Ostensibly a forgettable creature feature, Scared to Death is noteworthy as an egregious case of W.M.H.S. (White Male Hero Syndrome). That’s when an otherwise bland, unlikable, undeserving character is elevated to hero status just because he’s a White man — sort of like how Rudy Giuliani became “America’s Mayor” because he happened to be mayor on 9/11. In the case of Scared to Death, the “hero” is Ted Lonergan (John Stinson, who reportedly filled in for Rick Springfield at the last minute because…Rick Springfield has standards?), a former cop and current pulp fiction writer who is apparently the only person in Los Angeles who can solve a series of murders committed by a Syngenor, which is either a Synthesized Genetic Organism or the Synthetic Genitalia of a Senator; I can’t recall which.
Ted’s diagnosis of W.M.H.S. comes at the expense of black guy Lou Capell (David Moses), an ACTUAL cop heading up the investigation into the mysterious deaths who, for no reason other than the script demands it, is convinced that Ted is the key to catching the killer. “He’s the best, and you know it!” Lou insists to the police chief. What makes Ted “the best” is never established, but based on how ineffectual the rest of the cops are, it must be a case of the one-eyed king in the land of the blind.
We don’t find out why Ted left the force, but it probably had something to do with the fact that he’s an asshole. He’s the sort of loose cannon cop that America loves in movies but hates in real life. Cinematically speaking, that sort of looseness usually translates into an unhinged energy put towards solving a case, but in Scared to Death, Ted’s loose attitude means that he just doesn’t give a shit. For the whole first half of the movie, in fact, he doesn’t even attempt to investigate the murders. He rebuffs Lou’s repeated requests for assistance, and instead, we’re subjected to him getting to know his love interest, Jennifer (Diana Davidson) — from a “meet ugly” in which he backs his car blindly into hers and then admonishes her with “You ought to look where you’re going” to a first date in which he insults her musical tastes and kills the mood by bringing up his dead parents to a cringey love scene full of soft-focus lighting, awkward caresses and blue eyeshadow.
As it turns out, the culprit is a genetically engineered creature that feeds on spinal fluid using a needle-like tongue — French kissing that’s only slightly less awkward than the aforementioned love scene. The case is cracked not through Ted’s bang-up investigative prowess, but rather because Sherry (Toni Jannotta), a former employee of the lab that created the monster, spills the beans. At that point, all Ted does is plot a map of the attacks that reveals that they all center around…the lab that Sherry already told him about. When he goes to the lab and confronts the Syngenor, he brings a Dirty Harry hand cannon but fires only three shots at the creature before fleeing. Ted’s contribution to its death amounts to basically serving as bait, as Lou shows up to save him by blowing the monster away with a shotgun before Sherry crushes it in a pneumatic press. So, the black guy and the woman save the day, but no doubt Ted will get the credit for being some sort of monster-slaying savant.
Remarkably, there’s another black character of note in Scared to Death who survives, even when all signs point to his demise. He’s featured in one sequence in which a couple of city workers — white guy Howard (Mike Muscat) and black guy Virgil (Freddie Dawson) head down into a sewer where, of course, the Syngenor is lurking. Howard is killed, but Virgil smartly emphasizes the “flight” in this fight-or-flight scenario and scampers up and out of the manhole, avoiding what in ‘80s horror was an almost certain death.
With a black guy who saves the day and another who simply doesn’t die, Scared to Death is noteworthy, even if the movie itself is as plodding as its monster. I swear, at least 30 minutes of the running time is made up of extended scenes of victims just walking around in the dark, begging to be killed, while the Syngenor stalks them at the measured pace of a tightrope walker. How in the hell does this thing ever actually catch anyone??? Inexplicably, someone found the creature — which, on a cloudy day in a darkened basement, could be seen as a forerunner to the Species alien — compelling enough to produce a sequel, Syngenor, in 1990, in which “the black guy” isn’t so lucky. I guess two straight N.D.N. (No Dead Negro) movies is too much to ask for.