A little free critical advice to anyone planning to make a low-budget horror film: don’t put all of your money, your scares, and inventiveness into the last twenty minutes of the movie. You might think you need to have a grand finale so that your audience leaves the theatre with a bang, but if they are bored for the first half, they might not stick around to see what crazy stuff you can throw at them in the end.
Richard Friedman (the auteur behind such classics as Doom Asylum and various episodes of Silk Stalkings and Baywatch Nights) did not heed my advice with Scared Stiff, his first feature film.. The first two acts of this monsters-in-the-closet flick are so unimaginative, so dull that I almost turned the darn thing off (and I was getting paid to watch it). In its last act, things finally get interesting with some really funky set designs, some really fun monster masks, and a pacing that is almost exciting, but by the time it got there, I was just ready for it all to be over.
It begins with a slave auction in the 1850s then moves inside a plantation where a group of chained-up black men enact a vaguely African and slightly racist ritual that curses the house and all who live there. They then give a white woman a charm to protect her from the curse. In the present, Dr. David Young (Andrew Stevens), a psychiatrist frpm a mental hospital, moves into the house with his former patient, now girlfriend turned pop-star Kate (Mary Page Keller) and her young son Jason (Josh Segal). Before long, strange (but still quite mild for a horror movie) things start happening. Kate starts seeing the original owner hanging about the house and David starts behaving weird.
The painter says he hears pigeons in the attic (which is hidden behind a wall in the boy's closet, put up by the world’s worst remodeling crew - seriously, the boards all have one-inch cracks between them, which are sort-of covered by bad wall papering). David tears through it to find all manner of strange artifacts, including a broken piece of that charm we saw from the opening sequence and a trunk full of two decaying old corpses. Everybody takes this in stride except for the poor kid who is still forced to sleep in that room even though his closet leads to the attic that is still full of pigeons and the smell of the recently removed corpses.
That painter pisses the apparently demonic pigeons off and they push him off his ladder, causing him to hang himself on the outside of the house. A fact which no one notices for a couple of days until he comes crashing through a window in the climax.
Kate, a woman who was only released from the mental hospital maybe a year ago, continues to see ghosts. David, a psychiatrist who originally treated Kate and therefore should be able to help, only yells at her, screaming she needs to get it together.
I’m making all this sound more interesting than it actually is. There are long, pointless scenes filled with David at work talking to patients and Kate filming a music video. The bits of typical horror movie stuff I’ve mentioned are loosely scattered about the longer, duller scenes. Eventually things do get interesting. David turns into a demon and the mansion turns into a surrealistic landscape that will remind you of House and House II. One of David’s patience unzips his skull to reveal pulsing brain matter and the boy’s racist Indian lamp becomes a menacing giant.
But really, it is all too little, too late. If you have an undying interest in 80’s horror films, then I’d recommend fast forwarding to the last twenty minutes, skipping over all the boring stuff. Otherwise, leave this clunker for the fanatics.
Arrow Video has given it a new 2K restoration from the original film elements with the original uncompressed mono audio. It is presented with a 1.85: 1 aspect ratio. Extras include a new audio commentary with director Richard Friedman, producer Dan Backer and film historian Robert Ehlinger. There is also a making-of documentary, an interview with the score’s composer, an image gallery, trailers, and the usual nifty color booklet with an essay on the film.