
had a boyfriend. Never been allowed." Suppressing her trauma,
Helen allows Terry to kiss her. It's not something she allows lightly. So when she catches Terry peck the production manager at lunch, Helen bolts
from the cafeteria, distraught. Terry follows Helen to her apartment,
outside which Terry hears Helen arguing.
him!" Helen screams.
you're a fool!" a deeper voice responds.
leaves, Terry knocks on the door. If you've seen Psycho,
you won't be surprised to learn that no one answers.
also dreams. Dreams about death. (Stage
Fright is aka Nightmares --
not to be confused with the horror
anthology film of the same name.) Which is curious, because
a string of murders is plaguing the theater. When Helen relates her
nightmares to Terry in an park, he responds, "You're strange." No
Fright is a real treat for fans of poverty row horror. Aside from an interesting
story performed by a respectable cast, the film exhibits creative attempts
to stretch the budget. For instance, the above park scene is tightly
framed, indicating the filming was done sans permit, passersby just beyond
frame. But while the tight framing was likely pragmatic, it both
enhances our intimacy with Stage Fright's
characters and fosters a claustrophobic atmosphere.
pragmatic framing reappears whenever needed to hide something off camera. The frame widens whenever there is nothing to hide, as when filming the
actors performing on stage, but tightens when the director (George) approaches
the stage to thunderous applause. That, and the low camera angle
framing George's head with the ceiling "behind" him, both emphasizes his
vanity and effectively hides what is doubtless and empty theater. (Extras cost money.) Thus this shot simultaneously serves the pragmatic
need to conceal the empty theater, and the aesthetic goal of illustrating
example of Stage Fright's pragmatic
aesthetics is how it avoids aiming the camera at a nonexistent theatrical
audience by instead shooting the play's rising and falling curtain from
myriad stylized angles. These sharply skewed camera angles not only
hide the empty theater, but they also effectively underscore the emotionally
unstable life of actors and the insecurity created by the threat of further
aesthetics, I mean when a filmmaker puts budgetary
production compromises to aesthetic effect. Forced to compromise
on location, lighting, whatever, the filmmaker uses that limitation in
a way that enhances the theme or story. I first used the term in my essay,
"The Pragmatic Aesthetics of Low-Budget Horror Cinema," published under
another title in Midnight Marquee #60. For a fuller explanation, see my book, Horror Film Aesthetics.)
lighting evokes documentaries, and thus it creates a concrete immediacy
that heightens intimacy with a film's characters. Stage
Fright's characters benefit from such harsh lighting, even if they
were only lit that way because the filmmaker had little time for complicated
lighting setups. Stock footage of theater crowds pad the film, along
with canned crowd murmur. Offhand remarks mixed into the murmuring
are not attributable to any specific theatergoer. The editing it
rough, the film stock of various ASAs, but it all works. (Hey, when
Oliver Stone mixed film stocks for Natural
Born Killers, it was called genius).
(or perhaps because of) low-budget restraints, Stage
Fright conveys a poetical lyricism. Scenes are quick, often
just a line or two, fading in and out in rapid haiku succession. Helen begins a scene by saying to Terry: "I can't love you. Much
as I want to, I can't."
love you," he responds.
"You fool. Cathy won't let you." Fade out.
approach, fading in and out of brief scenes, was used to great poetic effect
Than Paradise (1984). Jim Jarmusch developed it due to budget
constraints, filming Stranger
Than Paradise piecemeal, as money was raised. Again, Jarmusch
was called genius. Why not Stage Fright director John Lamond?
Fright's stereotypical characters drawn from the world of Theater
jell well with what remains in many ways a traditional slasher film. Their superstitions and neuroses form the subtext for the slasher's psychosis. An actress traumatizes her peers by whistling backstage. After one
she is reminded, "You're to blame! You whistled! This production's
jinxed!" George is shocked upon seeing an actor in green. "Never
wear green!" When not insulting his actors, George spouts artsy-fartsy gobbledygook. "The meaning of the lines doesn't matter. It's the juxtaposition and rhythm of the words." A foppish critic
(Bennett) delights in writing negative reviews and propositioning both
actors and actresses alike.
Fright utilizes standard slasher film aesthetics. POV shots
conceal the killer's identity. Jarring melodramatic music heralds
ominous events. Characters turn stupid at the most inopportune times. The drunken Bennett, staggering through the theater's basement just as
the killer bursts through a glass door, simply remarks, "Jesus, why'd you
do that for? You scared the fucking daylights out of me." But
instead of fretting over this unusual entrance, Bennett ignores his own
query and adds, "Well don't just stand there. Help me find my lighter."
killer picks up a glass shard...
Fright is a splendid slasher film, but not so clever as to defy
expectations. If you can't guess the killer's identity early on,
you haven't been watching the subgenre. Even so, Stage
Fright does end on a surprise twist, similar to that in Intruder (1989).
Fright is also marred by crass sadism (victims require prolonged
and repeated stabbings to die) and gratuitous nudity, but is an overall
enjoyable excursion into the world of Theater, delineating all its backbiting
jealousies, backstage gossip, and petty power politics within a slasher
film context. Jenny Neumann makes for a plucky Helen.
Fright features very rough productions values. It's the sort
of unpolished slasher effort that many critics deride as scrapings from
under the bottom of the barrel. And yet, the film's very roughness lends it an authentic sensibility. Aficionados of ultra-low-budget horror Z-films (e.g. Don't
Look in the Basement) will find much merit in Stage
Review copyright by Thomas
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