October Horrorshow: Scared to Death (1980)

This is the fourth evening in a row that the Horrorshow has featured a low-budget monster flick from the 1980s. I don’t know if this is a burden or a blessing upon you, dear readership. What I do know is that the combined budgets of these past four films, each adjusted for inflation, are less than the cost of a median home in the most prosperous counties of California. I’m not joking. Some quick calculating puts the total cost of these four films — Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake, Creepozoids, Inseminoid, and Scared to Death — at roughly $1.3 million. That means that, should one wish to make four b-movies, it would be cheaper to do so than purchase a single median-priced home in Marin, San Francisco, or San Mateo counties. Trust me, I got my data on the internet.

Scared to Death comes to us from writer/director William Malone. It was his first feature, and he was rewarded a few years later by having to direct Klaus Kinski. But, that’s the future. For this flick, Malone directed John Stinson as his lead, who, according to that same internet from above, was a last minute replacement for Rick Springfield.

Stinson plays Ted Lonergan, a former police detective turned schlock crime novelist. Ted’s a snarky sort, just short of the type of behavior that earns one a punch in the nose on occasion. Early on, he meets Jennifer Stanton (Diana Davidson), after he backs up into her car. They strike up something of an awkward relationship, mostly because Ted is an expert at making people uncomfortable. Again, just short of being off-putting.

One might wonder what any of this has to do with a scary monster. Well, that small budget is partly to blame. Viewers will spend a lot of time watching Ted and Jennifer’s budding relationship because there just wasn’t cash on hand for lengthy, gooey kill scenes. I feel the largest share of the blame, however, goes to a thin screenplay. After all, there are dozens and dozens of Oscar-winning films that didn’t feature a single monster, yet somehow they managed to have interesting screenplays.

So, about that monster. It’s revealed that it is a synthetic organism created by a scientist for science stuff. For most of the film it is responsible for a string of mutilations that have left police baffled. So much so that the lead detective, Lou Capell (David Moses), does all he can to convince Ted to come out of retirement and help with the case. Scared to Death 1980 movie posterNow, we’re getting somewhere. Don’t get too comfortable with scenes that advance the plot, though. That’s just not the biggest part of Ted and Jennifer’s character development. They do get involved in monster hunting, but more as an afterthought.

More people are killed, Ted and Jennifer get closer to the truth behind the monster, and then the movie does a weird shift for the final act. Malone takes his female lead, Jennifer, and has the monster put her in a coma, shifting her character’s prominence to Sherry Carpenter (Toni Jannotta), whose qualifications for the role are all exposition-based. It’s strange to watch this happen, like Malone thought the audience wouldn’t notice a swap like this. Sherry was so peripheral to the story for most of the film that one could wonder why she was included at all, and then for the end she becomes a co-star.

The thing that affects this movie’s watchability the most is not the poor production values, or the fact the print available for streaming hasn’t been cared for (Vinegar Syndrome has a much nicer-looking Blu-Ray available). Those aren’t things that have an inherently negative effect on a film, although they don’t help this movie, either. This film’s watchability is hurt by all the unnecessary meandering surrounding Ted and Jennifer. As a peak into a random couple’s life, it’s naturalistic and captures the ebbs and flows of two people getting to know each other. As part of a narrative about a bloody killer monster on the loose in the big city, it sucks.

Scared to Death stays out of the lower depths of the Watchability Index, but it does settle into the land of nodding off, where films with a somnambulistic pace and uninteresting story reside. It takes over the #286 spot from Indian Paint.

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