AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 84 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Charlesburg 1857: slave owner George Materson has a curse put on him by his slaves, one of whom gives his wife Elisabeth a totem that will protect her. Charlesburg 1987: psychiatrist David Young moves into the mansion once owned by George with his girlfriend, pop singer Kate Christopher who’s a former patient of his, plus Kate’s son Jason. But the present begins to be invaded by the past when Elisabeth has visions of George, while George is about to make a terrible discovery in the attic….
I’m afraid I just can’t stop thinking the dead body. Dead body you ask? Well think on this. A handyman is cleaning some drains on the roof of a house and hangs himself, though not intentionally of course and probably caused by the evil force that’s around. We then cut to several police cars and their occupants on the lawn. One might reasonably expect that they’re here more because of the fatality that we’ve just seen than the two skeletons in the attic that David’s just discovered, but no, it’s just because of the skeletons, and none of the policemen even notice the dangling corpse. The body just seems to hang there for days or even weeks, right outside a young boy’s room and, while the boy does mention the smell, shouldn’t it be almost unbearable after while, and also shouldn’t there be flies buzzing about that would give the game away even if everybody in the house is blind and has only minimal sense of smell? And I’m assuming that the handyman wasn’t missed as nobody cared to look for him and go to where he was last seen. Mother even opens and looks out of the window to investigate the smell in son’s bedroom and fails to see the body right in front of her, then leaves the window open. Eventually [SPOILER ALERT] the cadaver comes crashing through the glass towards the end of the film, without a single insect on it and indeed looking remarkably healthy all things considered. I guess you could see all that as an attempt at dark humour, but the filmmakers otherwise seem to have intended Scared Stiff to be taken seriously, at least aside from one particular character and until the final act.
When our webmistress Bat offered me a screener for a film entitled Scared Stiff, I immediately thought that the film in question was the 1953 Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis starrer that was a pointlessly close remake of the Bob Hope 1940 horror-tinged comedy classic The Ghost Breakers, not knowing then that five other films bore the same title. A cheapie ’80s haunted house movie sounded like fun anyway, though it was only yesterday that I realised that it was directed by the same ‘genius’ who made Doom Asylum. Released by Arrow Video last summer, I found it to be something of a chore, a mostly inept exercise padded out by lots of footage from Tod Slaughter movies where it seemed that most people involved had no pride in what they were doing and gave up going for any level of quality. A very small budget is no excuse for a film being rubbish as many horror classics have proved. “Oh dear” I sighed to myself, not relishing the idea of sitting through something like Doom Asylum again and having to write a bad review for a film just released by one of our favourite labels. But actually Scared Stiff turned out to be a considerably better offering, and one that showed that director David Friedman does have a modicum of skill. The film is heavily flawed for several reasons, one of them being that it paradoxically tries to do too many things at once yet is still somehow rather bland for much of its length, but at least it’s professionally made unlike most of Doom Asylum, and it plods along inoffensively but just about maintaining interest, feeling very much like one of those many haunted house TV movies from the ’70s, until it suddenly changes gear to give us a bonkers, even surreal, climax.
So we open in 1857 and dastardly George trying to flog some slaves while the slaves in his house are chanting and passing around a piece of paper. “Curse you Msterson, curse your house and all that is Materson” is spoken before the paper is thrown into a fire, then we cut a few times to the Ivory Coast where they’ve somehow been able to make an effigy of George even though nobody there would have met him. George shoots the slaves while his effigy is impaled with spears, but before we learn what exactly this curse did to George we cut to 1987, and the racial theme which looks like it’s going to be a major ingredient then disappears entirely. One of the things I really did like about this film is that as well as the story set in the present day we’re told a parallel tale set in the past, and often past and present even exist in the same scene, often as dreams but sometimes not, such as George beating Elisabeth being watched by Kate, while sometimes Kate even ‘becomes’ Elisabeth. It’s a tad haphazard the way all this is done but does show some ambition in the screenplay from Friedman, Daniel F. Bacanar, and no less than Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, though supposedly much of his stuff was thrown out by the others [but watch closely, there are certain themes in Scared Stiff that recur in Twin Peaks]. It’s a shame that you get exchanges like this one between a babysitter and Kate who’s just returned home, meaning that the babysitter would now be leaving: “Hi, I took some ice cream”. “That’s okay you can have as much as you want”. The dialogue is pretty poor throughout and does hamper involvement at times.
