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Docurama presents
Scared Straight! (1978)

"It took going behind bars to keep them out."
- tagline

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 24, 2003

Stars: Peter Falk, Danny Glover
Director: Arnold Shapiro

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (explicit language)
Run Time: 01h:35m:41s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
UPC: 767685955833
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B-B C

DVD Review

At the Rahway maximum security prison in New Jersey a group of hardened, badass convicts, with murder and armed robbery raps, have created an unusual outreach group: They call themselves The Lifers, and their purpose is to literally scare the crap out of troubled kids, via strong, profane descriptions of life behind bars, who may be on the path to prison themselves. The Lifers use coarse, explicit language to explain what really goes on in prison, and their descriptions are ugly, violent, and compelling, but it is their verbally abusive assaults on the teens that turn things from a simple field trip into a brutally scary encounter with real-life convicts. In this 1978 documentary, filmmaker Arnold Shapiro spent a day at Rahway, and captured a visit by 17 teens who had been in trouble with the law for most of their young lives. For this DVD release, Docurama has assembled not just Shapiro's original 44-minute film, narrated by Peter Falk, but has included 1999's Scared Straight! 20 Years Later, a 45-minute film that includes followup interviews with all of the teens and convicts featured in the original documentary.

There are brief glimpses of the strutting, cocky, arrogant teens prior to their entry at Rahway, and most, if not all, consider it a lark and nothing more than a day off from school. They brag about their modest criminal exploits, and how tough and uncaring they are. They are, in their own estimation, cool and untouchable. But once locked in a room, assembled before The Lifers, all that changes, as they are verbally pummeled and humiliated by the convicts who do not mince words when it comes to describing the harsh, violent world of prison. Shapiro's camera catches it all, as these once macho boys and girls are reduced nearly to tears as they get the kind of education that might save their lives. The fact that these kids were so stunned by what The Lifers said to them, and how they were treated, is what makes Scared Straight! such an interesting trip for the viewer; we can sit on our couches and think, Whew, glad that's not me! or, Boy that looks unpleasant. Shapiro's brief interview segments with the teens before entering Rahway reveal what amounts to hollow braggadocio, because when confronted with the real deal inside the prison walls, its obvious they're as fragile as a house of cards.

After a brief intro by Danny Glover prior to the start of Scared Straight!, the 1999 followup, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (also directed by Shapiro), begins immediately following the end of the original, and in it we get to see what happened to not just the teens, but to the convicts as well. My daughter Sammy referred to the followup as a "twisted 'After School Special'", and I suppose that sums it up pretty well. Learning the fates of the teens and convicts, and seeing them 20 years later is the real hook, but most repeat the same litany of "don't do drugs, don't do alcohol, love your family," which prompted Sammy's very apropos one-sentence summary. Still, we were both eager to see certain personal stories unfold ("I wonder what happened to..."), and there were a number of genuine surprises and even a couple of unexpected reunions.

Scared Straight! created quite a buzz in 1978, in part due to its airing on public television and that the coarse, explicit language used by the prisoners was not edited or censored at all. That might not seem so shocking in 2003, but back in those pre-cable days, the reins were held pretty tight in terms of what you could see or hear on television. Allowing Shapiro's film to play uncut was a bold move at the time, and one that helped cement its notoriety. Watching it today, the message about taking the control necessary to change your own life is still just as strong, and has not been diluted by time.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio, the original Scared Straight! footage has seen better days. Full of faded, smeary colors and heavy grain, it seems that the transfer itself is not to blame, and that it is undoubtedly the poor condition of the source material. The 1999 followup footage, with Danny Glover, on the other hand, is bright, well-balanced, and very clean.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is listed as being in 2.0 stereo, though it seems that original 1978 footage is presented in mono. There is a flat harshness to the voices, though all of the gritty dialogue is understandable (and you won't want to miss a word, I assure you). The newer footage, from 1999, benefits from the 2.0 stereo slightly, and everything from Glover's narration through the interview segments sounds fuller and with significantly more timbre and separation.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
10 Other Trailer(s) featuring Regret To Inform, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Speaking In Strings, Fastpitch, Sound and Fury, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The backcover lists Scared Straight! 20 Years Later as a DVD extra, but in reality it bookends the original film, and as such both films are presented as one long feature.

A filmography of filmmaker Arnold Shapiro and the usual batch of Docurama trailers is all that is included here. The disc is cut into 12 chapters, and does not feature any subtitle options.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Scared Straight! is one of those documentaries that has the punch to really stick with you over time; I can recall seeing it 1978, when I was in high school, and though watching documentaries was not "cool" at that time, I still have strong memories of having seen it. Now that Docurama has assembled both the "before" and "after" footage together on one disc, it makes this more than just an interesting time capsule; it shows the important impact The Lifers program had on most of the participants.

This is tough love, baby.



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