Dead on arrival: A critical review of “Scared to Death” (1947)

You know what’s a bad sign, tonstant weader? When you’ve started watching a thriller three times and can’t remember much about it. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I should cut back on the bubbly and Tylenol PM. Alternatively, maybe the movie could be better.

Respected cinema info dump AllMovie calls “Scared to Death” significant because it is Bela Lugosi’s only color feature. That’s good for the film, because without Bela’s tinted presence, there would honestly be nothing to recommend this. Better than possibly any movie in its genre, “Scared to Death” exemplifies one aspect of the haunted house whodunit: a nightmarishly slow pace.

We open with an admittedly intriguing angle: The story is being told from the point of view of the victim, Laura (Molly Lamont), as she lays on a slab in the morgue. From beyond the grave, she relates her last long night at the mansion of her father-in-law, a prominent physician and asylum operator (George Zucco). Her fate involves her family’s mechanations, as well as the scheming of a professional hypnotist (Bela Lugosi), the snooping of a reporter (Douglas Fowley) and her own dark past.

What’s painful is the film is only about two cents short of being a so-bad-it’s-good experience. It has a lot of things that should work in that singular capacity. Lugosi and Zucco give solid pulpy performances, but they’re contrasted with broad screwball comedy, largely courtesy of Nat Pendleton as a goofy security guard. There’s a dwarf and a giant head. The ending twist involves Nazis and cross-dressers, which seem to come out of nowhere. At least, I think they came out of nowhere. I probably missed something. The movie didn’t help me find it though. Not that it’s overly cryptic or esoteric. More that it’s frighteningly boring.

Nothing happens, and it doesn’t happen for over an hour. This isn’t just waiting at the DMV; it’s the trip there and back as well. All those incongruous performances and inexplicable images can’t support a pedestrian script, talky plot, boring production design and unimaginative photography.

It can’t even get its gimmicks right. Pulp thrillers are often made by their gimmicks, and this film has two. The first is that it’s “photographed in natural color.” But this ain’t “Susperia,” where color felt like an integral part of the narrative. It ain’t even “The Tingler,” where color was utilized for shock value. Nossir, outside of the lining of Lugosi’s opera cape, nothing pops onscreen. Sticking to black-and-white might have even helped, giving the film a much needed atmosphere. A mysterious face at the window is described as green. You could have fooled me.

The second gimmick is that the film is being narrated by the corpse of Laura (why are all doomed women in thrillers named “Laura”?). This is an early example of this trick, predating even “Sunset Boulevard.” It’s also sloppy and rushed. There is no narrative reason for the gimmick, and the movie doesn’t attempt to give it one. The irregular flash-forwards to the morgue where Laura’s disembodied voice contextualizes the film are only about six seconds apiece. Considering how convoluted the film becomes, one might think having a literal talking head to explain things would be a help, but it makes no difference whatsoever.

A lot of the film’s problems are probably the result of it being based on a play. First, that explains much of the film’s slowness, the talkiness and staginess and same handful of rooms being used over and over again in spite of logic and normal human behavior. It also explains why some of the film’s elements seem to come out of nowhere. They did. The play, “Murder on the Operating Table,” debuted in the early 1930s, a decade before Nazis were relevant in American media. “Scared to Death” was put together in 1946, and the addition of Nazis was likely a last second attempt at relevancy. The gimmick of “narration from beyond the grave” also feels like an effort at having at least one scene take place outside of the house. As for the cross-dressing, I’m not so sure.

“Scared to Death” is the only place where you can see Bela Lugosi’s cape in color, and its unintentional juxtapositions certainly feel unique. What’s less original is its dull design and suh-lo-ness. In the end, the film is so bad I can almost recommend it. Almost.

Tripping over mediocrity: Critical reviews of “Foolish Mortals” and “The Unknown City”

Last week marked the start of the second annual Xbox Summer Game Fest Demo event, which likely came as a surprise to some gamers since, first, the last year’s annual Demo event happened in July, and second, it’s not technically summer yet. All right, so it’s summer now, but it wasn’t when the so-called summer event started.

For those not in the know – I myself being one of them until last night – the Demo event is when a bunch of developers throw their in-process products at the Microsoft Store on Xbox. The demos are made available for about a week, so gamers can have a peek at what might be coming in the future, and developers can have a squad of beta testers who, being culled from the Xbox Live crowd, are known for their politeness, eloquence and sense of fair play.

It’s interesting to see what both Microsoft and gamer media are pushing. Thoughtful, quirky adventure game “The Lake” seems like a popular headline choice, as are stylish action-adventure fantasies “Sable” and “Tunic.” Maybe “Echo Generation” too, which looks like a retro “Stranger Things” RPG… thing. If it were up to me, I’d be pushing “Trigger Witch,” which looks like a pulpy what-it-says-on-the-label story of a magical young woman and her gun. That or the cat one.

