If horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that summer camp is one of the most dangerous places in the world. The teens are reckless, the forest is dark, and the activities are deadly. I have never been to summer camp, and so I have nothing to compare these films with. As a result, I generally gravitate towards the weirder summer camp films. My favourite of these is coincidentally a very camp film, mainly because it spends an equal amount of time on singing and murder, sometimes at the same time. Its antagonist is perhaps the most believable villain I’ve encountered, as he murders people because he really hates musical theater. He’s like if the Phantom from Phantom of the Opera hated opera and the people who make opera. He’s a strange catalyst of violence and pun-based murder. That’s right, he makes a lot of theater puns right before he murders people, so if you are still hesitant about watching this bizarre film…it’s got that going for it.
I am talking about the critically panned Stage Fright, the absurd comedy horror musical. Stage Fright is not a quote ‘good’ movie, but it is a fun movie. I recommend it to only specific people because you need to go into the film understanding that it isn’t going to be good, and that the music is going to be terrible (and I say that while still enjoying it). I am not even sure if the film is aware of how bad it is (according to critics), or if this is the result of some amazing parody. I sort of alternate between these positions anytime I watch it. But it is worth a watch, and I would argue, there’s a lot going on within that terrible quality.
“All of Life’s A Song To Sing, So Sing With All Your Heart”
The film takes place at a struggling musical theater camp for kids and teens. They are working on a production of The Haunting of the Opera, a takeoff on Phantom of the Opera. Meat Loaf runs the camp, and although he probably has a character name, I just assume this is how Meat Loaf spends his summers. Our protagonist, Camilla, is a young and talented singer who works at the camp with her moody brother, Buddy. We learn that Camilla and Buddy’s mother (played by Minnie Driver) was a celebrated theater star until she was viciously stabbed in the throat while in her dressing room. Camilla wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a star. She decides to audition for the leading role in the camp’s production, which happens to be the same show her mother was in when she was murdered. She gets cast, although she isn’t a camper, and lots of infighting and drama ensue.
Meanwhile, there is a mysterious masked killer who wants to stop the production, and who begins systematically murdering cast and crew. He has a strange reaction to Camilla, leading her to believe he’s either a cast member she flirted with or Meat Loaf, who dated her mother and is now a father figure. The killer turns out to be her brother Buddy, who I guess wasn’t so much of a Buddy after all. It is revealed that Meat Loaf murdered their mother because she was cheating on him, and Buddy saw everything. Killing children was apparently Buddy’s way of destroying Meat Loaf. Perhaps there could have been an easier way to do that.
Meat Loaf manages to escape from Buddy, kills him, and then tries to kill Camilla before she can tell everyone that he murdered her mother. After a final showdown, Camilla murders him with a chainsaw, and then stumbles back onto the stage covered in blood, which the audience assumes is part of the show. She becomes a big star afterwards but is always haunted by the events at the camp.
“What is At the Heart of Haunting? It’s About Covering”
I appreciate the way the film talks about theater and abuse, as although it’s told in a violent and exaggerated fashion, it does get to some real issues. Camilla has to share the leading role with another girl, and the two are forced to compete for opening night while the director sexually manipulates and abuses both for the role. This toxic environment is the very reason the killer wants to destroy theater, not because of its subject, but because of what happens backstage. He hates that musical theater is so hypocritical, and that it forces people into these terrible positions. Buddy’s goal is to protect his sister from this fake theatrical world, where everything seems lovely on the outside, but is putrid inside. The film also suggests that abuse is an inherent quality in the theater industry, and that this abuse repeats itself in the same way musical productions are recast and revamped. Just as Camilla’s mother was abused and rendered voiceless (knife in throat), so too is her daughter in the same role.
Similar to the other horror musicals I’ve recently discussed, these issues refuse to disappear at the end of the film. The abuse still exists, as do its consequences. I think this is the result of the horror genre, which traditionally leaves room for the villain to return and attack again. Stage Fright continues this trend, as although Meat Loaf and Buddy are killed, as is the director who abused Camilla, these abusers are simply replaced. During the performance, one of her mother’s admirers watches Camilla and decides to help her, in exchange for something. This signals that the cycle of abuse is starting again, hence the hallucination which ends the film.
Camilla is suddenly attacked while changing in her dressing room, one which looks a lot like her mother’s. Although it turns out to be an illusion, the film implies that the abuse she underwent at the camp has continued, and that this hallucination is the result of ongoing trauma in her later career. This ending additionally suggests that the killer was less of a plague and more of a side effect from this industry. In other words, he was a direct and honest iteration or consequence of this violent system.
“Must This Be My Sacrifice?”
This brings me to the film’s most baffling quality: the singing. The music and singing are terrible, but for a specific reason. Everyone acts like Camilla has an incredible voice when that’s just not true. She and the other actors are all collectively bad, so why does the film suggest otherwise? Maybe this was unintentional, but I think it is more than that. I believe we hear in the same way that the killer does. This explains why the film’s version of musical theater is so off and cheesy, as the killer hates musical theater and the people who sing it. The film tries to demonstrate and justify the killer’s hatred by showing it. We are never swept up by musical theater like the other characters, it’s not catchy or engaging. Likewise, because it is a terrible parody of Phantom of the Opera, we inherently compare the production to a better show. This comparison makes the show in Stage Fright seem even more disastrous. The fact that we can’t understand why the characters are so excited about musicals and Camilla’s voice is thus the result of the killer’s perspective, and how false this musical theater world feels.
“BREAK A LEG!”
The best moments in the film are those where the killer is on screen, especially the times he sings heavy metal while murdering. For example, there’s a scene where one camper uncovers a nail ridden corpse and the killer appears behind and screams “NAILED IT”. There’s also the time the killer raises his knife to stab someone, and then instead uses it as a capo on his electric guitar. You know, even as I am writing this, I am remembering how much I actually love this movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it is for some people. The heavy metal/rock vibes from the killer make the shift from happy musical theater to dark theater industry even more apparent. A good demonstration of this is when the killer interrupts one of the summer camp’s happy songs with a chorus about murdering everyone. The back and forth between these music genres is certainty one of the film’s most redeeming qualities.
I know I have poked fun at the film, but I do recommend it. It is a great camp film which actively plays with the conventions around horror musicals. The casting of Meat Loaf and Minnie Driver highlights this awareness, as Meat Loaf starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Driver was in Phantom of the Opera. The presence of these actors signals that the film knows what it is doing, and that it is actively reaching out to horror musical fans. We know these actors have been in better horror musicals, and that comparison makes this film seem terrible. However, it also puts the film in conversation with these other works, which means that it can parody their conventions and outcomes in addition to the way these films/productions have been treated. This again implies that the ‘terrible’ elements in the film are 100% intentional, and not the result of some ill-judgement.
So, if you enjoy the cheesiness of slashers like Freddy Kruger (who incidentally starred in a 1989 Phantom of the Opera film), intentional (or maybe unintentional) parody, and horror musical theater, then this is a must see.