Scared Stiff AKA The Materson Curse (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (12th May 2019).
The Film

Scared Stiff (Richard Friedman, 1987)

Synopsis: In Charlesburg, 1857, cruel slave owner and composer of music(!) George Masterson (David Ramsey) is informed during a slave auction that some of his slaves have ‘holed up in your own house’ where, in the attic, they are conducting a Voodoo ritual. ‘Curse you, Masterson; curse you and all that is Masterson’, the houngan asserts during this ritual. Simultaneously, on the Ivory Coast another ritual is taking place with a corpse as its centrepiece.

In Charlesburg, Masterson’s wife Elizabeth (Nicole Fortier) is sympathetic to the slaves but lives in fear of her cruel and twisted husband. She speaks with the group gathered in the attic, who present Elizabeth with an amulet that the houngan asserts ‘will protect you’. However, shortly afterwards Masterson enters the attic and shoots the slaves, killing them.

In the present day, psychiatric doctor David Young (Andrew Stevens) makes plans to move his lover Kate Christopher (Mary Page Keller) and her seven year old son Jason (Josh Segal) into the house that David has recently bought. A pop singer, Kate is also a former patient of David’s; the house, of course, belonged to George Masterson. David is insecure in his relationship with Kate, worried that she will become bored with him because he is not a celebrity.

The mysterious cooing of a pigeon within the seemingly inaccessible roofspace of the house leads David and Kate to discovering, with the help of handyman Wally (Tony Shepherd), a sealed door to the attic of the house that is hidden at the back of the wardrobe in Jason’s bedroom. In the attic, in a sealed box, David discovers the remains of Elizabeth Masterson and her young son; investigating alone, Kate also discovers Elizabeth’s diary and the amulet, now broken, that the houngan presented to Elizabeth in 1857. Mysterious events begin to take place in the house – subtly at first – until, eventually, Kate and Jason witness the ghosts of Masterson and Elizabeth.

The discovery of the corpses in the attic leads to an investigation by a detective, Ben (Bill Hindman), who directs David to the historical society for information about Masterson. As the truth about Masterson begins to come to light, the haunting of the house grows increasingly aggressive, and Kate experiences visions of Masterson cruelly beating his wife and son. Meanwhile, David’s behaviour becomes more and more hostile, and Kate realises that her lover is being possessed by the spirit of the depraved Masterson.

Critique: Scared Stiff was the second feature film by director Richard Friedman, who had previously directed four episodes of the anthology series Tales from the Darkside (1983-8) and a year later would direct the no-budget slasher/comedy Doom Asylum (1988, released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video last year and reviewed by us here). A predominantly by-the-numbers haunted house picture that, like other 1980s entries into this subgenre such as House (Steve Miner, 1986; the Arrow Video release of House has been reviewed by us here) and The Gate (Tibor Takacs, 1987), marries the concept of a haunted house with some outrageous prosthetic effects, Scared Stiff feels very much like a patchwork quilt of ideas. What is somewhat – though not entirely – unique about Scared Stiff, however, is that the source of the haunting is the house’s previous owner’s abuse and murder of his Afro-Caribbean slaves – rather than the prototypical Native American burial ground which sits beneath the haunted house in, say, Poltergeist II (Brian Gibson, 1986). Where many American horror films of the period locate the source of their supernatural events in the treatment of the indigenous peoples of North America by the colonising cultures (to such an extent that critical writing about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining sometimes asserts that the Overlook Hotel is built upon a Native American burial site even though no evidence within the film itself suggests this directly), Scared Stiff focuses instead on the history of slavery in the United States. In this regard, Scared Stiff predates more recent horror films such as The St Francisville Experiment (Ted Nicolaou, 2000) and The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (Tom Wilkins, 2013) which acknowledge the cultural trauma of slavery, using this as the explanation for the hauntings depicted in their narratives. However, Scared Stiff nevertheless offers a very naïve interpretation of Voodoo, especially when stacked against a film such as Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), released only a year later. Scared Stiff simply trades on the ‘exotic’ potential of Voodoo, using it as the thinnest excuse to explain the supernatural occurrences within the house.

What is more typical about Scared Stiff in comparison with other horror films of the era is its focus on the family: as in many other post-1970s US horror pictures, the basic narrative premise of Scared Stiff revolves around a couple with a child who move into a ‘cursed’ house. The child begins to experience supernatural phenomenon, suggesting the ‘sensitivity’ of young people to the paranormal – both offering a ‘way in’ to the supernatural events for the audience and amplifying the sense of peril – before one of the parents (usually the father) turns ‘bad’. In this way, most haunted house films made in the US since the 1970s intersect with ‘demonic intercession’ narratives (ie, stories in which people are ‘possessed’ by dark forces, such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, 1973). This is, of course, the basic structure of numerous American ‘haunted house’ pictures – from Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings (1976, released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video and reviewed by us here) and Kubrick’s The Shining to The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979) and more recent pictures such as James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013). As in these films, Scared Stiff follows the pattern of a haunting that is outlined by the character of Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) in The Conjuring, during a lecture to students in which the character may as well be pitching an idea for a haunted house movie to potential producers: ‘Infestation, oppression and possession. Now, infestation: that's the whispering, the footsteps, the feeling of another presence, which ultimately grows into oppression, the second stage. Now this is where the victim, and it's usually the one who's the most psychologically vulnerable, is targeted specifically by an external force. Breaks the victim down, crushes their will. And once in a weakened state, leads into the third stage, possession’. This paradigm can be mapped in any number of American haunted house films made in the 1970s and after, from The Amityville Horror, The Shining and The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981), through to more modern examples like Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), Insidious (James Wan, 2010) and The Haunting in Connecticut (Peter Cornwell, 2009).

