Scared to Death (1947) -**
I don’t understand why this movie isn’t a lot better known than it is. This is not because Scared to Death is notably good, mind you, for it most assuredly is not. Rather, it merely seems to me that the curiosity value of being the only color film in which Bela Lugosi played a major role would have brought more and longer-lasting visibility than it did. But instead, Scared to Death is now even more thoroughly forgotten than the rest of the poverty-row trash Lugosi starred in earlier in the decade. Even stranger, this is true despite a gimmick that William Castle might have envied— the movie’s narrator is a corpse undergoing autopsy!
That corpse belongs to Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont, from The Jungle Princess and Devil Bat’s Daughter), and the bulk of the film unfolds in flashback to her last days among the living. The downward spiral begins with her being examined by her father-in-law, Dr. Josef Van Ee (George Zucco, of Dead Men Walk and the 1939 version of The Cat and the Canary), who is evidently under the impression that the young woman is teetering on the brink of madness. Laura, meanwhile, thinks that Josef and his son, Ward (The Return of the Vampire’s Roland Varno), are attempting to drive her to madness, although she doesn’t seem able to give any particularly compelling reason for believing this, or to offer any intelligible motive they might have for persecuting her. All she does is throw innuendos around, spend most of her time locked away in her bedroom, and refuse to grant Ward the divorce he wants. Frankly, I’m more inclined to agree with Dr. Van Ee’s assessment of the situation. Whatever is really going on, it’s evident that the doctor and his son would prefer to keep things as quiet as possible, but there’s not much chance of that happening. For one thing, the doctor has a nosy maid named Lilybeth (Gladys Blake, of Bewitched and the Claude Rains The Phantom of the Opera), who may or may not be doing her snooping around Laura’s room on Ward’s behalf. For another, there’s a disgraced ex-homicide detective named William “Bull” Raymond (The Mad Doctor of Market Street’s Bill Pendleton) on the payroll as a private security guard, and he’s desperate for a murder to solve so that he can try to get back in the good graces of the police department. And since Raymond is obviously also an idiot, his presence on the premises seems doubly non-conducive to the keeping of secrets. Finally, there are the two parties who drop in to see Dr. Van Ee after Laura has once again shut herself away upstairs. The first is a woman who calls herself Mrs. Williams (Lee Bennett). The doctor can’t recall ever having seen her before, but she knows about something shady he did twenty years ago. And despite her protestations to the contrary, it appears likely that Mrs. Williams has blackmail on her mind, and that Van Ee is far from finished with her when he shoos her out the front door to his mansion. The second is a foreigner named Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi), who arrives in company with a deaf-mute dwarf called Indigo (Angelo Rossitto, of Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman, in the last of three turns as Lugosi’s sidekick). Leonide the doctor does know. In fact, they’re cousins. They’re estranged cousins, however, and the cause of their estrangement can plainly be found in whatever history the Williams woman is trying to hold over Van Ee’s head. Leonide is at least more forthright than Mrs. Williams, for he makes no pretense that he hasn’t come before his cousin with a blackmail scheme— it’s just that all Leonide seeks to extort is a few days’ hospitality at the Van Ee estate.
Meanwhile, it comes to our attention that Laura has a secret history of her own. Lilybeth has found a promotional handbill for the dance team of Laurette and Rene in her mistress’s quarters, advertising their appearance at a Parisian club called the Green Room, and the photograph on the handbill depicts Laura dancing with a masked man. Laura… Laurette… Got it. Ward is very eager to puzzle out the significance of this find (although why is anybody’s guess, as we’ll later learn that he knew perfectly well his wife had been a professional dancer before they were married), and he goes so far as to ask Leonide about it. Why Leonide? Because he was a professional magician, performing in many of the same venues as Laurette and Rene— just don’t ask me how Ward knows that. Leonide thinks he might recognize Laura/Laurette’s masked dance partner, but the mask itself obviously rules out any really firm identification. A much more interesting question would be whether Leonide recognizes the similarly masked man who starts peering in through the mansion’s windows after the sun sets that evening.
And then the reporter comes. Look— it’s a dime-budget suspense flick from the 1940’s. You knew there had to be a reporter showing up sooner or later, right? The journalist’s name is Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley, from One Body Too Many and Cat-Women of the Moon), and he brings along his mostly useless girlfriend, Jane Cornell (Joyce Compton). What draws Lee to the Van Ee house is an interrupted phone call which the doctor places to the police. Having just heard that somebody has broken into his collection of wax anatomical models, sawed the head off of a dummy that looks more than a little like Laura, and had a package addressed to Laura and containing the severed head delivered to the mansion, Van Ee finally decides the time has come to involve the authorities. But somebody cold-cocks him before he has a chance to do anything more than give the police receptionist his name. Terry Lee makes a habit of haunting the police station, and when he learns about the truncated call, he rushes over to the mansion with the heady scent of a scoop filling his nostrils. I can’t explain what would make him bring Jane with him, though. The reporter’s arrival triggers, as it so often does, the rapid escalation of the as yet rather pointless-seeming evil plot. While Lee scrambles to figure out what the hell is going on in the Van Ee mansion, the guy with the mask steps up his lurking considerably. Professor Leonide starts behaving more suspiciously than ever. Somebody hypnotizes Lilybeth, and uses her in an apparent attempt to assassinate Laura. Jane dithers uselessly on the sidelines. Indigo disappears from the movie completely, having served no function in the story whatsoever. Of course, we already know that Laura is destined to wind up in a body bag one way or another, and since this is 1947 we’re talking about, there’s a better than even chance that when all the mysteries are finally solved, she’ll turn out to have done something to deserve her fate.
If you enjoyed the no-budget stinkers Lugosi and Zucco made for Monogram and PRC between 1940 and 1946, there’s a good chance you’ll find at least something to appreciate about Scared to Death. Despite its proto-noir aspirations, the movie it resembles most is probably the 1942 Monogram Lugosi vehicle Black Dragons. Like the latter film, Scared to Death spends most of its 65 minutes running disorderly circles around a plot which seems never to have been communicated to any of the participants until the day the final scene was shot. The brain-bruising resolution even features an almost totally nonsensical wartime espionage angle like that of Black Dragons! Scared to Death also seems plagued by indecision similar to that which so hampered the earlier film. For example, director Christy Cabanne seems to have tried very hard to convince audiences that this was nothing so passé as a horror movie, but what else are we to think we’re watching when a green-faced villain eavesdrops through the windows after dark, when George Zucco plays a doctor with an apparently unsavory secret, or when Bela Lugosi strides onto the set with Angelo Rossitto at his side, clad in his unmistakable scarlet-lined Dracula cape? More seriously, Scared to Death lacks the conviction necessary for the defiant stupidity of the most entertaining of the 1940’s poverty-row spookshows. Its creators seem embarrassed by the movie’s glaring lapses of logic, but they never let that stop them from committing another one five, three, two minutes later. The saddest defect of all, though, has to be the way Scared to Death bungles its coolest trick, the narration by a dead body. It sounds brilliant on paper, but in practice, it just works out to a whole lot of jump-cuts to the deceased Laura Van Ee, who utters an unnecessary and clumsily worded phrase setting up the scene to which the next dissolve takes us. I can’t imagine there’s a person alive who wouldn’t instinctively demand more from a movie narrated by the heroine’s corpse!