Review: Scared to Death (1980) and Syngenor (1990) “You Can’t Keep a Good Monster Down”

Review: Scared to Death (1980) and Syngenor (1990) “You Can’t Keep a Good Monster Down”

SCARED TO DEATH and SYNGENOR have a weird relation to each other. The latter is a sequel to the first, but other than the monster being the same, they don’t have much else to do with each other. Of course, when your monster is as cool-looking as this one, that’s not necessarily a problem. In fact, being so different helps them stand out from each other and allows you to appreciate how they’re telling their own story about the monster instead of just aping the other.

Scared to Death

Writer, director and monster creator William Malone’s SCARED TO DEATH (1981) is more of a detective movie where a murderer is terrorizing the streets of Los Angeles. Unfortunately for his victims, he’s also a bio-engineered monster that hunting for spinal fluid to feed on. The cops are baffled and the mayor wants the killer found so the streets will be safe again. The only person who might have a chance at solving the mystery is a former detective turned writer/private eye, Ted Londergan.

However, Ted wants nothing to do with the case or the chief of police. He just wants to mack on Jennifer, whose car he hit while chugging down candy. She’s put off by his weird antics at first but then eventually succumbs to his charms when they go on a date. When Jennifer is later attacked and put in the hospital by the monster, it’s up to Londergan to figure out where the creature is hiding so it can be destroyed.

Solidly acted and with a story that serves up some inventive kills (roller skating, anyone?) SCARED TO DEATH is a low-budget, no-frills creature feature that wastes no time in getting to the good stuff. There’s a modest amount of gore but nothing too grisly. Most importantly, the movie doesn’t don’t shy away from showing off its brilliant looking costume. What could have been a big mystery is instead front and center, allowing the viewer to know more than the police as we are privy to every single murder. The Giger-esque design is sort of like ALIEN mixed with IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and pulls it off well with a look that belies the budget.


SYNGENOR (1990) on the other hand, has a much higher budget and that slick look that most 90s sci-fi had. It’s also about a hundred times more insane than its predecessor and the fact monsters are on the loose plays only a small part of that. No, most of the craziness is from the performance of David Gale, who in comparison to everyone else, acts like the director wound him up and let him go as the head of the sinister company Norton Cyberdyne. Gale chews the scenery so much they probably had to rebuild the sets constantly as he injects a much needed energy into the film.

Here we find a Syngenor on the loose again, but it’s not by accident. No, this time it was released to clean up some loose ends by first murdering the company’s PR guy and then the creator of Syngenor, Ethan Valentine (Lewis Arquette), both because they refused to cover up the project and wanted it disbanded. This attracts the attention of Nick Cary, a reporter investigating the murders and Susan Valentine, the creator’s niece who was attacked by a Syngenor as well. They find themselves drawn into a web of deceit and murder where the company higher-ups led by Carter Brown (Gale) and his cronies will do anything to make sure that Syngenor doesn’t get a bad rap as they plan on selling it to the military as the ultimate soldier.

Because, you know, nothing says freedom like a murderous, biomechanical monster.

Like the first film, the story is pretty straightforward but buoyed by the performances of the cast. Starr Andreef as Susan and Mitchell Laurence as Nick have a good chemistry together and play off each other well as they try to figure out how they can bring the atrocities of Norton Cyberdyne to light. Melanie Shatner is fun as the receptionist who should not go in the basement. Charles Lucia and Riva Spier are appropriately sleazy and cutthroat as execs looking to unseat Carter Brown from the company.

The Syngenor costume you know and love from the first film is back, but this time there are several variations as we see it in different stages of its life. There are several of them walking around in the basement causing trouble and SYNGENOR ups the gore quotient by a lot as bodies are blown up and smashed to pieces in the wake of the creatures’ rampage.

Never explained but always enjoyed is Gale’s green fluid injecting antics as he fills Brown with a manic energy and bizarreness that brings to mind Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET. At one point he’s whispering “Hold me” into the telephone at whoever will listen, and later on he’s wearing a bunny mask backwards while brandishing a gun and it is clear he is a scarier monster than even the Syngenor.

The more down-to-earth nature of SCARED TO DEATH is eschewed in favor of laser tongues, oddly uniformed special forces and death rays and for the most part it works. SYNGENOR might never be a great film, but it is most definitely never boring. 

Together both make a fun double-feature that doesn’t disappoint or overstay its welcome, and the disconnected nature of the sequel from the original makes it feels a lot like the Blind Dead films where they take the monster and run with it, connectedness be damned. It’s a shame we never got a third film as the Syngenor is one of the best monster designs around and certainly more inspired that some ALIEN ripoffs sport. The fact that they went in an entirely different direction only adds to the charm.

Now if someone like NECA would make an action figure for me, that would be great.

Check it out.