In Scared Stiff, the early stages of the haunting are represented subtly: the characters hear the mysterious cooing of a pigeon which leads them to discovering the sealed-up attic space. (‘I don’t know how it [the pigeon] got up there’, Wally tells Kate.) Within the attic, they discover Elizabeth’s diary and a box containing human remains – later revealed to be the corpses of Elizabeth and her son, who Masterson sealed in the box. As the haunting escalates, Kate experiences terrifying nightmares (in one of these, the director of the music video she is shooting attacks Kate with a razor, cutting her throat), and the new computer that David bought as a ‘moving in’ present for Jason begins to behave strangely: the monitor bears an image that resembles Elizabeth’s amulet, which the computer somehow projects holographically into the centre of the room. A Polaroid taken by Kate also features, as it develops, an image of the amulet superimposed over the image of Jason and David that Kate photographed. Eventually, Kate and Jason begin to see the ghosts of Masterson and Elizabeth in the house, and following this David begins to be ‘possessed’ by Masterson.

In 1982, Stephen Snyder considered some then-recent horror films, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Shining and Burnt Offerings, in which members of the middle classes come face to face with terror. Snyder observed that ‘the notion of [middle class] life as tantamount to the world of horror has been mushrooming’ (Snyder, quoted in Wheatley, 2012: np). By locating horror, as all of these films did, within a domestic setting (ie, a family home or a place recognisable as such), these films explored a ‘network of anxieties… often realised in terms of the troubling insatiateness which underlies the structure of American life’ (Snyder, quoted in ibid.). A middle-class family may ‘possess’ a house or come into the ‘possession’ of it, but the house can just as equally ‘possess’ them. A building, a (seemingly) inanimate object, is immutable: the Masterson house has existed since the middle of the 19th Century. However, human life is transient and impermanent: people live and die; houses become empty and find new owners/inhabitants. The transience of human life is thus set against the immutability of the object, and the fact that the house manages to ‘possess’ its occupiers hints at a suggestion that the key determinant in people’s behaviour is their environment. This is something also suggested in The Amityville Horror and The Shining: in both films, as in Scared Stiff, a patriarch is ‘turned’ against their family when they move into a haunted building, the spirits possessing this figure of male authority who then seeks to commit familicide.

Colette Balmain has discussed the archetypes associated with these films, underscoring how at the heart of them is an anxiety about ‘the break-up of the nuclear family’ (Balmain, 2008: 128). Many of these films focus on ‘the sins of the father’ and corrupt patriarchs such as Jack Torrance in The Shining: as the narrative progresses and Torrance becomes increasingly possessed by the force that resides within the Overlook Hotel, his drinking increases and he becomes violent towards his family (ibid.). In Scared Stiff, David is increasingly ‘possessed’ by the spirit of Masterson, who manifests himself as an increasingly hideous vampire/demon-type creature. David begins to behave cruelly to both Kate and Jason, though even at the start of the film David is not wholly without sin: the film subtly suggests that even at the outset, David and Kate’s relationship is based on exploitation (Kate was previously a patient of David’s, and David’s pursuit of a relationship with Kate is beyond the realm of professional ethics). Like many similar American haunted house pictures, Scared Stiff plays on the seemingly universal fear of any parent, that one may lose control of oneself and harm one’s own child (or, in this case, step-child).

Like Kolobos (Daniel Liatowitsch & David Todd Ocvirk, 1999), another marginalised horror picture recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video (and reviewed by us here), Scared Stiff leads its viewer to question the supernatural events depicted in the narrative via the potential unreliability of its protagonist, who is a former mental patient. (This vein of the horror genre of course owes a significant debt to Robert Weine’s Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari, 1922.) The film tells us that Kate, a successful pop singer, was hospitalised as the result of a breakdown which grew out of a trauma, the exact nature of which is never identified in the dialogue. After Kate sees the ghost of George Masterson in the house, David worries that she is ‘going back to square one again’. ‘You were the one who told me I was ready’, Kate reminds him, ‘Do you remember that, doctor? Or was it just you couldn’t wait to get your hands on the patient?’ Shortly afterwards, she demands, ‘Will you stop treating me like a patient?’ ‘Stop acting like one’, David responds cruelly. As a result, like similar films in this vein, Scared Stuff features a perhaps surprisingly non-linear and complex narrative in which diegetic time and space become confused to an extent that almost feels like it has been shaped by the tenets of Surrealism: Kate finds herself trapped inside a dream state, and when she awakens it is unclear as to whether she has truly awakened or is simply in another tier of dreaming. Late in the film, Kate and Jason flee from the now utterly possessed David through a house that has become impossibly labyrinthine. Kate and Jason pass through a doorway and find themselves in a corridor that seems to stretch unendingly before them. They run from Masterson but, impossibly, find him both behind and in front of them. On each side of the corridor run a series of closed doors; opening these, Kate and Jason discover that the thresholds cross time and space, linking disparate locations and even the past and the present. During the climax of the picture, the now hideously deformed Masterson approaches his victims but the power of the amulet causes what can only be described as a rift in time and space: on the Ivory Coast in 1857, an indigenous man throws a spear into the air, and in 1980s America the spear lands in the chest of Masterson. (In many ways, these more surreal elements feel as if they may have been influenced in particular by Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, 1982.)

