Rating: 2/5, but a thoroughly entertaining 2/5
“What’s she doing wandering around, she’s supposed to be a corpse!”
Scared to Death is the first of many Bela Lugosi films to be selected, and is the only one in colour, albeit slightly blurry, unrealistic colour. Made in 1947, it is a bonkers, bizarre film in which a corpse narrates the events leading up to her death. The plot holes are so plentiful that they become the norm – a murder mystery in which everyone is a suspect, it appears misdirection is preferable to continuity. In fact, trying to decipher exactly what has happened is futile: almost none of it makes any sense.
Molly Lamont is Laura Van Ee, the estranged, neurotic wife of Ward, the son of psychiatrist (?) Dr Joseph. She is also the deceased narrating the story. Apparently being held prisoner in Dr Joseph’s home, she is convinced that her husband is trying to kill her, though he swears emphatically that he isn’t. Meanwhile, a strange blue mask keeps appearing at a window that is never shown in relation to the rest of the house, and everyone insists on describing it as green. Dr Joseph has employed Bill Raymond as a security guard of some sort; acting as comic relief, he is a dim-witted former cop whose incompetence (we presume) has led to him being kicked off the force. All he wants is to marry the maid, Lilybeth, and for someone to be murdered so that he can solve the crime. Needless to say, when someone is murdered, he doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested.
So far, so straightforward. The film takes a lively turn for the better with the appearance of Lugosi as Professor Leonide, a hypnotist and former friend – or possibly rival – of Dr Joseph, and his companion, the deaf-mute dwarf Indigo (Angelo Rossitto). Add in a curious reporter and his ditsy girlfriend, and the stage is set for a confused madcap mystery.
Lugosi, who by this time was shunned by the big Hollywood studios and had been completely typecast as a villain, is clearly having a great time; there is a constant twinkle in his eyes, and he is as distinguished and professional as ever. He plays off against this stereotype also – without revealing too much, working out who is good and who is bad is much harder in Scared to Death than in other genre pictures of the time. As Indigo, Rossitto serves no purpose whatsoever; he scurries around and hides behind sofas, but is entirely irrelevant to the narrative. The dwarf actor was one of the most prolific of his time, having appeared in the excellent Freaks (1932) and continuing to work in movies until 1987 – he also worked with Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Spooks Run Wild (1941).
While the majority of the film is a fairly standard, if delirious, narrative, it takes on a surreal twist with the corpse’s voice-over. Scenes are abruptly interrupted by a cut to the deceased, lying on a mortician’s slab; accompanied by an irritatingly repetitive fade-in-fade-out ghostly wail, she offers such valuable insights as “then came a sinister pair” and “yes, I was scared, scared for my life.” In fact, death does not appear to have granted Laura any sense of personal reflection or awareness whatsoever; the entire film could easily be related without this addition, but it is undeniably entertaining to anticipate what inane comment she will say next.
Completely suspending one’s disbelief is the best way to approach Scared to Death. Devoid of logic or sense, it is simpler to not question how the fake head got out of the locked anatomy cupboard, or why Bill has cobwebs on his shoes, or why Dr Joseph mistakes a hypnotised woman for a dead body, or, indeed, what the purpose of Professor Leonide’s back story (in relation to the house) is. At just over an hour long, it features an awful lot of discussion and explanation, a score that means there is never a moment’s silence, not much action at all, and a wealth of completely enjoyable ridiculousness.