Release Date(s)1980 (July 26, 2022)
Studio(s)Malone Productions Ltd (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B+
- Overall Grade: A-
Scared to Death was the micro-budgeted debut feature from director William Malone, shot on 16 mm film in 1980 for a ridiculously small budget of $74,000. Malone had been working for the legendary Don Post Studios, and since he knew that he could create a monster suit by himself for very little money, he decided to make that the hook for his first film. Essentially, he started by building a monster, and then built a film to surround it. Creature features live or die by their monsters—the beast in question doesn’t necessarily need to be realistic or plausible; it just needs to look cool. Scared to Death has a great monster, and it’s an especially impressive one given the limited means at Malone’s disposal. His Syngenor (Synthesized genetic organism) was obviously inspired by Alien, but it still has charms of its own. It’s worth pointing out that H.R. Giger’s biomechanical look hadn’t yet worn out its welcome in 1980, so the Syngenor still looked relatively fresh at the time, even if it may look a little quaint today.
Malone had met Giger while at Don Post studios, and the pair would move in and out of each other’s orbits for the next decade. Besides the Syngenor, the titular monster in Malone’s next film Creature was another Giger-inspired design, and the two ended up working together briefly while developing concepts for Dead Star. Sadly, that film never saw the light of day, though it would eventually be reworked in unrecognizable form into the disastrous Supernova, as well as being blatantly ripped off for Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. (Malone and Giger gave it another try with The Mirror, but that project also never materialized.)
For Scared to Death, the story cooked up by Malone (along with his friend Robert Short) essentially grafts his monster onto a serial killer film. When a series of unexplained killings rock Los Angeles, a police detective (David Moses) teams up with ex-cop turned hack writer Ted Lonergan (John Stinson) to try and get to the bottom of things. Aided by the writer’s new love interest (Diana Davidson) and someone with knowledge about a secret industrial project (Toni Jannotta), they work together to uncover what’s really happening.
Of course, the most important role in Scared to Death was played by Bryce “Kermit” Eller. He’s the one who donned the Syngenor suit (and also has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo without it). In any monster movie, the monster is really the hero, regardless of the death and destruction that it causes. That’s a good thing, because Lonergan is an oddly off-putting protagonist—he’s a genuinely unlikable character who seems bound and determined to repel everyone, the audience included. That might have been an issue with a lesser creature on display, but fortunately, the Syngenor rose to the occasion, and so Scared to Death remains good clean fun. The design was good enough that it eventually spawned the semi-sequel Syngenor in 1990, which told an unrelated story centering around the same beast. (You just can’t keep a good monster down). Malone wasn’t involved with that one, aside from once again lending a hand to build the suit. That fact alone says everything that you need to know about Scared to Death. It’s a film with a lovely monster, made by a person with a genuine love of monsters. Who could ask for anything more?
Cinematographer Patrick Prince shot Scared to Death on 16 mm film (in standard 16 format) using a first-generation Arri 16SR camera with an Angenieux 10-150mm T2.3 zoom lens, as well as a Cinema Products 12 mm Super Speed T1.1 lens. (Malone could only afford to buy a single camera and two lenses, but got lucky when the prices for the 16SR went up during production, so he was able to sell the used camera for exactly what he had paid for it new.) The film was edited in 16 mm on old-school Moviolas, and the negative was cut to conform to the workprint. The cut negative was blown up to a 35 mm CRI (color reversal integrative) to strike release prints, which were framed at 1.85:1.
