Monday, November 30, 2020

Scared to Death (USA, 1947)

"She was a very beautiful girl. One hates to perform an autopsy on a beautiful girl."
Autopsy Surgeon (Stanley Andrews)

(Spoilers) Filmed as Accent on Horror. Five years prior to being reduced to such fare as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) and six to the trash classic Glen or Glenda (1953 / trailer / film), the possibly already opiate-addicted Bela Lugosi appeared in this movie here, yet another Poverty Row project, this time around a production of the little-known firm, Golden Gate Pictures. It was directed by William Christy Cabanne (16 April 1888 – 15 Oct 1950), a man with over 100 feature-film credits alone to his name and nary even a semi-classic amongst them. (He did, however, do second unit direction on a few D.W. Griffith classics.)
Scared to Death enjoys mildly more film historical importance than many of Lugosi's late-career B- and C-film productions in that it is the lone color film in which he ever had a starring role; in the only other color feature film that he appeared in, Viennese Nights (1930 / a song), he isn't even listed in the film credits. Equally interesting, historically, is that Scared to Death is perhaps the first film to be narrated by a corpse, if incompetently; the most famous film to utilize this device, Billy Wilder's classic, Sunset Blvd (trailer), didn't hit the screens until three years later in 1950.
Written by "Walter Abbott", this semi-Lugosi vehicle is based on a play by "Bill Heedle" entitled Murder on the Operating Table, which was inspired in parts by a 1933 murder case involving Dr. Alice Wynekoop.* (Both Walter Abbott and Bill Heedle, by the way, are known pseudonyms for forgotten playwright Frank Orsino.) Lugosi is the headlining star of the movie, and he obviously enjoys both his part and his humorous dialogue, but despite his star status the amount of time he's on screen is possibly equaled or exceeded by other key players, including a surprisingly competent and playing-it-straight George Zucco (of House of Frankenstein [1944]); Zucco, who plays the elder Dr. Joseph Van Ee, supposedly replaced the originally cast Lionel Atwill (of The Vampire Bat [1933] and so much more) in the role as Atwill was too ill to work — indeed, Atwill died while Scared to Death was still being shot. 
* "On the evening of November 21 [1933], Dr. Wynekoop said she found the naked body of her daughter-in-law, Rheta, on the antique operating table in her basement office. She had been chloroformed and shot. Wynekoop's gun lay beside her. The doctor told the police that she had been robbed several times, and that it was probably the work of some thief looking for drugs. Then it came to light that Dr. Wynekoop, who was in debt, had recently insured Rheta for $5,000 with the New York Life Insurance company. The policy had a double indemnity clause in case of death by violence. Wynekoop was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison, though there were many people who believed that Rheta's husband may have actually killed his wife. He did, in fact, confess to the murder. [Frank] Orsino's play, written under the pseudonym Bill Heedle, opened the same day that Wynekoop went on trial. [Mark Thomas McGee in Talk's Cheap, Action's Expensive]" In the original play that became Scared to Death, the lead doctor character was a woman; other changes in the film include a final body count that got reduced from four in the play to one in the film, and two detectives that were changed into a brain-dead house detective and a fast-talking reporter. 
Scared to Death:
If you bother to listen to Joe Dante's Trailer from Hell commentary above, it must be said that the talented director makes the movie sound a lot better than it is, though he does freely admit that Scared to Death is, at best, to be considered a guilty pleasure ("It's a terrible film, but I love it"). The flaws of the film are multifarious, to say the least, and the movie is hardly a pleasure to watch. At the same time, however, it is one of those oddly terrible movies that might bore while running but keep popping up in your mind after the fact to instigate a smile or a snigger.
Nevertheless, at least in our case, the trivia and tidbits one discovers when researching the film are actually far more interesting and entertaining than the movie itself, despite its occasionally entertaining dialogue, an obliquely threatening George Zucco, an "I'm having fun" Lugosi, the oddly huggable character of Bill Raymond (former Olympic wrestler Nat Pendleton, pictured below not from the film, of The Mad Doctor of Market Street [1942 / trailer] and The Thin Man [1934 / trailer] and many of its sequels, here in his last film), and the appearance of everyone's favorite vertically challenged actor of yesteryear, Angelo Rossitto (of the infamous flicks Child Bride [1938 / trailer] and Freaks [1932 / trailer], The Big House [1930], Paul Hunt's The Clones [1973], Galaxina [1980, with Marilyn Joi], From a Whisper to a Scream [1987, with Susan Tyrrell], Dracula vs. Frankenstein [1971], the low-budget art horror short Dementia [1955] and so much more) as the relatively unnecessary and mute character Indigo.
Although the events that transpire in Scared to Death span several days and occur at all times of the day and seldom in the dark, at its core the movie is a studio-bound comedy thriller along the lines of that classic chestnut known as an Old Dark House film. Indeed, but for the opening and closing scenes at the morgue — and the regularly interspersed and poorly executed two-to-three-second scenes of the dead Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont of Devil Bat's Daughter [1946 / full film]) lying on the morgue table and making unneeded V.O. commentary — almost all the action transpires within the almost drug-like Cinecolor-colored* Van Ee house.
