Scared to Death (1980)

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AKA: Scared to Death: Syngenor

A series of very strange deaths are occuring in Los Angeles and the police are completely baffled. Not only is the killer violently prolific, but they also seem to exhibit feats of super strength, at one point retching a car door right off its hinges. Increasingly desperate, and despite his Captain’s objections, the lead investigator wants to bring in his friend, Ted Londergan, a former detective turned novelist. Londergan, completely disenchanted thanks to the incessant BS from the higher ups, wants nothing to do with the case and repeatedly turns him down. But when his new girlfriend Jennifer is attacked and nearly killed, Londergan reluctantly agrees to help. Lucky for him the increasing press coverage has garnered the attention of a woman named Sherry, who thinks she knows what’s going on. Sherry suspects that the killings is the effect of an organism that one of the doctors at her previous lab successfully produced dubbed the Syngenor. With little left to go on, Londergan has little choice but to venture into the sewer system to try to stop the creature from causing any more mayhem.
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This is the guy who’s supposed to save humanity?….shit.

Scared to Death is an American monster movie from 1980, not to be confused with the completely unrelated 1947 film of the same name starring Bella Lugosi. It was written, produced and directed by William Malone, who is probably better known for directing Creature, the remake of House on Haunted Hill and FeardotCom. Those films….really aren’t the best accolades to have (no matter how many times AMC insists on showing the Haunted Hill remake every October) and, I’m sorry to say, after watching Scared to Death, I can’t say his debut film started out any better.
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Not that this one started off all that well either.

If there is one upside to Malone’s later films it’s this: he didn’t write them. While the film is still perfectly coherent, a lot of the dialogue ranges from outright bad to just…bizarre. You can tell you’re going to be in for a ride when the very first victim starts things off with a bang. When the lights go off in her house she utters not one, but two puzzlers. First, she whines about not being able to paint her toenails, and then she ponders about where they keep the fuses. They? Who are “they”? Lady, is this even your house? Are you renting a house without knowing where the basic utilities are? House Sitting? Squatting? The hell is going on?
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No, really, I want to know.

Alas, we never find out, because the monster comes in and kills her, keeping her from uttering anything else quite so stupid. But that doesn’t mean the viewer is suddenly given a reprieve either. Main character Ted Londergan is another prime example. I think he was meant to be the incredibly smart, suave, yet quirky detective type, like some sort of cross between Magnum P.I. and Columbo. But instead he just comes across as an arrogant ass-hat without the benefit of a slick, 70s mustache or a snazzy coat. He literally meets his girlfriend Jennifer, by baking into her car with his own and then blaming her for it and making snarky comments. And, despite what one might expect, the line delivery has nothing to do with it. John Stinson is actually one of the most capable actors in the film. Ted just comes across as an ass-hat because his lines are that of an ass-hat. I’m not sure Stinton could have done anything differently to somehow make the character more likeable with those types of “zingers”.
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Unfortunately the dialogue is not the only instance of bizarre writing. Many of the characters and their actions also veer heavily into the ‘questionable’ territory. Not only does running into Jennifer’s car (miraculously) earn Ted a girlfriend, but she seems to drop whatever the hell else she was doing and get a job….as his secretary? Like, seriously, WTF? She clearly lived better than he did, so she had to have had a good paying job, and she just ditched it all to keep his office tidy and go meet clients for him? That’s a whole stinky can of sexist, illogical bullshit right there, and that’s not even going into the fact that it’s clear from the start that Jennifer is only introduced to be Ted’s motivation to join the monster case later on. Their whole interaction plays out like some creepy male fantasy/hero complex thing and none of it makes a lick of sense.
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Run, Jennifer, RUN!

Then there’s Sherry, who is semi-introduced early on, but doesn’t truly show up until near the end of the film. Sherry’s whole purpose is to supply the film with ALL the backstory regarding the monster (seriously, the cops and Ted find out nothing. So much for being such great detectives.), first by showing up at Ted’s office and then later by reading the rest of the background information to the viewer via some research notes. And by that I mean she literally stands in an office, in a building where Jennifer had already been attacked, in the dark, and reads diary entries for the benefit of the movie audience…out loud. Remember, she’s doing this and is the one person who actually knows about the monster and what’s going on. She then later further cements her poor decision making skills by insisting on following Ted down into the sewers where the creature lives. She has no weapon, no combat training, and she’s wearing heels, but hey, sure, let her follow you down into the sewer just because the woman has a vague notion of what’s going on. That makes way more sense instead of calling the police and waiting for backup to kill a creature who’s killed dozens at this point, right Ted?

But maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Sherry. She’s one of the few people in the film who sees the creature and has the good sense to run the fuck away. So in that regard she still comes across as 90% smarter than much of the rest of the cast.
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I swear a full third of this movie involves women slowly wandering around dark locations.

The film is also peppered with some very strange, if not outright poor, design choices. Tension stings are delivered without the benefit of any actual tension. The creature is only supposed to come out at night, yet there is an entire extended scene involving roller skaters in a parking garage that is clearly shot during the day. Then there’s also a variety of background elements that pop up and, even knowing the film was created on a modest budget, you have to wonder: where the hell did they find that? Blissfully, the one thing they managed to get right was the design of the monster, but it spends so little time on screen that you spend most of the time questioning the choices in the rest of the film.
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Yes. Sherry’s intro involves a tension sting filled phone call where…nothing happens. Brilliant, movie.
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Did they really think no one would notice the sunlight blaring through the huge windows?
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…Why is his door knob so high?
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This is my traumatized face.
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Sorry, this line just kills me.

I know I complained a lot, but believe it or not, Scared to Death ends up being a fairly competent monster movie, though no one in their right mind would ever call it “good”. The acting ranges from competent to questionable, a lot of the scenes are filled with dull or odd dialogue, the editing is choppy, music cues seem random, the lighting isn’t always so great, and the pacing can drag whenever the monster isn’t on set. But the creature design is actually pretty impressive for such a low budget film, and despite its abundance of dialogue it somehow manages to remain entertaining, if only for the fact that a lot of it is super easy to make fun of. Gore hounds and those looking for nudity will likely be disappointed (though there is a bit of skin to be seen), but if you’re a fan of cheesy 50’s-ish Creature Features then this is probably something worth looking into for the monster design alone.

Scared to Death is available on Amazon and free on Tubi TV.

It is also available on DVD.

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Michi

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