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Monday, May 31, 2010

Scared To Death (1981) review


John Stinson (Ted Lonergan), Diana Davidson (Jennifer Stanton), Toni Jannotta (Sherry Carpenter) 

Directed by William Malone

The Short Version: William Malone's maiden monster movie is nothing overly special, but it has some good qualities and a nicely constructed, if derivative monster. A few good moments of palpable suspense, a decent score (also derivative) and a good lead performance add up to SCARED TO DEATH (1981) being a minor footnote in 80s creature features.

Something living beneath the streets of LA is killing civilians when night falls. It is soon discovered that a Syngenor, a dangerous creature grown in a lab has escaped and survives off the spinal fluid of its prey. Growing at a rapid rate, an ex-cop and a female scientist familiar with the creature hunt it down before it can claim anymore victims.

The early 1980s was rife with horror movies big and small. If it wasn't slashers, it was monsters either from outer space, or man-made creations. SCARED TO DEATH (made in 1979, but not released till 1981) falls into the latter camp despite a title that would lead one to believe it was a title of the stalk-and-slash variety. In a way, the film operates along those lines, but substitutes an actor in an impressive full-body monster suit for a masked killer.

Akin to slashers, there's a handful of stalking scenes; and a few of them are just as suspenseful as the best of that sub-genre. One of the best involves a woman attempting to crank her car. Once it's cranked, it won't go anywhere. In the background, you can see something standing up at the rear of her vehicle. The music swells and this sets the buildup for when the monster will strike.

Another exceptionally shot sequence is when our two intrepid protagonists discover the monster's nest in the sewer--learning the thing is asexual and ready to reproduce. Inside this dank, self-birthing breeding ground they also find some of the monster's other victims, but have little time for further sight-seeing once the creature puts in a surprise appearance and chases them out of its domain.

The first time I saw SCARED TO DEATH was on Commander USA's Groovie Movies in the late 1980s; then I later bought the Video Treasures tape when you could buy LP mode VHS for $10 in any of your finer department stores. In its original widescreen format, it's a decent time-waster, just not as memorable as I recollected. Interestingly, pop singer/actor Rick Springfield was set to headline the movie but backed out twice--and both times reportedly the night before filming was to begin--citing he'd miss too many acting classes if he starred in the movie.

The acting is what is to be expected in a picture like this. Some of the characterizations are nicely drawn in Malone and Robert Short's script, though. The creature design is ornate and reminiscent of something straight out of an H.R. Giger painting. Comparisons to ALIEN (1979) are unavoidable in terms of the monster's bio-mechanoid design. You only see the thing at night, which adds to its effectiveness. The ending is well done and creative; unlike the typical blow-it-up finales of many monster pictures.

The movie was popular enough to get a sequel in 1990 under the title SYNGENOR (Synthesized Genetic Organisms); directed by George Elanjian, Jr. and without William Malone's participation. That film utilized the now tired plot of the military wanting to use the monstrous creation as a field weapon. There's plentiful splatter effects and multiple monsters this time around; as well as a wacky co-starring role by David "Dr. Hill" Gale. In SCARED TO DEATH (1981), the monster is incredibly strong and gets destroyed in an inventive fashion. In the sequel, the beasts are killed by, of all things, running water.

Like the fearsome-looking monster suit, the musical score succeeds in overshadowing the meager budget. The cues are occasionally derivative of Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979) and even Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). Director Malone went on to helm the superior monster movie, the even more ALIEN-inspired CREATURE, aka TITAN FIND (1985). His initial spinal-sucking sewer dweller and subsequent outer space terror film attracted the attention of the makers of the TALES FROM THE CRYPT cable series where Malone would direct two episodes. He would later take the reigns for the 1999 remake of the William Castle-directed, Vincent Price classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959).

In his prime, William Malone directed two good monster pictures. It's a shame he didn't make a third for a loose trilogy of slime-dripping, fang-bearing, flesh-ripping entertainment. SCARED TO DEATH (1981) isn't a genre classic, but less demanding viewers, including fans of such low budget monster flicks like SLITHIS (1978) and C.H.U.D. (1984), will find a handful of cheap thrills just below the surface in this Drive-in obscurity.

This review is representative of the Retromedia DVD.


Tower Farm said...

Awww...Video Treasures tape...that tugged at my heartstrings! Though I've seen bits of this & seen the VHS/DVD in stores, strangely I've never sat through the whole thing. Looks awesome though -- I'll give it a try!

venoms5 said...

It's an okay movie, nothing overly special, but better than some of the other similar movies from around the same time. The sequel has some choice low budget action and gore, too.

I Like Horror Movies said...

SYNGENOR was passable enough to make me want to see this one, which do you prefer of the two V?

venoms5 said...

This one has the better suspense and direction. SYNGENOR takes the win for dumbass fun factor, though.

I Like Horror Movies said...

Nice, theres something to be said for dubassedness, Ill be sure to grab this one at some point to check it out yo

venoms5 said...

It's worth at least one look. Much better than the similar SLITHIS (1978) which just hit DVD.

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