Scared to Death
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (16th January 2009).
The Film



Completed in 1946 but with its release delayed until 1947, Scared to Death was the only colour film to star Bela Lugosi, although Lugosi had played a supporting role in an earlier colour production, playing Count von Ratz (the Hungarian Ambassador) in the 1930 musical Viennese Nights (directed by Alan Crosland).

A ‘poverty row’ production for the obscure company Golden Gate Pictures, who made a handful of pictures in the 1940s before disappearing, Scared to Death was filmed in a cheap colour process called Cinecolor: the film’s opening credits proudly declare that the film is ‘Photographed in Natural Color’. However, as Gary Don Rhodes notes in his book Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage and in the Hearts of Horror-Lovers (2006), this cheap colour process means that the film’s supposedly ‘natural hues often look somewhat murky’ (136). Cinecolor had been in use since 1932, and was developed as an alternative to Technicolor—which had almost monopolised the field of colour cinematography. Cinecolor was quicker than Technicolor (with Cinecolor, colour rushes could be produced within 24 hours) and cheaper too: the process cost no more than twenty-five per cent more than black-and-white cinematography. Furthermore, Cinecolor film stock could be deployed in modified monochrome cameras. The Cinecolor process was therefore positioned as ideal for use in low-budget productions that were produced within a tight schedule; thus Cinecolor was often deployed by independent ‘poverty row’ production companies such as Monogram Pictures. However, because Cinecolor was a two-colour film process, it suffered from a limited palette: for example, most greens appeared on-screen as grey, and colours such as purple and orange were heavily muted (some examples are given at The American Widescreen Museum. (Somewhat ironically, in the 1990s Republic Home Video released the film on NTSC VHS in a digitally-colourised version, which may say something about how the ‘murky’ appearance of the Cinecolor process compares with modern perceptions of what colour cinematography should look like.)



The film opens at the city morgue: ‘Autopsy Room: Keep Out’ declares a sign shown in close-up. The body of Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont) is revealed to be on ‘the slab’. The pathologist and his assistant discuss Laura’s death; ‘One often wonders, what could have caused the last thought that was cut off by death. If it was spoken of, what would it be?’ muses the pathologist.

With this, a close-up of Laura’s face is shown superimposed over the image of a death mask (which reappears throughout the picture and plays a significant role in the film’s climax) and the now-dead Laura begins to narrate the film. The picture is constructed in a non-linear manner, via flashbacks from the perspective of Laura; interspersed throughout are close-ups of the dead Laura’s face as she lies on the slab in the autopsy room, bridged by the intrusive use of a ripple dissolve and a grating musical cue. This device is used rather ham-fistedly, disrupting the flow of the narrative, although it’s interesting to see a horror picture use the device of having the story narrated from the perspective of a character who, at the beginning of the film’s diegesis, is revealed to be already dead. Unfortunately, this means that from the opening moments there is little suspense, as the outcome of the narrative is already known by the audience: we already know that Laura will die, and the only mystery revolves around who is persecuting her and why. The device of having the action narrated by a dead character is put to much better use in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), for example, where the device is used in order to underscore the film’s sense of fatalism.



However, any sympathy for Laura is almost eradicated in the next scene, in which she displays seemingly unmotivated anger and bitterness in her exchange with Dr Josef Van Ee (George Zucco, in a role originally intended for Lionel Atwill, who bowed out of the production due to illness), her father-in-law. She opines that ‘Someone’s trying to scare me out, but it won’t work, see. Here I am and here I’ll stay until I rot’. Laura is refusing to give her husband Ward (Roland Varno) the divorce he wants, and Ward and Laura live in Dr Van Ee’s facility, which is some sort of mental institution. When Ward enters the room, Laura brutally taunts him: ‘You’d like to choke me, wouldn’t you, Ward; but you haven’t got the nerve’. The audience is told that Laura has been nervous ever since ‘she started getting those letters from abroad’, and with this the film introduces the character of Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi), a hypnotist who spent some time in Van Ee’s clinic due to ‘nerves’.

Leonide arrives with his assistant Indigo. Indigo is played by Angelo Rossito, the 2’11” actor who played Angeleno in Browning’s Freaks, 1932, and was featured as a character in Nathanael West’s 1939 novel Day of the Locust; Lugosi and Rossito had previously worked together on Spooks Run Wild (Phil Rosen, 1941) and The Corpse Vanishes (Wallace Fox, 1942). Upon his entrance, Leonide declares what we presume is his villainy by asserting to the maid, Lilly Beth (Gladys Bake), ‘If you had waited another second [to answer the door] Indigo and I would have kicked the door in’. The maid good-naturedly responds with a simply, ‘Yes, sir’. When the maid refers to Indigo as ‘Sir’, Leonide tells her ‘Do not be polite to Indigo: he is only offended by it’.



