Last night, as a gentle rain fell outside, I watched the 13th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set, 1945’s Scared Stiff. (The version in the box set appeared under the title Treasure of Fear, which was what the title was changed to when the film was later re-released. However, the film was originally entitled Scared Stiff and that’s the title that I’m going to use. Scared Stiff is just a better title and I happen to like the Scared Stiff film poster, featured above. So, just remember that if you ever find yourself watching an old movie called Treasure of Fear, you’re actually watching Scared Stiff.)
As I attempted to watch Scared Stiff, I was reminded of some of the problems that occasionally come with watching a film that has slipped into the public domain.
On the one hand, the public domain is great because it makes it a lot easier to watch old movies. And while it’s true that many public domain films aren’t exactly classics, there are a few gems to be found. For instance, since I started watching the movies in the Fabulous Forties box set, I’ve discovered The Black Book, Trapped, and Jungle Book.
On the other hand, being in the public domain means that virtually anyone can duplicate and sell a copy of the film. As a result, many of these films are available (and frequently viewed) in versions that are of an extremely poor quality and which have often been haphazardly edited.
That’s one reason why it’s going to be difficult for me to review Scared Stiff. The version that I saw was, even for a public domain B-movie, rough. The picture was slightly fuzzy and the sound quality was not the greatest. I don’t think you can ever truly understand that importance of a clean soundtrack until you listen to a scratchy one.
As for Scared Stiff itself, it’s a comedic murder mystery and thankfully, it’s only 65 minutes long. Jack Haley plays a reporter who covers chess tournaments for his uncle’s newspaper. Unfortunately, Haley’s not a very good reporter so his frustrated uncle orders him to go to Grape City so that he can cover a beauty contest, apparently believing that there’s no way that Haley could possibly screw that up.
However, Haley manages to do just that. He gets off the bus at Grape Center, instead of Grape City. He finds himself stranded at an inn that’s run by two twins (both played by Lucien Littlefield). The twins hate each other for reasons that aren’t clear. However, they do possess a chess set that was once owned by Marco Polo! One twin owns the white pieces while the other owns the black pieces! Haley wants to buy all the pieces but things get complicated when it turns out that a gang of thieves are also in town and they want to steal the set for themselves.
But that’s not at all! One of the passengers on the bus is found murdered and he has a chess piece in his hand. Of course, everyone suspects Haley. So, Haley has to get the chess pieces, clear his name, and hopefully get to Grape City before his uncle fires him.
Scared Stiff is way too frantic for its own good and I have a feeling that I would feel the same even if I had seen a version that didn’t sound scratchy or often look fuzzy. That said, it is interesting to see Jack Haley, who is best known for being The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, play a human being. Also of interest, to film noir fans, was that Haley’s girlfriend was played by Detour‘s Ann Savage. Both Haley and Savage gave good performances but it was not enough to save this misbegotten little film.