Wednesday, May 29, 2013

SCARED TO DEATH (1947)

My first viewing of Scared to Death circa 1987 proved to be a three-evening ordeal, having fallen asleep roughly every 20 minutes of its 67-minute running time. It might as well have been called Bored to Death.

Recently I gave it another shot. And again, I kept getting the 20-minute itch. The first time, I got up to slice a grapefruit. Twenty minutes later, I prepared a salad. So I suppose the second time 'round was something of a success in that I stayed awake and ate healthy foods.

Scared to Death has a certain cachet among Bela Lugosi aficionados, being his only lead role in a color production. Hardcore fans hold it in high regard for its allegedly surreal atmosphere --  surreal apparently meaning "sounds like they're making it up as go along." (Best line in the movie: the coroner looks at the corpse on the gurney and asks, "Is this the body?" Please let this not be the guy who has to cut me open.)

Actress Molly Lamont's most realistic moment
in Scared to Death.
It certainly has a strange framing device, being narrated by the corpse of a woman named Laura Van Ee. (The writers were probably weren't paid enough to come up with a longer surname.) We see in flashbacks that Laura was unhappily married to Roland Van Ee, with whom they share a house along with his father Dr. Joseph Van Ee, their maid Lilybeth and their dumb-as-a-sack-of-pliers security guard Bill Raymond.  Laura believes Roland and Joseph are trying to drive her crazy, while Lilybeth spends most of her waking hours fending off Bill's amorous advances. It never occurs to anybody that they could leave at any time; instead, they all stick around to drive each other crazy. Psychiatrists have a word for this: Family.

"Hands up -- or the little guy bites your ankle!"
Soon this happy home has a couple of visitors, Prof. Leonide and his dwarf sidekick Indigo. Leonide used to be patient there when the house was a mental hospital run by Dr. Van Ee, who is also his cousin. (Remember what I said about "family"?) About five minutes after their arrival, strange things start happening. A green mask appears in the windows. A decapitated head arrives in the mail for Laura. (FedEx doesn't accept body parts.) Someone knocks out Dr. Van Ee in the middle of a phone call to the police. And no one, least of all the private dick, considers even questioning Leonide and the dwarf. (Suggestion to all aspiring musicians: Leonide & The Dwarf would make a great name for a band.)

Recreating the stateroom scene from
A Night at the Opera.
As if there weren't enough people in this madhouse, cynical reporter Terry Lee and his fiance Jane Cornell drop by to check things out. That's the way things are in this town: call a cop, you get a reporter and his girlfriend instead. The next 20 minutes are taken up by Terry insulting his fiance and the security guard. (One of the great losses in movies is the concept of low-wattage women who put up with their emotionally abusive boyfriends.) For no other reason that the running time is approaching its end, Laura is hypnotized by a voice from God knows where. During her trance, we learn that a few years earlier Laura sold out her husband Rene to the Nazis when they were living in Paris. Rene, thought to have been executed, has instead returned to successfully (drum-roll, please) scare her to death. That he does it while disguised a woman is scary in itself.

As you've probably gathered, if you're looking for any kind of sense in Scared to Death, you're watching the wrong movie. Laura claims to be held captive by Roland and Joseph yet refuses to consider a divorce. Terry is engaged to Jane even while openly contemptuous of her. Indigo is deaf yet is briefly seen "overhearing" a conversation. Laura's from-beyond narration "remembers" incidents that didn't happen to her. That narration device is so abrupt and arbitrary -- we return to her corpse several times while the same spooky "Ooh-OOH-ooh" accompanies her voice -- that it seems less an artistic choice and more of a way to cover for scenes that were lost in the editing room. 
The floating mask comes free
of charge with the house.

Then there's the look of the movie. The sets (both of them) are like something out of a dream. Not that this was necessarily a deliberate choice on the part of the art director. No, it's the movie having been shot in glorious Cinecolor (Cinecolor being to Technicolor what Blue Bonnet Margarine is to French farmhouse butter). The not-quite true to life flesh tones make the cast look like a Madame Tussaud's exhibit come to life, while the mysterious floating green mask looks blue. Blue and brown, in fact, are Scared to Death's primary color scheme. I'm sure one of the Cahiers du Cinema snobs could read something into that, but don't believe him. Anything that interesting in Scared to Death is strictly accidental. 

"Aren't we supposed to be the stars
in this thing?"
Had Hal Roach decided to branch out into genres other than comedy, Scared to Death would have been one of his dandy 45-minute Streamliners. Instead, its running time is padded out to over an hour by dreadful comic relief in the form of Nat Pendleton as the detective, who gets more screentime than the nominal leads Bela Lugosi (as Leonide) and George Zucco (as Dr. Joseph Van Ee).

The kind of movie where the detective is
supposed to be funny and the guy in drag serious.


Usually a welcome presence in B-movies, Pendleton here is merely aggravating, whether making a play for Lilybeth or trying to figure out basic grammar. That his character is an ex-cop trying to work his way back into his old job in the homicide division is a prospect more frightening than anything else in the movie.


"You can trust me: I enunciate clearly."
Not that Scared to Death is a total washout. Bela Lugosi and George Zucco are both in their usual fine form. Zucco in particular appears to be taking these shenanigans quite seriously; you have to wonder if a better-than-average actor like him got stuck mainly in B-movies for most of his career simply because he enjoyed them. He's the cinematic brother of Lionel Atwill -- suave, well-spoken, adept at playing heroes or villains, seemingly sophisticated yet appearing mainly in films where a strong breeze could bring down the set.

"My co-pay is how much, doctor?!"
And speaking of actors stuck in B's, there's Bela. For reasons unexplained, Lugosi is dressed like a Southern Colonel in mourning. Maybe it's what all the Hungarian professors in 1947 were wearing. As his fans can expect, Lugosi brings usual panache to the silly proceedings. You can't help appreciate that no matter how substandard the script he was given, Bela always played it like it was a collaboration of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov. People make fun of him -- I've been known to do it, alas -- but the guy was a pro, giving 100% when lesser actors would have just walked through it and cashed their check.

This isn't even the strangest part of the movie.
It must be noted that Lugosi and Angelo Rossitto (as Indigo) -- 6'1" and 2'11" respectively -- definitely make a striking pair. Rossitto's character really has nothing to do other than scurry around, kick people in the shins and hide behind furniture. He's there just because he's a dwarf, looking a good 12 inches shorter than his actual height. Aside from Indigo, Rossitto's other credited roles include Dwarf in Pool Hall, Mute Dwarf, Dwarf Devil and, in a welcome change, Impaled Pygmy.  And talk about an interesting career -- Rossitto's the only actor to have appeared in Freaks and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Respect must be paid.

If this prop ever turns up at an auction,
let me know.
No doubt, there is much in Scared to Death that is slightly off, occasionally in a good way. Nineteen forty-seven being an uneventful year for the horror genre, between the Frankenstein/
Dracula/Wolfman era and the radioactive insects of the 1950s, perhaps its creators were trying to go down a slightly different path. The genuinely startling appearance of the head in a package certainly provides a hint of what was to come in later years. Yet the very presence of Bela Lugosi and George Zucco provides an anchor to a time that had already vanished. Scared to Death might be considered both a curtain call of one genre and a peek into the future of "shock" movies like Psycho and its brethren. If only it didn't drive me out of my chair or consciousness every 20 minutes.



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