The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: SCARED TO DEATH (1981)
After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas and Chicago. GATW’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!
One thing I’ve learned from movies over my many years of obsessively watching them is to stay the hell out of the sewer. Nothing good happens down there. You could argue that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are there, but they still had their share of problems. Ahem, toxic waste, anyone? On a good day you only have to worry about legions of rats or some deranged lunatic chasing you with a machete. But a bad day could see you being swept away in an anger feeding river of pink ooze (GHOSTBUSTERS 2), and no matter how much you scream, Vincent from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will not save you. Then there are always the human-like creatures, man-made or extra-terrestrial, who use the damp dark tunnels as incubating/breeding grounds and, of course, have to feed. It’s a relatively short list of films dealing with this phenomena but a new one has been added to my brain with William Malone’s 1981 horror/sci-fi brew SCARED TO DEATH.
Former Partner: “Look, people in this town are dying like flies and I don’t know what you’ve read in the newspapers, but there’s some psycho running loose in L.A. and he’s killing people at random.
Ted: “There’s always a pattern.”
Former Partner: “Yeah, not to this one there’s not. Whoever this guy is he’s stronger and more cunning than anyone we’ve ever been up against."
Ted Lonergan (John Stinson) is a former detective who has given up the hard life of solving crimes to become a novelist. He tries his best to stay out of the game but his old partner keeps coming to him for help with cases and the newest has just what it takes to pull him back into the fold. A few people have been found dead with nothing but a clear, slimy substance left behind. Once Ted’s new lady, Jennifer (Diana Davidson), becomes the latest victim he teams up with a geneticist named Sherry (Toni Jannotta) who seems to know all about who...er...what is behind all of the deaths and disappearances.
Before anything else can be said, it’s important to mention that there is someone really special in this film. A man who has a way withthe ladies, who’s laidback, but can also switch in an instant to eerily serious. I speak of our hero Ted. This guy is super slick. Not the kind of slick you would expect to find in a horror/sci-fi flick but something more akin to a mid-to-late 80s screwball comedy. When he first meets Jennifer it’s because he backs into her classic Jaguar. She screams at him but he acts cool and cracks wise the entire time. Later that day, he has turned her around and soon they are all set for a date - and what a date it is. She picks him up looking very nice while he’s dressed down in jeans and tennis shoes. Because of this they go back to her place for a nice dinner that doesn’t require a dress code. There is where the real charm kicks in. Gentlemen, pay close attention to how old Lonergan wins over the ladies. First, make a bunch of lame jokes that fall absolutely flat. When your lady gets up to put on music suggest Revel’s “Bolero” (you know, really sexy music). Then, without warning, put on the serious hat and start rattling off the way too many facts you know about her life. While she’s stunned by your great, creepy knowledge bring it all home by switching the subject to her dead parents. She should now be putty in your hands. At least it worked for Ted, as their night ended in the bedroom.
These characters, and the actors behind them, are quite strange and manic in emotion. When Stinson is playing Ted as humorous he seems to channel something close to Harry Anderson on NIGHT COURT but in serious mode, his facial expression and mannerisms give you the impression he spends his free time hacking up prostitutes in seedy motels. His girlfriend isn’t much better. After being mad and annoyed with him she sleeps with him on the first date and then he proceeds to put her to work organizing his office; which she does with a smile. The scientist who gives Ted all the info on the creatures is a rather shy, squirrelly young woman - who also kind of resembles my high school girlfriend if she wore huge, early '80s glasses. I would not expect this film to play the biologist type as a strong female character but she becomes quite annoying screaming like mad during the last act.
Special attention should be paid to a group in the cast who are only on the screen for about ten minutes. Though their time is short they are full of awesome and leave a lasting impression on you. I speak of the party roller skate gang! This crew spends their time spinning in circles and racing down the many levels of an empty parking garage. There are not enough roller skating crews out there anymore. I think we HMN fans should resurrect the practice. Who’s with me?
The crazy antics of SCARED TO DEATH don’t stop at the rollers, this film has a wide assortment of confusing what-the-fuck moments. Leading up to Ted and Jennifer’s date they leave each other a series of notes which are translated to the audience via voice over in the voice of who penned them. This normally isn’t that big of a deal, but when the note is barely a full sentence it just seems like a waste of time. Not to mention that this happens with two notes, one right after the other. On a side note, do you remember having to actually go to someone's house and leave a physical note? Damn, texting is such a wonderful thing.
There’s also this weird end to the film where it seems like something else is going to happen and almost out of nowhere the credits begin to roll. I know they were trying to make the ending a little ambiguous as to the fate of the killer beings, but it just felt like someone screwed up in the editing process. It’s also a bit weird that a movie so quick to rush to full-frontal nudity within the first five minutes wouldn’t have any more in the film. Maybe they were just trying to satisfy producers or keeps butts in the seats. Who knows what these people thought? Still, we thank you.
This brings us to our bad guy. The sewer-dwelling creatures, as we learn from Sherry, are called Syngenors (which stands for Synthesized Genetic Organism). They were made in a lab by her old mentor, and possible lover, and as they were growing up they escaped. Which makes me wish they had a prequel, or flashback sequence, of the Syngenors as babies. It could be a new Saturday morning hit and round out the MUPPET BABIES hour. I really think they missed the mark on that one. Malone made the creature himself and does not hide the obvious influence of the xenomorphs from ALIEN, but they are much more human based than their big brothers. It’s kind of hard to describe what look like other than alien creatures with a spiny ridge along the middle of their head resembling a mohawk. According the the resident expert, these organisms feed on spinal fluid which it draws from its victims with a needle-like tongue. Because of this, the couple of people who survive and make it to the hospital are mistaken to have a brain tumor, like Jennifer. Unfortunately, most of the Syngenor’s exploits are relatively tame in the gore department. I want to see some graphic feeding - think the tongue through the back of the head in SPECIES. I can always cross my fingers because our baddies return in a sequel titled, what else but, SYNGENOR (1990)! Don’t you fret, kiddos, we will be watching this film. It’s on the HMN schedule for June 8, so mark your calendars!
There you have it. A horror/sci-fi mash-up that in, at least, some capacity rips off ALIEN. Surprised? Me neither. There are still some fun scenes even if the characters are very uneven and not all that interesting. This is definitely better than the director’s later films like FEARDOTCOM - shudder. Let’s all hope that the sequel is heavier on the blood, guts and cheese we all love. As my buddy Jay (@sleestakk) said on Twitter, “Syngenor, Slithis, C.H.U.D. & the Humanoids should start a sewer gang and try to guess who is who.” If only that’s what the sequel contained. Fingers crossed.
Until next week - stay the fuck out of the sewers!
Body Count: 5 - I think, it’s hard to tell once you see the Syngenor’s feeding tunnel
Time to First (and Only) Nudity: 3:37
Time to First Blood: 7:51 (same girl, of course)
Number of Times Ted’s Shirt Matches an Object He’s Using: 2
Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-4/20/11: NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1980)
-4/27/11: TICKS (1993)
-5/4/11: DREAMANIAC (1986)
-5/11/11: THE ABOMINATION (1986)