Unluckily, when it comes to how the "action" is filmed, director William Christy Cabanne (The Mummy's Hand [1940 / trailer]), behind Sam Newfield (see: The Monster Maker [1944]) and William "One-Shot" Beaudine (see: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla [1952]) one of the most prolific directors in the history of American films, lives up to his reputation of being one of the most boring directors in film history: his extremely sleep-inducing non-style is basically block, point and shoot, which does nothing in any way to enliven the proceedings. Assuming he also made the decision of how to film the unneeded interjections of Laura Van Ee on the slab in the morgue, Scared to Death reveals him to be a spectacularly untalented filmmaker incapable of infusing the film with anything that might indicate a creative eye or artistic intention.**
* "Cinecolor was an early subtractive color-model two-color motion-picture process, based upon the Prizma system of the 1910s and 1920s and the Multicolor system of the late 1920s and 1930s. It was developed by William T. Crispinel and Alan M. Gundelfinger, and its various formats were in use from 1932 to 1955. [Wikipedia]" William T. Crispinel, who retired from the firm in 1948, was the father of the extremely minor background actor Lee Bennett (born William Arthur Louvain Crespinel), who appears briefly in Scared to Death as Rene, the first husband of Laura, whom we learn along the way she sold out to the Nazis during her European days and who, in the film's present day, has returned for revenge. 
** Untalented as he was, Cabanne, a D.W. Griffith "discovery", supposedly did assistant director work on Griffith's extremely racist but historically important Birth of a Nation [1915 / full extremely racist film] and indulgent Intolerance [1916 / full film]. More notable, perhaps, is his hair-brained B-movie drama, The Red-Haired Alibi (1932 / full film), forgotten as being the first feature film to have a not-yet-famous Shirley Temple in a credited role. Scared to Death and The Mummy's Hand were his only "horror" projects.
That the lead female, Laura, dies is a given from the start of the movie, but over the course of the narrative she reveals herself as such an unsympathetic character that her death is hardly tragic. But where she and the movie start off on a truly bad foot is the early and thoroughly inane revelation that although she is in a loveless marriage with Ward Van Ee (Roland Varno nee Jacob Frederick Vuerhrd*), she refuses to divorce him because she's convinced he and his father, Dr. Joseph Van Ee, are trying to drive her insane. (Talk about an invitation to being murdered.) The rest of the movie is about as illogical as her reason for remaining married, and ends with her being Scared to Death. Prior to that, however, new characters enter and exit the house and filmic proceedings, including Dr. Van Ee's cousin Prof. Leonide (Bela Lugosi), a former stage magician once active in Europe; a fast-talking reporter named Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley** of Flaxy Martin [1949]); and his ditzy dame Jane (Joyce Compton, seen below not from the film).
* Utrecht-born character actor Roland Varno nee Jacob Frederik Vuerhard began his career in Berlin with tiny parts on films like The Blue Angel (1930 / trailer) before fleeing Europe to play (often uncredited) Nazis in films like Hitler's Children (1943 / trailer) or tertiary characters in fare like The Mad Magician (1954 / trailer) and The Return of the Vampire (1943 / trailer). His son, Martin Varno, is the author of the rather dull 1958 Roger Corman film, Night of the Blood Beast (trailer), one of the unsung granddaddy films of Ridley Scott's classic, Alien (1979 / trailer), which recycled Blood Beast's idea of alien fetuses being hosted within the human body. A highpoint of Martin Varno's rather lackluster career was his position as makeup supervisor (as Martin Varnaud) on Bud Townsend's Nightmare in Wax (1969). 
** Douglas Fowley, father of record producer and band manager Kim Fowley — anyone remember The Runaways? — was a character actor with a long shelf life whose films span from flicks like this one and Cat-Women of the Moon (1953 / trailer) to The White Buffalo (1977 / trailer). He did a once-off directorial job in 1960, the shot-in-Brazil psychotronic fave Macumba Love (trailer), which stars the pulchritude of Ziva Rodann (below, not from the film) and the legendary June "44-20-36" Wilkinson.
While some of the dialogue is witty, and the art direction definitely on the colorful side, there is little more about Scared to Death that is in any way commendable. Indeed, considering all it has to offer — primarily: a mostly good cast and its unique corpse-on-a-table narrator — the movie fumbles the ball in a big way. The narrative is a structural, illogical mess that at times makes it seem as if scenes were lost or left unshot, the direction is the quintessence of somnambulation, there is nary a scare to be found anywhere, and the entire proceedings simply aren't all that much fun. It might be a guilty pleasure for some, but for most Scared to Death will probably be a waste of time.

As an extra —
Bauhaus's Bela Lugosi's Dead:


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your well-written and researched review. An excellent resource! I'm trying to find a good DVD transfer of this film. Any recommendations?

Abraham said...

Sorry, I can't help you. My DVD was a pretty good transfer, but it was a no name that I got somewhere online (and promptly gave away after watching it). I believe the film is public domain; if I were you, I would simply watch it on some PD movie site or check the Internet Archives — some sites are listed to the right on a wasted life, under "Free Film Screening". Scared to Death is good for a gander, but it's doubtful it'll be a cinematic experience that you'll want to repeat often, so why blow the dough?

geralmar said...

A decent color print has been uploaded to YouTube.