Arrow Video: Scared Stiff (1987) - Reviewed

When I want to just turn off my brain and have a good time with a fun, cheesy movie, my go-to cinematic niche is '80s creature features. You know – stuff like the House movies, The Gate, Ghoulies, Spookies, The Kindred, Neon Maniacs... the heavier with old-school practical special effects, the better. Of the many reasons why Arrow is probably my current favorite blu-ray distributor, a key reason is that they seem to agree. Not only have they given Criterion-worthy special editions to genre classics like the House films, CHUD, and Basket Case, they've also given equally lavish treatment to a whole bunch of overlooked, underseen, or long-unavailable films of this sort, and given them a new lease on life as rediscovered cult favorites. They've done this with at least a couple once-obscure VHS-era underdog favorites of mine that were extremely rare when I first stumbled upon them in a video store as a teenager: the supernatural slasher flick The Slayer and the lo-fi but high-gore monsterfest The Deadly Spawn. So naturally when Arrow announced that they were working on the first ever disc-format release of Scared Stiff, a film so overlooked that the DVD medium had missed it entirely, and that I had never seen despite years of working in a video store in my youth, I was beyond excited, and filled with hope that this could be another overlooked low-budget gem like some of those that I mentioned above. The cover art (seen above in both its standard version and a DiabolikDVD-exclusive slipcase) and the trailer give the impression of a lower-budget cousin to House and House II, which is both a tantalizing proposition, and big shoes to fill...

The Film:

The cover art isn't entirely misleading: eventually Scared Stiff does indeed let loose with some truly wild special effects scenes and funhouse dream-logic that makes it feel like a long-lost House sequel. But it takes its sweet time getting there, never really unleashing the craziness until the last 25 minutes or so, which makes it feel too slow for its own good despite the brief 80-minute running-time. The result is a film that has really, really fun sections that are almost worth the price of admission, but ultimately leave the viewer frustrated that the movie as a whole isn't as good as its strong last act shows that it could be. Like the House movies (not to beat that horse to death as a reference point, but the similarities are so strong that they're unavoidable), Scared Stiff is a mix of haunted house and creature feature. It begins on a high note, with a fast-paced, atmospheric and aggressive prologue showing the backstory of how the house in question – a plantation house owned by a particularly cruel and sadistic slave-owner – came to be cursed by a group of slaves who practiced black magic. Then the film rejoins the present day, as a psychologically-troubled rock star, her boyfriend, and her equally troubled son move into the house and soon start seeing evidence of the curse. The curse manifests as ghostly apparitions, objects moving around on their own, a heavy presence of pigeons (one of the script's weirder narrative choices, to be sure), eventually some creature action, and in a B-grade homage to The Shining, a looming threat that the boyfriend has been possessed by something evil. All the – theoretical – ingredients of a funhouse horror movie.

The concept is solid (if derivative – but when have we held that against an '80s B-grade horror flick, as long as it's fun?), and the occult mythology that the film builds up is cool. When it gives us some practical creature or gore effects they're very well-done, and very colorful and over-the-top in an EC Comics kind of way. The problem is that the film holds back for far too long: we get tantalizing glimpses of craziness, but not kicking things into high gear until almost the one-hour mark is a near-fatal mistake. Under different circumstances it could have, I suppose, been a slow-burn leading to a crazy payoff, but the problem is that the film just isn't good enough to achieve the “burn” of that descriptor; it's just... slow. I have heard Scared Stiff described as a horror/comedy, but it really isn't funny... nor is its slow middle 45-minutes or so particularly dramatic or atmospheric. It's kind of just... there. There are moments of comedy, like an oddly TV-obsessed detective side-character, but none of it really works. More than anything else, the middle of the film feels like it isn't quite sure what tone to take, or what to do with itself until the horror of the story reaches its crescendo. By the end of the second act Scared Stiff feels overlong, even though less than an hour has passed by this point. It doesn't help that the story leans frustratingly hard on the old trope of no one in the movie believing the main character because she has a history of psychological struggles, or that there are major events that no one seems to notice even though they really should.

Once the film finally does kick into high gear at the top of act three, it does at last turn into the movie that it seems like it wanted to be all along. The last act is a blast, thanks to the great atmosphere and wild, well-crafted effects. But at this point it feels perilously close to too little, too late. Which is really a shame, because what's on offer in the final stretch makes me want to like the movie as a whole more than I can. A lot could have been solved by not making the film so back-heavy with the effects-fueled craziness, and sprinkling it more evenly throughout, like House 1 and 2 do. The director was still in his early-20s when he made the film, and perhaps his inexperience is to blame for the film's erratic nature. It either needed more consistent pacing, or for the performances, script, and direction to be better enough to sell a slow-burn. Since neither of those things occurred, what we are left with is a solid opening sequence and a really fun last act bookending a thoroughly mediocre middle section that will mostly just make you think that you'd be better off watching House II.

The Transfer:

While the film itself may have disappointed, Arrow never does. For a film that hasn't seen the light of day since VHS – and considering that (according to the extras) the producer responded to Arrow's interest in releasing the film with “I hope I can actually find the negative” – Scared Stiff looks shockingly good in its new 2k restoration. There are only a couple noticeable moments of wear or damage to the negative; for the most part it looks pristine. Details are strong, colors are rich, and the whole thing has a nice-looking grain structure. The same goes for the audio: it's as crisp and clean as the source material really allows. For a 32-year-old low-budget film that has been neglected for most of those years, I don't think it could look or sound better.

The Extras:

As usual, this is a place where Arrow's release really shines. For a film this obscure, they easily could have gotten away with releasing their new transfer supplemented by just a commentary and a couple interviews and fans still would have been more than happy, but instead, in classic Arrow fashion they worked with Red Shirt Pictures to make a new half-hour documentary about the film's production. The doc includes most of the key behind-the-scenes figures including the director, producer, and three special effects artists, as well as two of the film's stars. A doc about the production of Scared Stiff seems so unlikely that several of those people comment in their interviews about how they can't believe that anyone is talking to them about this film three decades later. It is a very interesting, very fun doc that is quite detailed and insightful, and it will absolutely leave viewers with a greater appreciation for the film. The in-depth look at the special effects work – definitely the movie's strongest point – is so full of genuine passion and fondness for the project that it once again made me wish that I could like the film more than I do. Adding to the excellent doc are an interview with the film's score composer about writing the main character's pop single, and a lively and informative commentary by the director and producer. All in all it is an excellent package, going above and beyond for such an obscure film – which is exactly the attitude that makes us love Arrow so much.

Is this blu-ray worth picking up? If you're a fan of Scared Stiff, then absolutely; if you're a newcomer to it, then... maybe. The disc is spectacular, but I'm not sure if the film itself is really worth the $30. It's a fun enough watch, and almost worth the price of admission for the delightfully insane last act. But it's just too uneven, and too slow in its long middle stretch, to be worth a wholehearted recommendation. There are worse '80s horror movies, but there are also definitely better ones. This has its strong points that are absolutely worth a look, especially if you're a fan of the House films and want something new that has a similar appeal, but they're too clustered together to make the film really work on the whole. But of course mileage definitely varies when it comes to what we all enjoy in cheesy '80s B-movies, so you might be more forgiving of its flaws than I was. Check it out if you love this type of film as much as I do – but it's best to think of it as a “rent, not buy” situation.

Score for the film:

Score for the blu-ray:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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