Pigeons From Hell: Scared Stiff on Blu-ray
“They’re gonna have to find another place to live.” – Scared Stiff (1987)
Scared Stiff feels like a movie that left another, more thoughtful movie on the cutting room floor. There are the rough edges of some big ideas here, but they’re mostly absent within the actual film. What we have instead is a sort of late-’80s special effects schlock take on The Shining with more than a little of House thrown in for good measure in the last act.
Mary Page Keller plays an unlikely pop star who, along with her sullen seven-year-old son, moves into a new house that is actually a very old house with her doctor boyfriend. Of course, the very old house has some very old secrets, which we, the audience, are already privy to before things get too far underway, since we see a prologue where some slaves place a curse on the former owner of the house, George Masterson, in 1857.
The booklet which accompanies the Arrow Video Blu-ray makes a big deal about the film’s depiction of Voodoo and its relationship to slavery, which is absolutely a thing that is there in the movie, but while that connection is made, it isn’t really explored. Ditto the possibility that all of this is in our main character’s head, or the parallels between the curse that falls upon the family and our lead’s increasingly toxic relationship with her boyfriend.
To the extent that it is present, the slavery angle is undercut by the film being almost entirely preoccupied with the struggles of a rich white lady in 1987, not to mention by the implication that it was the curse that turned Masterson into a monster, when he was already a guy who made his living buying and selling slaves. Maybe the curse just brought his inner monster to the surface, which is kind of what seems to happen to our lead’s beau David.
Speaking of, our lead’s relationship with her boyfriend is kinda icky from the start, given that he was previously her psychiatrist—she is apparently recovering from some traumatic event, we are never told what, which feels like another thing that’s still out there somewhere, waiting for a longer cut of the film that will never materialize.
Not that the booklet argues that any of this is actually great shakes in the movie that we get. “Even if it never quite manages to transcend its genre or its low budget,” the essay by film historian James Oliver concludes, “it offers so much more than you’d expect from a film called Scared Stiff.”
An endorsement, certainly, but not the most ringing one, especially as he opens the essay by taking great pains to trace the less-than-stellar cinematic history of the title itself, which has mostly been applied to comedies and the occasional bit of porn (and an Elvira pinball machine).
In New Zealand, the film apparently went by the moniker The Masterson Curse, which Oliver argues is “a far better title,” and I can’t disagree.
Nobody is watching a low-rent 1987 movie called Scared Stiff—or probably The Masterson Curse, for that matter—for incisive social commentary, though. We’re here for the bonkers special effects which, in grand late-’80s fashion, Scared Stiff mostly withholds until the final reel.
When the time comes, though, we get optical-effect green lightning, a guy who unzips his own head to reveal his pulsing brain, a monster with too many eyes that bursts apart into… y’know, I don’t know what the hell happened in that scene, a Claymation corpse, and a giant floating version of the kid’s pretty damn racist Native American lamp which he names Cochise and to which he is inexplicably attached, as kids sometimes are to the darnedest things.
(For those who have seen the documentary Room 237, I sort of want someone to find a few conspiracy theorists to record some similarly unhinged commentary tracks about the symbolism in Scared Stiff because, I’ve gotta say, there is a lot going on with that lamp, even if I’m pretty sure not even the movie knows what or why.)
That final twenty minutes is full of great, surreal imagery that helps to underscore the ending’s vague gesturing in the direction of “maybe it was all in her mind.” Certainly, there are elements that support such a theory. The stuff that our heroine sees could easily be interpreted as her own insecurities about her life—from the music video director and his intrusive camera to the babysitter who her boyfriend may have killed—and if they are the curse manifesting itself, it is definitely reaching into her own subconscious for the imagery it chooses to use.
Whether all of this makes Scared Stiff a surprisingly ambiguous spook show or a frustrating series of near-misses probably depends almost entirely on the attitude of whoever is watching. For me, it fell somewhere in the middle.
Here I am, almost 800 words in, and I haven’t even justified the title of this review, so let’s finally get to that before I run out of space. The supernatural shenanigans in Scared Stiff are all centralized around the attic of the old plantation house, where Masterson found his wife hiding slaves and killed them all, just as they placed the (eponymous, in some versions) curse upon him.
The attic becomes the beating heart of the house’s evil in the movie, and that heartbeat is provided by pigeons. The attic is full of pigeons, and they presage most of the spooky stuff that happens prior to the film’s climax, including a hanging corpse that takes a surprisingly long time to pay off, despite an early and effectively creepy tease.
Watching Scared Stiff, I couldn’t help but be reminded, constantly, of Robert E. Howard’s classic short story, “Pigeons from Hell,” which has been adapted into a 1961 episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller TV series and, unofficially, into the 2004 horror film Dead Birds, written by Simon Barret before he wrote You’re Next or The Guest.
The similarities are certainly there. Both Scared Stiff and “Pigeons from Hell” are centered on run-down plantation houses which conceal old bones, family secrets, and Voodoo curses in walled-up passages. Both mention Damballa, although in “Pigeons from Hell” the name is never used, and he is referred to instead as the “Big Serpent.” Both provide exposition through a recovered diary written by someone named Elizabeth. And then, of course, there are the pigeons themselves, acting as psychopomps and heralds of supernatural events.
Is it enough to make Scared Stiff an unofficial adaptation of Howard’s tale? Probably not. Is it enough to add an extra layer of interest for fans of the weird tale who want to give this odd-duck late-‘80s haunted house riff a try? That much it can manage with bells on.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.