SCARED TO DEATH (1947) - A Review
Where do I even begin? I am really, really fond of this film, bordering on love. But why? Why?
Is it the unbeatable B-movie dream cast, headlined by Bela Lugosi, who is more than supported by George Zucco, Nat Pendleton, Joyce Compton, Douglas Fowley, Molly Lamont and Angelo Rossitto? This is literally a case where the supporting players have taken over the asylum. What a cast!
Is it the fact that this is the only color film that Bela Lugosi starred in? Not, as some misstate, the only color film Bela appeared in. No, this is his only starring role in a color film - and what color it is! Filmed in "Natural Color," this film is anything but natural. Rooms are painted blue, or green, and the whole thing is like a candy coated nightmare. Garish is a good place to start describing the color scheme here. Wow!
Or is it the fact that this movie has a plot, such as it is, that is totally bonkers, thus creating a colorful B-movie miasma of madness that is sure to satisfy those seeking something a little different? This isn't so much campy as it is just plain insane, and it's an insanity that I find irresistible as a viewer.
Without giving too much away, this entire film is a flashback, from the perspective of a corpse (Molly Lamont, as the bizarrely named Laura Van Ee), a gimmick that was later used to open the better known classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). But unlike the later film, this one keeps cutting back to the corpse as a way to transition from scene to scene. It's not really necessary, but again and again we get a shot of Lamont on the slab, and voiceover lines like "A gruesome surprise was in store for me the following morning," or "I became afraid and my mind started to crack," before moving on to the next scene. This constantly repeated refrain makes this a perfect film for a drinking game. Cut to the body on the slab - take a drink! You'd be loaded in no time.
Anyway, given the title, I don't suppose it's giving too much away to reveal that the story, such as it is, revolves around how poor Laura Van Ee wound up being...scared to death. Bela plays a mysterious visitor, with Rossitto as his mute companion. Zucco is Dr. Joseph Van Ee, the head of the sanitarium where all the action takes place, and Lamont's father-in-law. Pendleton is a dumb detective hoping to break a big case. Fowley is a fast-talking reporter hoping to break a big story. Compton is his none-too-bright girlfriend. Add an eerie bluish death mask that keeps popping up at windows to the cast and stir until dizzy. Must I explain that some people here are not what they seem?
Though the cast and color absolutely generate and hold your interest, much credit must go to the script by Walter Abbott - the first of only two scripts that he had produced. Keeping logic and sense at a safe distance, Abbott's dialogue contains some classic howlers. In one scene, after quickly listening to Lamont's heart through a stethoscope, Zucco proclaims, "Her heart's in a very depressed condition. Someone has been giving her orders by mental telepathy." Well, of course. What other explanation could there be?
There's also a truly marvelous moment in which Fowley greets Lamont with the classic, "Welcome to your living room, Mrs. Van Ee." It's a great little weird line in a great little weird movie. I laugh out loud every time I hear it.
But the line that may sum up the appeal of this movie for me comes courtesy of Joyce Compton, who, witnessing all the strange things going on all around her asks, "Is it Halloween?"
Oh yes, yes it is. And I can't imagine that anyone who loves Halloween wouldn't find much to love about Scared to Death. It's certainly in my Top Ten of Crackpot Classics, and it's perfect viewing for this spooky season.
As for poor Bela...Well, just a few years after this, he'd go on to star in yet another Crackpot Classic...