Anyway, we’re not talking about any of those games today, but we are talking about demos, ones that have presumably been kicking around and will still be here long after the second annual Demo event has burned itself out. We’re going to be talking about the Lovecraftian arcade game “Foolish Mortals” and the questionably zombie FPS “The Unknown City.” Because that’s what you want to see when it comes to current events, tonstant weader. Two indie game demos from 2018.

We’ll start with “Foolish Mortals.” It’s not technically a demo. It’s a full game, albeit a very fast and very free one. And I mean that precisely. It’s very free, not freemium or free for 20 minutes. I didn’t even notice a tip jar.

The gameplay of “Mortals” is blisteringly simple. You’re Cthulhu, half-emerged from an interdimensional portal. Punch the various army men, tanks and helicopters that pester you. Watch the number in the upper right-hand corner of the screen go up until you die. That’s it.

The enemies are not terribly creative, ranging from pixel dudes with guns to pixel trucks with guns, and their attacks are all accordinly quite pew-pew-pew. The background has a little more style, being a purplish burned-out city. Cthulhu probably fares best. The High Priest of the Elder Gods has two arms that can be controlled independently of each other, so there’s some strategy in placing your hits. The model itself is kinda fun lookin’. I like Cthulhu’s giant quizzical eyebrows. Still, I swear I’ve seen it somewhere else before. If I can think of where, I’ll let you know.

“Mortals” is not a particularly good game, but it’s hard to say bad things about a game that set out to do so little, achieved it in a fully competent way, and essentially costs nothing to play. It’s all very adequate, right down to the design. Still, the lack of variety means you will probably not be firing up “Foolish Mortals” a lot, unless you’re waiting for another, more ambitious, game to finish downloading.

I found “Foolish Mortals” on the Microsoft Store by searching for “cosmic horror.” I found “The Unknown City” while searching for “psychological horror.” If these are the current representatives for those subgenres, we are in some murky waters, mystery-science fans.

“The Unknown City” – more completely known as “The Unknown City” (Horror Begins Now… Episode 1) Demo” – fired a warning shot at me when I became trapped in its settings menu. I could play with such parameters as music volume and sound effects volume and… something else, probably, but I’m not going back to look. Because once I wanted to leave, I realized I could not select the return to main menu option.

I restarted the game – in truth, I restarted the game a few times because it would not load again, but who’s keeping track – then went for new game. See? I’m capable of learning. To its credit as a horror game, “Unknown City” immediately invoked a sense of helplessness, desolation and unease. Unfortunately, the sense of helpless came from a fairly static cut scene of a square little police car driving along while its occupants bickered about directions. These were supposed to be cops, mind you, who presumably know how to navigate their beat. Oh well.

The sense of desolation came from the road, which was basically barren; the city where their car inexplicably breaks down, which was unpopulated by things like trash cans or parking meters or anything that makes a city look like it was ever a city; and the stormy atmosphere, which was nonexistent. The sense of unsease came from the characters who emerged from the car: frightening doll people who sounded like they were voiced by the developer’s dashboard GPS.

The first thing I noticed about my character – I believe his name was “boy cop” – was that he was either very tall or could jump very high. Or both. He towered above his patrol car, and a quick jump put him on eye level with the street lamps. The spring in his step was quickly proven when I learned that, by standing on certain parts of the environment, I could rocket him hundreds of feet into the air. This was gleefully dizzying – I actually laughed – since I could do it repeatedly and without accruing fall damage.

Back to the story. After ducking into a few unlocked, glaringly-lit and unfurnished buildings, the cops eventually found our first zombie. He attacked us, presumably out of frustration at being in this game. Then, in the two seconds it took me to determine his weakness – bullets – girl cop was kidnapped. By other zombies. Who hadn’t been on screen previously, and yet were able to spirit her away to a swimming pool? This was arguably one of the most contrived moments I’ve seen in a game. It was fascinating.

Unfortunately, my “Unknown City” saga was drawing to a close. Not because the demo ran out. Because the game broke. Alas, my ability to jump absurdly high was to be my undoing.

Girl cop urged me to run to the car and get some more guns – I guess her kidnapping situation wasn’t quite bad enough to warrant an immediate rescue – and the game became a gooey shooter rather than a following simulator. Curiously, while the walking controls had been way too loose, the aiming was way too sticky. Gun felt sluggish, and I was constantly fighting against the sights. I’m not sure how to describe it when combined with the movement. It was the equivalent of biting into low quality hamburger meat: unnaturally smooth until you hit some piece of gristle that grinds the experience to a sudden halt.

Still, I found it pretty easy to mow down some zombies, who sort of resembled the ones from the advertised screenshots. The zombies were of the medium speed variety, and the game was very generous with health and ammo. At least, I think it was. There was no ammo counter, HUD or health bar, which I assume was a creative choice done for sake of realness and immersion, but I never ran out of shots.

However, at some point I stepped on a bad piece of reality and found myself once again rocketed into the air. When I came back down, I was on the other side of an invisible wall. I couldn’t get back to the main street and the subsequent mission objective. Interestingly, the zombies could still get to me, but I could never determine how they got “in.” That’s the problem with zombies, I guess. You can never figure out where they’re coming from. All you can do is call an exterminator and tent your house, although you know they’ll just be back in a year or two.

