Scared to Death (1980): William Malone’s Film School

Matty dusts off the directorial debut of a future Master of Horror — a deeply flawed picture that nonetheless hints at better things come.

Horror meister William Malone had made his mark upon the genre before shooting even a frame of a feature, albeit by proxy. A former employee of legendary latex mask maker Don Post, Malone was responsible for sculpting the William Shatner mask that, teased hair, enlarged eye holes, and one white dye job later, would become the face of Michael Myers in the original Halloween (1978). A lifelong monster and sci-fi nut, it was during Malone’s time with Post that he began formulating an idea for his own monster movie, eventually taking the plunge and self-financing SCARED TO DEATH (1980).

Rough, ragged, and, honestly, not very good in any conventional sense, Scared to Death plays exactly like what it is: a $74,000 cheapie crafted by an aspiring, inexperienced filmmaker learning the ropes as he goes, with every mistake up on screen. Indeed, for those au fait only with Malone’s subsequent work — particularly his ultra-slick studio two-punch of House on Haunted Hill (1999) and FeardotCom (2002) — the slipshod Scared to Death, with its cumbersome photography and higgledy-piggledy sound mix, will be quite a shock. It’s the equivalent of being exposed to The Sistine Chapel then being told Michaelangelo was also responsible for crudely spray-painting a massive cock n’ balls onto an alley wall nearby.

However, there’s something to it — slivers of promise that transcend its quote, unquote ‘badness’. While the endless scenes of prattle are a real endurance test as Scared to Death’s lead, an irritating PI/hack author character (John Stinson), bumbles his way around Los Angeles, trying to stop the hulking, genetically engineered humanoid that’s draining the locals of their spinal fluid, the horror stuff Malone unloads between the tedium is sublime. His creepy and icky set pieces are everything the rest of the film isn’t: Scared to Death’s dialogue and pacing might be exhaustingly slack (a feeling heightened by limp staging that seems to suggest that Malone didn’t know where to put the camera when people were talking), but the smattering of genuine frights the neophyte auteur weaves into his narrative are the exact opposite. Impeccably conceived, they ooze moxie, class, and wild imagination. The monster attacks are nasty and ferocious, and watching Scared to Death retrospectively, it’s clear that we’re witnessing the talents of a tremendous genre stylist in embryonic form. Even at such an early stage in his career, it’s obvious that Malone intuitively understands how to fashion effective moments of clammy terror and evocative weirdness, best exemplified in a nerve-jangling and gloriously grotesque sequence in which Stinson’s annoying dick discovers the monster’s sewer-based breeding ground.

Though the handsomely rendered sewer set is a triumph of poverty row production design, it’s the monster itself that’s Scared to Death’s greatest asset. Conceived and fabricated by Malone and imbued with a Giger-esque lilt (generally speaking, Scared to Death should be seen as one of the first Alien (1979) imitators — but it’d be remiss not to at least acknowledge the structural similarities to Stephen Traxler’s Slithis (1978) as well), this beautifully wretched abomination, the result of mad science gone awry (because of course), is a joy. Snarling, slime slathered and succulently rubbery, it’s a nifty and attention-holding delight. Indie producer Jack F. Murphy sure thought as much: despite being unimpressed with the bulk of Scared to Death, he admired Malone’s DIY creation, “The Syngenor”, enough to procure the rights to its image so he could develop a more monster-heavy semi-sequel, which finally came to be as the eponymous Syngenor (1990) nearly ten years after Scared to Death’s drive-in bow in Texas. Malone, alas, didn’t return to direct: he’d dropped out of the project over half a decade before to lens another Alien-aping programmer, Creature (1985), for Trans World.  

Scared to Death was filmed as ‘The Terror Factor’ and is also known as ‘The Aberdeen Experiment’.

USA ● 1980 ● Sci-Fi, Horror ● 96mins     

John Stinson, Diana Davidson, David Moses ● Dir. William Malone Wri. William Malone, from a story by William Malone and Robert Short

Scared to Death (1980) UK Quad
Scared to Death‘s lavish U.K. quad by the late Tom Chantrell: the legendary British artist behind the posters for Night of the Living Dead (1968), a slew of Hammer and Carry On flicks, and a tiny little film that no one’s ever heard of called Star Wars (1977).

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