Are owls scary? Wait, let me rephrase that. Are psychopathic killers in owl costumes scary?
An odd question, I know, but hear me out. In the 1989 horror film Stagefright: Aquarius, an escaped mental patient, really a former actor with a bit of a compulsive killing problem, terrorizes a thoroughly desperate theatre troupe while wearing a giant owl head. (They’re rehearsing an “intellectual musical” called The Night Owl. It’s so nonsensically sexist, even the director freely admits it’s a piece of shit.)
How does he end up in the theatre where they hope to premiere this disaster in a week? Funny story.
One of the performers has a bad ankle and needs to get it looked at but at the same time is afraid of losing her job, a not unreasonable fear. After convincing the kindly custodian to hand over the key to the back door of the theatre, her good friend, the wardrobe lady, secretly drives her not to the ER (which would make sense), but to a mental institution where the aforementioned psychopathic killer, sporting a decent shiner on his left eye, coincidentally has just been admitted.
While comfortably resting in his new cell, the actress with the bad ankle finds herself outside his barred door looking intently in his direction. Suddenly, he sits up like The Undertaker and looks right back at her. Unbeknownst to her, he’s not exactly confined to his bed. Oh yes, the guards who brought him in had him tied to it alright, but even I could break free of those pathetic looking straps around his wrists. (Where did they buy them? The dollar store?) What does the poor orderly who brings him food get for visiting his cell? A needle in the neck, of course.
Somehow, without being detected at all by any of the obviously alert medical personnel at this top-notch high security mental health facility (dig those non-existent surveillance cameras), the psychopathic serial killer hitches a ride with the two dames by simply hiding in the back seat without, you guessed it, being detected.
When the wardrobe lady returns to the parked car now back outside the theatre because she forgot something, what does she get for her trouble? An axe in the mouth, of course. Did they make a pit stop at Home Depot or did I miss something?
At any event, she has the only key to the back entrance of the theatre which means psycho boy doesn’t have to worry about potential victims escaping that way. Doing the rest of the job for him is The Night Owl’s incredibly idiotic director who decides, even after the discovery of dead wardrobe lady, to continue this goddamn pointless rehearsal hoping her murder will actually juice ticket sales to the point where the show can open four days earlier than scheduled. (He even tweaks the script to note the change.) To ensure that everyone complies (except for the actress with the sore ankle who he fires for leaving without permission), he gives one of his other actresses the only key to the front door and, then, get this, tells her to hide it. Good thinking, chief!
Before everyone gets locked in for the night, sore ankle lady discovers dead wardrobe lady after she doesn’t return from her second trip to the car and the cops are called. With a straight face, one of them claims they did a thorough search of the theatre and couldn’t find psycho boy. Just in case, though, they assign two dopey officers to stick around outside in a parked car to have unfunny conversations with each other (“don’t I look like James Dean?”) in between all the completely preventable mayhem that happens inside. Oh, did I forget to mention this all takes place on a dark and stormy night?
Anyway, places people, orders the clueless director as he summons a stereotypical gay performer to come out as The Night Owl and rehearse a bedroom scene with one of the actresses. Unfortunately, the owl is a bit timid and doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing. But after the director orders him repeatedly to “kill” his co-star, well, it’s a good thing he brought that knife with him. You can’t say he doesn’t take direction well.
It takes a remarkable amount of time for everyone to realize that the actual assault they just witnessed in a collectively dimwitted daze was not safely staged by the super flaming gay guy. Nope, it was the escaped mental patient who quickly flees after doing his business. Of course, the woman he repeatedly stabs is the same one who hid the front door key. Unfortunately, when asked where she hid it, she croaks. Darn.
Then the stage lights go out. The Night Owl’s director immediately understands they’re all fucked and is now having second thoughts about that whole hide-the-front-key-so-no-one-can-escape-this-train-wreck-of-a-rehearsal idea. Not a fan of the silence, the killer, on more than one occasion fires up old the reel-to-reel so the film’s musical director can get his royalties.
As the troupe all make their way to one of the dressing rooms to lock themselves in, their slow-ass, deeply worried financial backer gets unintentionally left behind. And wouldn’t you know it, he runs into psycho boy. Yeah, offering him a bribe doesn’t really work.
Meanwhile, this director is something else. He apparently had a one-nighter with sore ankle lady but she called it off when he wanted to share her with his friends. Kinky. Even though he fired her for bolting to see that unethical hospital psychiatrist (rubbing her thigh doesn’t help her ankle, Dr. Perve), she couldn’t leave because psycho boy snatched the back door key from dead wardrobe lady and, yes, he told the stabbed actress to hid the front door key without telling anybody where she put it. No wonder he’s seeing a shrink.
His cold, clinical demeanour suddenly turns compassionate, though, towards his former flame as he belatedly starts to regret this whole doomed enterprise. (Good timing, chief!) Despite wisely insisting they all stick together to stay safe in this locked dressing room, he quickly breaks his own rule to accompany his assistant to an office to find that goddamn front key.
While they aimlessly root around looking for something they’ll never find, psycho boy has found a power drill. How skilled is this motherfucker? He doesn’t even have to break into the dressing room to get his kill on. Eat your heart out, Ty Pennington.
By the time the director and his assistant return, the door has two holes in it and there’s a lot of blood on the floor. Astutely observing psycho boy’s weapon of choice, they head to where he found it to retrieve their own weapons, yet another pointless exercise that won’t save them.
As the numbers start to dwindle, it becomes clear where all of this is headed. And if there is anything positive about the predictable finish, it’s the almost complete absence of dialogue that leads up to it.
Back to my original question. Can a psycho in an owl costume be truly terrifying? Not in this movie. The killer behaves no differently than Michael Myers, Leatherface or Jason Voorhees but he has even less of a menacing presence. He often pops into the frame and the reaction is…meh. Even his leering close-ups are weak.
The murder scenes are typically unpleasant bordering on cheesy in a couple of instances. Truthfully, I’ve seen worse. That said, pregnant actress lady sure meets a grisly end. But Lucifer the cat? Even psycho boy can’t resist his charms. Eat your heart out, Dr. Evil.
If the film had been more satirical it might have been more fun. God knows you can’t take any of this seriously, especially The Night Owl itself, a production so tasteless and amateurish it’s no wonder the director and his financial backer openly debate pulling the plug. I mean a rape victim raping her rapist? That’s “sensational”, director guy? Fuck off.
The most honest scene in the film is the one inside the theatre after wardrobe lady’s murder. The director gathers the remainder of his mourning cast and crew around (before they’re all locked in, he actually sends everybody else home!) to reveal he’s just as desperate for a hit as they all are. And of course, wardrobe lady would want them to continue! All of them are struggling to make ends meet and are begging for a breakthrough, so he turns to his backer to fork over more dough to keep them invested in this travesty.
Considering what happens to most of them during the remainder of the film, here’s hoping the real actors got a much better deal. Something tells me they didn’t.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, May 22, 2015