For this Blu-ray release, the original 16 mm negative was scanned at 4K resolution. The original optical elements have been lost over time, so the title sequence had to be scanned from a 35 mm release print instead. The differences are dramatic, as the film begins unpromisingly with exceptionally coarse grain, and the titles are so soft as to be barely readable (especially the first title card with its minuscule font). Once the opening titles have finished, however, there’s a night-and-day improvement. The image is as sharp as standard 16 mm will allow, and while the grain is still relatively heavy compared to 35 mm, it’s much better controlled than it is during the titles. Prince used diffusion filters occasionally, meaning those shots are naturally softer, but otherwise things are clear. There’s light damage throughout, including speckling, scratches, and other small blemishes. (There’s also a bit of density fluctuation in the background of at least one shot.) The colors look natural, though they aren’t always perfectly consistent, and the contrast and black levels are acceptable, within the limitations of the challenging low-budget cinematography.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The dialogue sounds like a mixture of production audio (including the original background noises) with ADR and studio effects. As a result, there’s inconsistent continuity between shots, with the background levels rising and falling. Still, that’s how the film was produced, and everything is otherwise reasonably clear—though the dialogue can sound a bit muffled at times, and it doesn’t always display the best lip sync.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release of Scared to Death is a two-disc set that includes an alternate version of the film on disc two. It features a reversible slipcover, featuring different artwork on each side. There’s also an embossed slipcover designed by Earl Kessler, Jr., available directly from Vinegar Syndrome and limited to the first 6,000 units. The following extras are included on disc one, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary with William Malone, Bryce “Kermit” Eller, and Diana Davidson
- Rise of the Syngenor (75:03)
- The Locations of Scared to Death (8:34)
- Dracula Party: Scared to Death (Music Video) (3:50)
The commentary track features Malone, Eller, and Davidson (the latter of whom joins via telephone). Malone describes Scared to Death as “sort of The Night Stalker meets Doctor Who,” and he even brings the receipts to back up that statement: in one scene, Jannotta is wearing an outfit like the one worn by Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. (Die-hard Doctor Who fans will recognize it as the striped overalls that Sladen wore in her final story from the Tom Baker era, The Hand of Fear.) For the rest of the track, Malone and the actors share stories about making the film, including details about the locations, and give special attention to the late Patrick Prince, who didn’t merely serve as cinematographer, but also built the storm drain set and even handled electrical duties. (While Malone would have loved to work with Price again, he only shot one other film before switching to a career as a still photographer.) They also note the parallels between Scared to Death’s climax and the ending of a famous film released four years later, which was directed by a filmmaker renown for borrowing ideas from other people without giving them proper credit (at least not until he was successfully sued by an author not to be trifled with). This is a light but enjoyable commentary track with plenty of interesting stories in it.
Rise of the Syngenor is a new feature-length documentary about the making of Scared to Death, featuring interviews with members of the cast and crew including Malone, Eller, Davidson, David Moses, Toni Jannotta, Mike Muskat, Jim Suthers, and Kevin Altieri. Malone kicks things off by pointing out that “mean people suck,” referring to an unnamed producer, but he still calls Scared to Death the best filmmaking experience that he ever had, thanks to the camaraderie among the cast and crew. He notes that he ended up making a monster movie for the simple reason that he could make a monster. Malone and the other participants explain their backgrounds prior to making the film—Davidson even offers the mind-blowing fact that she was Scorpio’s rooftop victim from the opening scene of the original Dirty Harry. They then talk about their experiences making the film, which is described as an “all hands on deck production,” with most of them performing multiple duties on the set. (Suthers makes the dubious statement that there was an American Cinematographer article about the film with a picture of him spraying down the monster suit, but he appears to be referring to the September 1980 issue of Starlog instead.) Finally, they briefly cover the semi-sequel Syngenor, and note what they’ve done with their careers in the years since Scared to Death (DCAU fans will, of course, know exactly what Altieri has been doing). Everyone clearly enjoyed the time they spent working together, so while these interviews were all recorded individually, it would have been fun to see what might have happened if the group could have been reunited instead. Regardless, Rise of the Syngenor is an entertaining and occasionally witty look at the making of an ultra-low budget classic.
The Locations of Scared to Death features Malone touring the original locations, comparing clips from the film to how things look today. Many of them have changed significantly in the last four decades, but a few of them look surprisingly similar. The new Scared to Death music video features the industrial-horror band Dracula Party, mixing film clips with footage of the band. It was directed by front man Byron C. Miller.
The Director’s Restoration of Scared to Death on disc two (approximately 94:25) was undertaken by Malone himself in 2021, prior to Vinegar Syndrome’s involvement. In a new title card, he explains that while the primary feature is what was originally released in the theatres and on home video, he considers this version to be closer to his original intentions. He cleaned up some of the dirt, fixed color grading issues, replaced some missing sound effects, and tightened up a few scenes. He also generated new titles digitally, so they’re much cleaner and more readable here. While the original optical elements were lost, he did have access to the 16 mm background footage, so the entire title sequence actually looks better in this version. Otherwise, the overall level of damage is pretty similar to the theatrical version, though Malone used some noise reduction that smears the grain at times. As a result, the video quality still lags behind that of the primary feature, but it’s nice to have this alternate version that better represents what he originally wanted to do with the film. The audio for this variant is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, but with no subtitles.
William Malone believes that the new digital transfer of Scared to Death looks better than it ever did during its original theatrical release, and the proof of that is here. It’s not a true frame-by frame restoration, of course, and there isn’t an extensive collection of extras compared to other Vinegar Syndrome titles, but Rise of the Syngenor is an above-average documentary and the inclusion of two different restorations of the main feature is a major bonus. It’s a great set that’s highly recommended.
- Stephen Bjork