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Scared Stiff: Ghost of No Chance

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By Rod Lott.

New on Blu-ray from Arrow Video, 1987’s Scared Stiff arrives with a stunningly inaccurate title – one that suggests a light comic romp, thanks to two earlier Hollywood pictures bearing that name, the more notable being a 1953 pairing of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

But Andrew Stevens and Mary Page Keller are no Martin and Lewis. Nor are they meant to be. As feather-haired psychiatrist David and the Pat Benatar-esque singer Kate, respectively, they play a couple forging a new life together. With Kate’s 7-year-old son (Josh Segal, Coupe de Ville) in tow, the doctor and the rocker move into a stately home once inhabited – now forever haunted – by notorious slave owner/auctioneer George Masterson (David Ramsey). As shown in an 1857-set prologue, his understandably unhappy captives place a voodoo-style curse upon him and “all that is Masterson.”

Scared 02In modern-day ’87, however, David initially dismisses strange noises in their new digs as pigeons in the attic, while Kate finds 19th-century sheet music bearing the same notes as her latest power-ballad single – but how?! From there, Scared Stiff starts adhering awfully close to the template of 1979’s The Amityville Horror, with David increasingly under the spell of possession, to the point of threatening the lives of the woman he loves and a child who is not his. Scared Stiff, however, trades Amityville’s signature pig eyes and houseflies for such instantly dated elements as Polaroid pictures and Tonka toy trucks. At one point, Keller and Segal do their best to react to an added-in-post evil spirit emerging from the boy’s floppy disk of the PC game Sky Fox.

In other words, Scared Stiff smacks of neither originality nor subtlety; even viewers not granting their full attention are likely to spot “666” here and there, from a phone number painted on a school bus to the license plate of a disposable cast member’s doomed car, all telegraphing a point that’s already been FedEx’d overnight. Unfortunately, the story fails to hold interest as the film moves at a languid pace fraught with meandering attention, as if feature-debuting director Richard Friedman weren’t quite sure on which aspect to focus. Only in its final reel does Scared Stiff become the foam-latex funhouse of horror that ’80s audiences expected and wanted, sharing the bonkers, anything-goes surreality of the era’s smash A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. In these final minutes, Friedman finds his footing, albeit too little, too late – a disappointment considering the more tongue-in-cheek tone slathered with consistency across his next outing, 1988’s Doom Asylum, which Arrow Video unleashed on Blu-ray last year.

As with that release, Arrow treats Scared Stiff the way it does each and every genre title on its slate: worthy of the hallowed Criterion Collection. Standing out on the disc – no easy feat amid a new restoration, a commentary track and the usual ephemeral bits of promotional material – is Mansion of the Doomed, a documentary short on the film’s making. In this half-hour, Friedman and producer Daniel F. Bacaner tell stories more entertaining than the finished product, including the latter finding the former through a “director wanted” ad in Variety, and the former convincing the latter they should throw out most the original script, then titled Ghost Diary. Considering that screenplay was penned by Mark Frost, now known as the co-creator of TV’s revolutionary Twin Peaks, the mind boggles at what might have been.

Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com. A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.

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Not “Just Another Giallo”: The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (Arrow Video)

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