...then he's a stiff:
What's worse than a whole bunch of pigeons in the attic? The corpses left behind there by a cruel, viciously hateful slaveowner (David Ramsey...err, but not that one) – the guy's wife and young child, even. Back in the day, the thirst for vengeance against this racist bastard was so intense that it spanned an ocean, with his slaves and their loved ones back in the Côte d'Ivoire uniting to curse George Masterson with some intercontinental hoodoo.
Flash forward to 1987, as Doc David (Andrew Stevens) has just closed on a decaying colonial plantation. The psychologist is hoping for a fresh start with his embattled rock star-slash-former patient girlfriend Kate (Mary Page Keller) and her seemingly autistic son Jason (Josh Segal), but I just said all that stuff about slaves and curses and all, so...y'know, it doesn't go well. Isn't their realtor required to disclose that sort of thing?!
If you're aching for an unnervingly terrifying ghost story, Scared Stiff isn't terribly likely to scratch that itch. Still, despite the film being somewhat of a slow burn for much of its runtime, the gravity of tragedies past coupled with an onslaught of off-kilter, deliriously over-the-top performances prove so fascinating that I was entranced throughout. Rather than rehash a bunch of standard issue jump scares, Scared Stiff prefers instead to craft a strange, eerie atmosphere. It plays off the dynamic between a troubled couple – between psychologist and patient. Though Kate's anguish is real, there's every reason for David to mistake her perceptions as just another breakdown. The torment that Scared Stiff inflicts on young Jason is more astonishing still. These forces manifest themselves at one point by bringing an entire sandbox full of toys to life – a dazzlingly elaborate and brilliantly photographed display that still bowls me over, more than thirty years after production wrapped. There's also the ghoulishness of Jason having a rotting corpse dangling just outside his bedroom window for a good chunk of the film.
Before I go too much further, I need to go ahead and fill you in on my favorite character in Scared Stiff. Detective Whitcomb (Caddyshack's Jackie Davis) is gracious and all smiles, putting up with a hell of a lot from Dr. Dave and Kate, when all he really wants is to watch the game on whatever TV happens to be within arm's reach. C'mon:
"Oh, thank God. Detective, this is Kate Christopher."
"Well, how are you, Miss Christopher?"
"You've got to come quickly, please. My son is in danger. The stone broke, which is why Elizabeth died, and her child. And I've gotta find the other half of that stone before it's too late."
"Whoa, honey! Slow down."
"You don't believe me. I know you don't believe me."
I feel you, man.
Scared Stiff's strangeness goes a long way towards compensating for its disinterest in visceral horror, to the point where my interest never wavered. If, for whatever reason, you wind up finding the movie to be kind of a slog, just wait. There's an entire franchise's worth of gruesome creatures and spectacular make-up effects in its surreal final act – unleashed Gatling gun-style, one after another after another after another. And hey, its effects work at one point even dips its toes into the digital domain, and CGI isn't something you see all that often in an indie horror flick from the class of 1987.
Longtime fan Robert Ehlinger was a driving force to getting Scared Stiff a proper home video release for the first time in decades, and I get it. This is such a distinctive, unique, and wonderfully odd ghost story. Whether it's Mary Page Keller vamping it up on the set of a music video or a bunch of effects guys running down a corridor with the gigantic Apache warrior head of a desk lamp, there's no chance of you shrugging Scared Stiff off as more of the same. Recommended.
I know, Jason! This new 2K remaster from an interpositive blows my mind too.
I'll confess that this Blu-ray release marked my introduction to Scared Stiff, but listening to the experts – its director, the producer who spearheaded the project in the first place, and a rabid fan who made it his mission in life to revive the film for the rest of us – this remaster is a revelation. Scared Stiff hasn't been available on home video since the VHS era, and a film that has long been presented so punishingly dark now looks...well, the way it was always meant to. The 1.85:1 image is so crisp and detailed that if you'd told me this was a 4K remaster from the original negative, I'd have believed you. Its fine filmic texture is well-resolved. While Scared Stiff by design isn't candy-colored or gleamingly bright, its palette is punchy when appropriate, and I never had the least bit of trouble discerning what was unfolding on-screen. The silky-smooth gradations between light and shadow consistently look marvelous as well. This remaster is immaculate; I didn't spot so much as the slightest trace of wear or damage anywhere throughout the film's 84 minute runtime. Outstanding, as ever.
Scared Stiff's 24-bit, uncompressed monaural soundtrack hits all the marks I'd hoped to hear as well. From the dialogue to the Barber Brothers' score to its inspired sound effects, its every facet is reproduced cleanly and distinctly, without any pops, clicks, hiss, dropouts, or any other flaw of note threatening to intrude. Apologies that this isn't some rambling, impenetrably technical write-up, but I'm thoroughly pleased with what I'm hearing here and don't have a whole lot more to say beyond that.
Also along for the ride are a set of English (SDH) subs and a commentary track, which I'll get into in three...two...one...
Arrow Video didn't commission any new artwork this time around, but the cover is still reversible, with alternate vintage art on each side. The liner notes include an engaging appreciation by James Oliver. I'm especially intrigued by the parallels drawn with The Believers, released that same year with another Mark Frost screenplay. Also of note is that that Scared Stiff is an all-region release.
The Final Word
Maybe you're unlikely to be...um, scared stiff by Scared Stiff, but if you have a taste for offbeat '80s genre cinema, this top-shelf release by Arrow Video is irresistible. Recommended.