Video

Uncut and with a running time of 83:58 mins, Scared Stiff fills slightly under 24Gb of space on the dual-layered Blu-ray disc. The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec. Presented on this disc in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the film’s photography (on 35mm colour stock) is unspectacular, most of the picture being photographed in uninspiring mid-shots and standard close-ups.

Arrow’s Blu-ray disc contains a pleasing presentation of the film, the presentation being billed as a new 2k restoration from unspecified ‘original film elements’. The image has a good level of detail, with fine detail being present in close-ups. The colour palette of the original photography is naturalistic and ‘flat’, and this is carried well within this presentation. Contrast levels are good, with reasonably well-defined midtones and a sharp curve into the toe; shadow detail sometimes seems slightly ‘crushed’. This, along with the coarse structure of the picture, suggests that the unspecified ‘original film elements’ was/were a positive source(s). The encode carries the presentation efficiently, retaining the structure of 35mm film.

In all, it’s a pleasing and filmlike presentation of an uninspiringly-photographed picture.



Full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review; please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track. This is clear and dialogue is audible throughout, though the sound is sometimes slightly soft and muted. This may very well reflect the original sound design for the picture. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and accurate in their transcription of the film’s dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with Richard Friedman and Dan Bacaner. Clearly enjoying each other’s company, Friedman and Bacaner talk about the production of the film and discuss the locations used in the picture. The commentary is moderated by Robert Ehlinger. The filmmakers consider the structure of the film and talk about the casting of the movie.

- ‘Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff’ (33:48). This documentary about the making of Scared Stiff features interviews with Friedman, Bacaner, Andrew Stevens, Joshua Segal, special effects supervisor Tyler Smith and special effects assistants Jerry Macaluso and Barry Anderson. Friedman and Bacaner are interviewed together; the other participants are all interviewed separately. Friedman and Bacaner reflect on how they came to work together, after Bacaner placed an ad in Variety for a director to work on Scared Stiff, based on a script by Mark Frost entitled Ghost Diary. The intention, Friedman says, was to make ‘a very serious ghost story that scared people’. After deciding to shoot in Florida, they struggled to find a location that resembled a Southern colonial mansion. They talk about the decisions made when casting the film, especially with regards the roles of Kate and Jason. The members of the special effects crew discuss the logistics of producing and handling the effects used in the film. The documentary is illustrated with some behind the scenes stills.

- Interview with composer Billy Barber (6:33). Barber, who composed the score for the film, talks about how he approached writing the music for the film and discusses how he came to be involved in the production of Scared Stiff.

- Gallery (6:00).

- Trailer (1:28).

Overall

Though the supernatural events in Scared Stiff are initiated by the Voodoo curse that is placed over the house and the Masterson family, the spectre which hangs over the film is that of Masterson himself: from the film’s opening moments, Masterson is identified as a cruel and inhuman man both by his profession and his language (‘I’ve broken those niggers’, he asserts, ‘They won’t give you any trouble. But if they do, you can bring ‘em back’). Masterson’s cruelty as a slave owner is offset by his musical talent and his abilities as a composer of music (though this aspect of the narrative – the tension between Masterson’s art and his cruelty – is arguably underplayed). Many elements of the story don’t hold up to close scrutiny: the cooing of the mysterious pigeons is heard before the trio move into the Masterson house, suggesting an element of foreshadowing. When David opens the mysterious box he finds in the attic, Wally slips from his ladder and is hanged accidentally, and his body hangs there for a number of days, nobody noticing it, before suddenly breaking through the window of Jason’s bedroom near the climax of the picture. But then, it’s not a story that demands a great deal of logic. Flatly photographed, Scared Stiff is nevertheless, taken on its own merits, an entertaining enough picture.

Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release of Scared Stiff contains a pleasing presentation of the main feature alongside some informative contextual material.

References:
Balmain, Colette, 2008: Introduction to the Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh University Press

Whatley, Catherine, 2012: ‘Michael Haneke and the Horrors of Everyday Existence’. In: Allmer, Patricia et al (eds), 2012: European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945. London: Wallflower Press

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