Observations by Doug Gibson
Look above you, readers, and you see a newspaper ad -- from the Bakersfield Californian -- for a "spook show." at midnight on July 4, 1957. On stage will be Dr. London's Inner Sanctum Hour. On the screen is "Scared to Death," with Bela Lugosi headlined. The ad states it's "in gory color."
A woman dies in "Scared to Death," sans gore, and a couple of the cast gets a knock on the head. It is indeed in color, Cinecolor, a cheap film system used mostly for nature and westerns. In fact, it was advertised as "Natural Color" often, including in the Chula Vista Star in an ad on July 11, 1947 below. Incredibly, it was the co-feature to "Suddenly It's Spring," with Fred MacMurray Paulette Goddard!
Golden Gate Pictures released "Scared to Death" in 1947 even though it was completed in 1946. I know a lot of genre fans that enjoy the film. After many viewings, including another as I type this review, it has grown on me. But it can be a tough slog. It's an inside-the-house/sanitarium mystery that gives away the ending at the beginning. We see a woman, Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont) who is dead at the morgue. Strangely enough, she serves as our narrator.
For about an hour we are inside the sanitarium house, which belongs to Dr. George Van Ee (George Zucco) whose son, Ward, is in a loveless marriage with Laura. It's an odd situation. The doctor and his son are treating Laura, but she claims to be a prisoner. Ward wants a divorce, but Laura refuses. She seems to always be very stressed out. Lionel Atwill was originally cast as Dr. Joseph Van Eee, but died in late April of 1946.
A rather dumb cop, played by Nat Pendleton for comic effect, is providing security at the house. He's smitten with a mostly disinterested maid, played by Gladys Blake. Bela Lugosi, as Prof. Leonide, arrives at the house with a mute little person companion, Indigo, played by Angelo Rossitto. Lugosi gives every sign and appearance that he and Dr. Van Ee are enemies, or at least at odds over something or other. They verbally spar for a few minutes. It's fun to watch two old pros go at it in any film. But really nothing happens except it's agreed Lugosi's Leonide will lodge there awhile.
(Below is another ad for the film, from the July 11, 1947 San Bernardino, Calif. Sun. I like that it is accompanied by, presumably, a short called "Spooks to Me." I think the actual title is "Spook to Me," a Columbia Comedy short from 1945 starring Andy Clyde.)
Back to the plot of "Scared to Death:" .... Someone appears to be gaslighting, Laura. She receives creepy mail packages, eerie messages, and a green floating head occasionally appears at windows. From time to time, Laura's corpse at the morgue breaks in for more narration. Eventually a fast-talking, aggressive-to-the-point-of-obnoxious newspaper reporter, played by Douglas Fowley, arrives with his ditzy girlfriend. He spends most of his time interrogating the various people in the house. His interview with Leonide is a highlight because Lugosi has good comic timing and is able to shift his pleasure to displeasure -- on discovering he's talking to a reporter -- in amusing fashion.
I enjoy this film now, mainly for Lugosi. He looks healthy, unique and just plain great in a very formal suit, cape and formal hat. He has the most acting energy of anyone in the cast. He speaks in the same style he used in the 1934 "Black Cat," placing emphasis and emotion on his lines at various appropriate times. His eyes are so expressive. Let's face it, Lugosi never gave anything other than his best in his films, even confusing films like "Scared to Death."
And it is very confusing to a first-time viewer. The film attempts to keep a scary atmosphere by using a few eerie-sounding musical chords of "DUN DA DUH!! a few times. With so many characters flitting around, plot twists -- some of which go nowhere, and such a low budget, the viewer can easily lose the plot thread for a while.
I'm done summarizing the film. I will post a review/summary of "Scared to Death" that was published on June 8, 1947 by the Big Spring Daily Herald newspaper in Big Spring, Texas. The "review" is obviously part of the film's press packet that was probably just cut out by the editor of the newspaper section and placed on the page. Passing off studio-manufactured movie reviews as legit opinion in newspapers is not done today but I have seen a few 1940s' genre press kits in Cult Movies magazine and they include publicity movie "reviews" for willing press.
Here's a snippet if the review is too hard to read. It is "a picture designed especially to mystify and horrify even the most blase of audiences."
The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi, by Richard Bojarski, includes a review of Scared to Death from the New York Daily News. It reads in part, "Scared to Death is a horror film, just the sort of fare the Rialto Theater patrons go for. ... with sudden, unexplained disappearances, floating green masks that come and go at windows ..." The review adds that Lugosi and George Zucco "are old hands at this horror game."
I hope Lugosi got the biggest paycheck. Every ad I and my friend, David A Grudt (thanks for his help) found in archives always listed Bela in the type. Theater owners knew who exactly brought in the crowds.
With Lugosi and Zucco, a large house for a set, a woman in distress, and a decent supporting cast, I wish director Christy Cabanne had used his stars for a better plot. Maybe a Poverty Row version of a "Black Cat" type film with Zucco playing the Boris Karloff role. But that didn't happen.
As mentioned though, the film grows on you if you give it a few viewings. It may be the first film, until "Sunset Boulevard," narrated by a corpse. You can watch it below.