Leonide declares his intention to see Dr Van Ee. The maid tells Leonide that Dr Van Ee will only see him via appointment, to which Leonide bitterly declares ‘I have had an appointment these twenty years. He will see me!’ Leonide then turns to the other member of the household, Bill Raymond (Nat Pendleton), ‘Sir, there is a veil of inquiry about you that immediately offends my deepest nature. Something suggesting Scotland Yard, […] the Italian carabinieri, the Turkish polizei, and other minions of the law. I think you’re a cop’.

The character of Bill Raymond is used throughout the film as a form of comic relief: Raymond is the Van Ee’s ‘private patrol officer’, a security guard/house detective. Pendleton, who regularly played policemen, plays Raymond as the archetypal bullish cop, complete with strong Brooklyn accent. When Laura receives a parcel containing a life-sized mannequin head made up to look like Laura’s own face, Raymond bursts into the room and declares ‘I was hoping we’d have a little murder or something around here, so’s I could solve it and get my old job back at Central Homicide. Nothing personal, of course’. In a later scene, Raymond declares to Dr Van Ee, ‘That Lilly Beth. I’ve been trying to get a cup of coffee off her all day. She don’t care what happens to my metabolism… Metabolism, that’s a good word; I wonder what it means’. Eventually, we are told that Raymond lost his job as a detective after, during a case, shooting a dress-maker’s dummy ‘full of holes while the real murder got away’.

With these characters gathered in the Van Ee household, the audience’s attention is turned to Laura’s plight: it seems that she has been receiving threatening letters and packages containing items which act as an index of a mysterious event from her past, and Ward openly discusses with Leonide his belief that Laura may have lived another life in Europe before the Second World War, and that she may in fact be married to another man; Ward’s evidence for this assertion is a photograph of a dancing couple, Rene and Laurette (who Ward believes to be Laura), which appears to have been one of the items sent to Laura by the man who has been harassing her.

Scared to Death was directed by William Christy Cabanne (under the abbreviated name ‘Christy Cabanne’), a former assistant of D. W. Griffith who directed his first film in 1912. Cabanne delivered many films for ‘poverty row’ studios such as Monogram Pictures and Screen Guild; from the 1930s onwards, most of his films were ‘B’ Westerns or horror pictures. Played by Michael McKean, Cabanne features as a character in HBO’s biopic And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (Bruce Beresford, 2003). In Scared to Death, Cabanne’s direction is characteristically stagy, with most of the action being depicted in static mid-shots; at times, in its staging the film is reminiscent of the camp 1960s horror pictures of the low-budget auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis. In his book about Lugosi, Gary Don Rhodes highlights Lugosi and Cabanne’s shared heritage in silent films: both ‘achieved fame during the silent era’ and therefore ‘shared a sole commonality’: by the time of the production of Scared to Death, both Lugosi and Cabanne ‘seemed to be period pieces, the fading remains of prior successes’ (op cit.: 31). Rhodes goes on to claim that Scared to Death is ‘a wretched effort notable for being the only chiller he [Lugosi] made in color’ (ibid.).

Likewise, in The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi (2003), Arthur Lennig cites Variety’s review of the film, which states that it is ‘directed with an uneven hand’ and ‘badly edited’ (quoted in Lennig, 2003: 344). Referring to the semi-coherence of the film’s narrative (which is admittedly slipshod, being predicated on the reveal of one red herring after another), Lennig suggests that ‘Confused to Death might have been a more accurate title’ (ibid.: 343).

Video

Network’s DVD presentation contains a very handsome, crisp image; it’s certainly better than any other version of the film I’ve seen before.

The film runs for 68:00 mins (PAL) and is presented in its original Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1

Audio

Sound (in the original English) is presented via a two-channel monophonic audio track. The audio is crisp and the dialogue is clear. There are no subtitles.

Extras

The sole extra is the film’s original trailer (1:41).

Overall

Whilst Scared to Death is far from an exemplar of the horror picture, there’s a certain charm to the picture, mostly thanks to the performances of Lugosi and Zucco—and Pendleton’s comic role as Bill ‘Bull’ Raymond. It’s neither better nor worse than most of the other ‘poverty row’ horror films of the 1940s. Lugosi is the strongest performer in the film; and from his appearance with Rossiti, Lugosi exudes his trademark exotic charm. In his biography of Lugosi, Arthur Lennig suggests that in Scared to Death Lugosi is ‘gallant, sardonic, mysterious—but also sad and bitter’ (op cit.: 344). Scared to Death is therefore a film that will be enjoyed by fans of Bela Lugosi and those with a penchant for ‘camp’, low-budget horror pictures—although it’s best not to approach the film as a ‘classic’ horror picture or an example of the ‘poverty row’ approach to filmmaking at its best.


References:
Rhodes, Gary Don, 2006: Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage and in the Hearts of Horror-Lovers. McFarland & Company

Lennig, Arthur, 2003: The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. University Press of Kentucky


For more information, please visit the webpage of Network DVD

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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