Scared to Death: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Vinegar Syndrome
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (24th June 2022).
The Film

Saturn Award (Best Low-Budget Film): Scared to Death (won) - Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, 1981
Best Special Effects (winner) - Fantafestival, 1981

A seemingly super-human serial killer has claimed the lives of eleven women so far, brutally tearing them apart but leaving no trace of their presence apart from some strange slime. Further hindering the investigation for detective Lou Capell (Creature's David Moses) is the unusual cold at the crime scenes during an otherwise hot summer that throws off the coroner's analysis. While public opinion-minded police chief Dennis Warren (Dick Tracy's Walker Edmiston) stubbornly insists that they are after a run-of-the-mill psycho, Capell believes that the responsible party is like nothing they have dealt with before and tries to solicit the help of burnt-out former partner-turned-pulp horror novelist Ted Lonergan (The Hand's John Stinson). Ted, however, is unwilling to get involved, preferring his own fiction and romancing Jennifer Stanton (Dirty Harry's Diana Davidson) after a meet cute situation involving a vintage car mangled quarter panel. As the murders continue, however, Capell's concern about a possible cover-up and Jennifer's own compassion for the victims cause Ted to have a change of heart. When Jennifer winds up in the hospital with an uncertain prognosis after doing some investigation of her own, Ted and Capell can only depend an outlandish theory by quirky biology graduate student Sherry Carpenter (Toni Jannotta) about the mysterious "Aberdine Experiment".

A 16mm independent production lensed in downtown Los Angeles for $74,000, Scared to Death is a rather listless series of stalk and slash vignettes and light comic expository scenes that delivered earnestly by actors that answer the question: what would happen if you put the cast of Three's Company in a horror movie? Apart from a few creepy, gradually more explicit reveals of the H.R. Geiger-esque "syngenor", the film compares rather poorly to similar Slithis which had only a slightly higher budget but seemed more cohesive. Scared to Death plays as if the filmmakers shot all of the stalk and slash scenes and then had to piece together the interstitial expository bits. One must infer as much about the progression of the romance between Ted and Jennifer as his motivations to abruptly turn up at a crime scene and start investigating. Jennifer lighting upon a lead and going off to investigate on her own feels just as abrupt and poorly-motivated; indeed, she becomes so tangential to the narrative that one wonders why the filmmakers did not just develop a relationship between equally quirky Ted and Sherry from the start. The extended climax proves that you can only show two people running past the camera in darkened warehouse and sewer settings so many times before it becomes as monotonous as the filming of the earlier stalking scenes. A former sculptor at Don Post Studios who sculpted the William Shatner Captain Kirk mask that was the basis of original Michael Myers mask for John Carpenter's Halloween, writer/director William Malone also designed the creature suit. While he sold the rights to Jack Murphy for the slicker 1990 sequel Syngenor, Malone would follow up his debut five years later with Creature and episodes of genre television shows like Freddy's Nightmares, Tales from the Crypt, and Masters of Horror. His return to the big screen with the Dark Castle remake of House on Haunted Hill was followed up by the lesser studio effort Feardotcom and the lower budget Parasomnia.

Video

Released theatrically by Texas-based distributor Lone Star Pictures who also provided finishing funds Scared to Death performed respectably at the box office but found its cult audience on VHS via Media Home Entertainment which eschewed poster art for a nightmarish custom design painted by Malone himself. Malone took advantage of a theatrical reissue to trim some scenes for pacing, but Video Treasures LP sell-through cassette utilized the Media master. We do not know what version appears on Retromedia's DVD but it claims to have come from a 35mm blow-up element and features an interview with Malone. Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray is derived from the original 16mm camera negative. Night scenes, shadows, and shots featuring credits opticals (as well as what looks like an instance of optical enlargement) are swimming with thick grain but well-exposed interiors and daylight exteriors look reasonably crisp and detailed which is a miracle considering the admission on the commentary that only one of the exteriors was shot with a permit. Individual shots during the climax vary in the thickness of grain and range of blacks, but it seems less like a composite than quick, underlit shooting on slower 16mm 100 ASA stock and cheap lab work.

Advertised in online specs but not on the Blu-ray cover itself is a second Blu-ray disc featuring a 2021 "director's restoration" (94:24 versus the theatrical 97:20) which Vinegar Syndrome emphasizes was neither scanned nor graded by them but provided by Malone himself which another text screen describes notes features different color grading, adds some missing sound effects, and trims some brief bits in keeping with a later theatrical version of the film. The trims are not very noticeable it is certainly not missing the scene mentioned at IMDb as only appearing in the television version but which appears in both cuts here while visually, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC image is framed at 1.78:1 and features digitally-recreated titles. The image seems a tad brighter and smoother but minor scratches and dings are sometimes more evident here than in the feature presentation. It is an acceptable version of the film certainly not significantly better or worse than the main transfer but presumably fans will revisit disc one for the longer version and extras.

Audio

Both versions have English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks which are more consistently clean compared to the video, with cleanly-recorded dialogue, some nice location ambience in the grabbed shots compared to the rest where the background is largely silent until the creature makes its presence known. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for both, and - as usual with Vinegar Syndrome - possess some proofing quirks like a Maria Ouspenskaya film festival transcribed as "Osborne Skier" (which may or may not be intended to suggest a lack of familiarity with the actress on the part of the character speaking).

Extras

While the second disc only features the director's restoration, disc one features all of the film's extras. Accompanying the feature presentation is an audio commentary by writer/director William Malone, actor Bryce "Kermit" Eller, and actress Diana Davidson in which Malone discuss the circumstances of getting the project in motion, the meager resources including slow 100 ASA stock, a handful of lights, a zoom, and one SuperSpeed lens locations, as well as explaining the "quirky" approach to the film as intentional ("The Night Stalker meets Doctor Who" with Jannotta as the latter series' Sarah Jane).

"Rise of the Syngenor" (75:03) is a feature-length retrospective making-of documentary featuring Malone, Eller, and Davidson along with Moses, Jannotta, and Mike Muscat (Assault Of The Killer Bimbos) who plays the ill-fated sewer worker Tindall in addition to being credited as "key grip", as well as effects artists James Suthers (Blood Hook) and Kevin Altieri. There is some overlap with the commentary including Malone and Eller on the suit design at the time, Eller was working for Lucasfilm making public appearances in the Darth Vader suit while Jannotta joins in on the casting (for which she was credited as "Toni Malone" having married the director who she met while moonlighting as an assistant to screenwriter Robert Short (Rage of Honor) whose draft Malone entirely rewrote. Besides reiterating the commentary story about originally casting pre-music fame soap actor Rick Springfield in the lead role, we also learn that some of the other cast like Moses were acting class buddies of Jannotta while the film's roller skating victim was the girlfriend of Muscat.

"The Locations of Scared to Death" (8:34) is a locations visit with Malone which occasionally attempts to recreate camera angles from the film at the changed locations, while "Dracula Party" (3:50) is a music video for the band's song "Scared to Death" which includes clips from the film.

Packaging

Both discs are housed in a case with a reversible cover that does not mention the presence of the second disc. The limited edition slipcover was not provided for review so we do not yet know if it does or does not mention the second disc as an exclusive (or if the standard edition with its $34.99 pre-order price includes both discs or just the first).

Overall

A 16mm independent production lensed in downtown Los Angeles for $74,000, Scared to Death is a rather listless series of stalk and slash vignettes and light comic expository scenes that delivered earnestly by actors that answer the question: what would happen if you put the cast of Three's Company in a horror movie?

 


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