What could 135,000 bucks buy one in 1947? It could buy 79 Ford Super Deluxe automobiles at base sticker price; 11 houses at the median home value; yearly tuition for 257 students at Harvard University; or one shitty movie, filmed in glorious Cinecolor.
Scared to Death, from screenwriter Walter Abbott and director Christy Cabanne, is a poverty row flick that got picked up by Screen Guild Productions for distribution. If that name is unfamiliar to you, dear shitty movie fan and loyal reader, just know that a year after this film was released, Screen Guild changed its name to Lippert Pictures, after its founder, Robert L. Lippert. And, if that name is unfamiliar to you, then you need to watch more shitty movies.
Scared to Death is more notable as being the only starring role from Bela Lugosi filmed in color. If one could call it color.
Technicolor’s much cheaper (and also more practical) competitor, Cinecolor is like looking at the world through a pair of barely effective sunglasses. In a film as old and poorly cared for as Scared to Death, it looks as if the world is in the middle of a solar eclipse. But, bad prints of old films can add much charm to a dog of a movie. And this flick is a mangy mutt.
The film is told in flashback from the perspective of a corpse, Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont), who has literally been scared to death. We see her on the slab in a morgue as she begins her tale in voiceover, then the scene changes with a flourish of music and a cheap ripple dissolve. Get used to seeing this effect, as it must have been used a dozen times to cut to the corpse and back. After the 3rd or 4th time I was laughing every time it happened. In a film packed front to back with bad filmmaking, these cuts were the worst offenses to the art of cinema.
Laura is the unhappy wife of Ward Van Ee (Roland Varno), who is the son of Dr. Joseph Van Ee (George Zucco), who runs a sanitorium out of his house. The entire film takes place at said house.
Other players arrive on the scene, including Lugosi as Professor Leonide, a cousin and former patient of the doctor. Leonide is accompanied by a dwarf named Indigo (Angelo Rossitto), whose only purpose in the film seems to have been to add a little weirdness. It’s not an unwelcome addition, even though Lugosi was plenty weird on his own. So many performances by Lugosi play like a caricature of himself, and this is one of them. His accent, inflection, eyes, even the way he darts from place to place when his character is sneaking around, is pure, unadulterated ham. He didn’t know how to do anything but overact, in his own, unique style. He’s a joy in an otherwise nonsensical movie.
Something that was not so much of a joy was the comic relief, played by Nat Pendleton as private investigator and former cop Bill Raymond. Raymond is a lunkhead, a big galoot. He’s hanging around the house hoping someone gets murdered so he can solve the crime and get rehired by the police department. Or, maybe he’s a delusional patient and Cabanne couldn’t get that across to the audience. Either way, his character is out of place with the tone of the film.
As for that tone, the film is very much like an early 20th century mystery, with enough shenanigans (Lugosi included) to just squeak the flick into the horror genre. In the film’s denouement, we finally see what it was that scared Laura to death, and who was responsible. Thankfully, viewers don’t have to wait too long for this welcome moment, as the film is only 68 minutes long.
If one is into watching Bela Lugosi’s singular take on acting, then this is a fine example from the last decade of his life, when everything had turned to shit. However, if one is not a sadist, Scared to Death is still a laughably incompetent film, living and dying on an endless stream of contemporary mystery and horror tropes, and doing it all badly. It lands far down in the Watchability Index, bumping Haunting on Fraternity Row out of the #301 spot. Despite this, it’s worth a peek, especially for those of you who didn’t know who Robert L Lippert was.