Scared Stiff: “Midnight Madness undone in 60 seconds”

Over the years of covering home video releases, I have discovered some new favourites; equally, I have been subject to some of the worst films of their respective eras and styles. One of the latter was Doom Asylum, a film so bad I was almost speechless – sure, it had a great idea at its heart but its production was more compelling as a list of failures. The director of that film was Richard Friedman, now, in 2019, Arrow Video have beautifully remastered another title from his filmography for their latest release – Scared Stiff. To say I went in with low expectations would be an epic undersell.

Opening in the colonial age of America as well-to-do George Masterson (David Ramsey) is selling a black family off, during this auction he is cursed, a curse that will continue to cling to his house and family until revenge is had. Jumping forward to the modern day (the 1980s), we are introduced to pop starlet Kate (Mary Page Keller), her son Jason, and her partner, psychotherapist David (Andrew Stevens); together they are moving into the Gothic manor house that Masterson once called home. From that germ weird stuff starts happening, from seemingly omnipotent pigeons, references to the Omen, floating masks, and more, culminating in a final act which seems to be cut from the same cloth as 1980s B-Movie series, House. One of my many major complaints about Doom Asylum, which was released the year earlier [1986], was that it completely failed to live up to the promise of its premise. Scared Stiff? Much more ambitious and to the extent that it may feel like a pastiche, rather unfairly *.

A favourite scene sees Jason’s toy cars and trucks come to life and move of their own volition and become sentient, thanks to those omnipotent pigeons. There’s a sentence I didn’t think I would ever type. And therein is the best way to approach Scared Stiff – treat it as a late night horror movie. Don’t approach it and expect a coherent narrative, don’t ask questions of it, just go in expecting a weird film (think The visitor (1979) only without the peyote) with some cool happenings in the final act and you’ll get everything you’ll need. It is stacked in that final act and director Friedman makes you wait for possession, body horror, time traveling, pulsing brains, practical effects, ungodly creatures, psychological weirdness and what I can only describe as Chekhov’s Lamp. And to its credit, all of it is pulled off with a gusto that became commonplace in regional horror of the 80s – they didn’t know how everything was done but they’d give it one hell of a try [backed up in the newly made 30 minute making of, Mansion of the Doomed *].

Scared Stiff is a charming chancer once it builds up that momentum. Unfortunately, it is almost entirely sabotaged by a horrible final scene that questions everything, effectively turning the film into nonsense. Those few short moments are a clear effort by the filmmakers to suggest something more significant and intelligent was afoot or even to suggest that the horror isn’t yet over but it can only really be described as an abject failure. Without those final few moments, Scared Stiff would have a much better reputation as a silly bout of midnight movie fun. It may be wise to practice some selective internal editing when sitting down with Arrow Video’s latest.



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