Scared stiff is something you certainly won’t be at any stage of the film, while I wanted the script to be more specific about things like how David and Kate got together – yes, we’re given a line or two here and there, but the film could have made more of their background and therefore been stronger on characterisation especially considering the really weak acting of Mary Page Keller who, being a soap star, still acts like she’s in one. But Andrew Stevens, while he gives exactly the same performance that you’ve probably seen him do several times elsewhere, really isn’t bad, with a slight sinister edge about him even before he starts acting off-colour. Jason waking up in a sweat and pigeons being heard in the attic lead to a really well done couple of minutes, rife with eerie atmosphere, as David explores the loft while discordant scoring from composer Billy Barber and those pigeons together contribute a creepy aural background. There’s even a nice cinematographic effect when David’s first glimpse of the inside of the attic is out of focus before we cut to him and then back to the attic, now properly in focus. But the mood tends to diminish after this a bit. For some reason the hoary old cliche of a piano being played at night usually chills me a little, but it failed to do so here, even though I should have been a bit creeped out by George’s reflection appearing while Kate plays the piano herself, the music being something that George wrote for Elisabeth which – guess what? – has the same tune as the pop song she’s singing in a video. Maybe they were going for a slight nervous comedy vibe here, though this is refuted on the audio commentary for this release. But the supposed intentional comedy relief character of Dr Ben Brightman [he just wants to watch baseball, how hilarious] mostly falls flat though you can’t not love it when he says: “Now I don’t know where these bones came from, and you don’t know where they came from, but I’m sure that they both came from somewhere”. Reminds me of the immortal: “Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible” from Plan 9 From Outer Space.
There are certainly some loony moments earlier like Jason’s toy cars and trucks coming to life and crashing into each other, David teleporting, and a dream scene ending in a throat slashing that’s never referred to again, while you get the odd stupid bit like Kate being able to walk right into a psychiatric clinic and wander down some corridors to see some shock treatment while not being stopped by anybody. But the crazy final twenty minutes almost seem to come from another film, a film that will seem to many to be more fun than the film we’ve actually been watching up to this point. Logic is totally thrown out of the window [though granted it’s been hovering very near to the window for some time] as a load of crazy shit occurs including time traveling, a lampshade in the shape of a Native American’s face growing huge and floating, spears being thrown from Africa to North America, a man unzipping his cranium, and our heroine being scared by everyone else who’s appeared in the film. The film would probably have worked better if this stuff had been more evenly sprinkled about, but I kind of like it when a movie changes in this way. In any case, despite a spot of dodgy early CGI, the old school effects are pretty good despite the budget, especially a monster with an African tribal mask for a face and its gooey death scene. In fact technically things aren’t bad throughout the whole film and there’s little evidence of the downright incompetence of much of Doom Asylum. It seems that this time around Friedman did try to make a reasonably decent product and do the best he could with what he had.
So those who found Doom Asylum to be really poor may be pleasantly surprised by Scared Stiff, though on the other hand if you enjoyed the other film as a laugh riot, this one may seem boringly sober for its first three quarters. It doesn’t make the most of its potentially scary aspects, bottles out of looking more into its domestic violence theme, and would have benefited from making us think that Kate really was just seeing things for a while considering that she used to have [undefined] mental problems. But at least it has the courage to give us a downbeat ending. If you’re a fan of ’80s horror in even [or especially] its cheesiest form then you ought to find just about enough to enjoy here. But – the body – the body!
Scared Stiff never even made it onto DVD, though it did hit laser disc in addition to video. But fans of the film are now finally rewarded with the now typical top class Arrow treatment. The restoration is incredibly clean and may even seem like it’s for a different film to those familiar with past incarnations. Colours look just right and dark scenes that may previously have been hard to make out are full of visible detail. On the debit side, some makeup is obvious and some wires are visible – but that’s the possible pitfall of Hi-Def for you.
Unusually the audio commentary is listed at the end of the special features, so we begin with Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff which is very good, many of the people connected with the production detailing its conception and production, plus telling some stories such as how little Josh Segal was almost ran over for real. We learn that they over-ambitiously looked for an actual rock star to play Kate, and that the film did well overseas despite flopping in the US. Us old fuddy duddies who are tiring of all the CGI used in today’s films will love Friedman’s opening statement, though the high points for me, as usual, were having the effects guys explain how certain things were done. The interview with composer Billy Barber was seemingly done by Barber himself, it’s very short and he doesn’t go into the score much but does play the song and detail its three main elements. The image gallery seems quite extensive – it appears that familiar Arrow contributor Robert Ehlinger was the main person behind the restoration and release, and hunted far and wide for stuff.
The audio commentary initially seems like it’s going do a lot of repeating from the documentary, but this quickly lessens. Friedman and producer/co-writer Dan Bacaner sometimes have trouble remembering stuff but are gently coaxed by Ehlinger into giving us a lot of information and insight, as well as mentioning aspects they may not have got right, such as integrating the idea of the pigeons more. Even the body is mentioned as something where they “may have gone too far” – well, that’s putting it mildly. But, listening to this did confirm to me that some care was taken with this film. Friedman and Bacaner have a good attitude to what they came up in a laid-back, warm but rarely dull talk track.
A very uneven but a not uninteresting and occasionally well done horror in a superb presentation with enlightening special features that may make you appreciate it a bit more. Recommended with Reservations.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements
*Original uncompressed Stereo audio
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff – brand new documentary featuring interviews with Richard Friedman, Dan Bacaner, Robert Ehlinger, actors Andrew Stevens and Joshua Segal, special effects supervisor Tyler Smith and special effects assistants Jerry Macaluso and Barry Anderson [33 mins]
*Brand new interview with composer Billy Barber [6 mins]
*Original Theatrical Trailer
*Brand new audio commentary with director Richard Friedman, producer Dan Bacaner and film historian Robert Ehlinger
*Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork options
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by James Oliver