Reviews for the game on Steam are surprisingly mixed, about a 50-50 split between good and bad. The bad reviews are about what you would expect: the janky controls, the ugly design, the lack of anything remotely like horror. Even the good reviews are, shall we say, very aware of what kind of game they’re playing. Those are reviewers after my own heart, because I am genuinely interested in finishing the demo. Would I ever spend money on the game? I doubt it. But I am willing to admit that I can’t encounter a world like “Unknown City’s” anywhere else but in that game, and as long as I enter it with no expectations of a quality story, interesting atmosphere or engaging gameplay, I will be rewarded. I’m curious to see what happens next.

Expectation is a funny thing. “Foolish Mortals” promised little and delivered. “Unknown City” promised little too; its description, screenshots and price promised something, but its atmosphere, narrative and gameplay told me exactly what kind of ridiculous experience I was in for. Curiously, a game like “Past Cure” will frustrate me much more because of its flashes of decency. There is more to lose when playing a game like that. When “Unknown City” sets the bar so low and still finds creative ways to fail, the only thing it could do to frustrate me would be to inexplicably get better.

The wrong exit: A critical review of “Detour” (1945)

This blog would hate to call anyone the “ultimate cult thriller director,” but there are cases to be made. Case in point: Edgar G. Ulmer made two films that are recognized as undervalued representatives of their respective genres. The first is “The Black Cat,” a 1934 horror film whose offbeat and porous narrative paid more attention to unsettling atmosphere and psychological games between its iconic actors – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi – than it did to its conventional leads. It is well worth a watch for horror fans, and it definitely deserves its own review some day. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.

Nossir, we are talking about “Detour,” a 1945 film noir that is also quite interesting. However, whether it is a quality film or not is debatable. It’s a little movie trying to be a big movie. A bunch of my betters have suggested it’s waiting rediscovery, and while I’m inclined to agree, it’s not necessarily for the same reason. “Detour” might worth seeing, not because it’s so bad it’s good, but because it’s so bad it’s charming.

By the way, the film is in public domain, so you can watch it most places online, but anyone who misses that delightfully public access/old school horror host cringe can watch it here.

For those in a hurry, “Detour” tells the tale of a dour New York pianist hitchhiking across America to catch up with his girlfriend who’s fled to Los Angeles. Somewhere in the Southwest, he climbs into a car with a doomed man. After switching from hitchhiker to driver – and taking on the original driver’s identity – he picks up a young woman who has some killer baggage of her own.

To be fair, “Detour” has a couple of things going for it. It sports some thoughtful, mature camerawork and a suitable soundtrack for a film about an accomplished pianist, which is particularly impressive in its nightclub scenes. However, as far as things that are clear successes, that’s about it.

There is an ambition hanging over the film, but it’s an ambition that is almost never precisely satisfied. Part of the film’s failures come down to the editing and continuity, which are awkward and self-defeating. There’s also the script, which seems like it’s in a terrible rush to get wherever it’s going. “Detour” is less than 70 minutes long, and while that makes it a breezy view, the film never has the time to ruminate on its themes or characters in a comfortable manner.

Both of those flaws can be attributed to the notable lack of budget – film stock costs money, after all, and this movie was notoriously cheap. Of course it’s debatable whether the low budget can account for the awkward script and editing, but it can account for the clumsy matte shots and cheap sets. However – and this is where the charm bleeds through – budget can excuse but never fully explain some of the film’s quirks. Why does it look like the leads wander through the Gypsy camp from “Cry of the Werewolf” while walking home from the New York nightclub? Who knows. Unfortunately, a lack of funds can’t excuse the dialogue, chewy performances and aimless narration, which are so full of overcooked metaphors to sound like a pastiche of film noir rather than an earnest effort.

The biggest problem of all is Ann Savage as Vera, the hitchhiking femme fatale. She should have entered the film much earlier than she does. Savage is by far the most compelling component of the movie, and as soon as she appears, every minute that she was absent seems wasted. Her sharp movements and dark eyes are mesmerizing, and her shifty magnetism elevates the tawdry dialogue to literate pulp. She’s a perfect foil for Tom Neal as the stiff, sad sack pianist. Once she’s on screen, it feels like an integral part has been restored, rather than added, to the film.

That is “Detour” in a nutshell. It is an elegant movie with an ugly skeleton. The components of a good film – continuity, script, performances, competent lighting – aren’t here, but there is an ambition hanging over the result. It’s found in the atmosphere, which is foreboding, fatalistic and nihilistic. Even if the expected narrative doesn’t work out, that atmosphere does. There’s a dirtiness to everything, either by design or default, and little makes narrative sense, but that just gives the proceedings an oddball, dreamlike quality that is fully watchable.

Ulmer ain’t here, so no one can say how much of the film was that bad and how much was intentional (the ending was allegedly shoehorned in to please the censors, so an argument could no doubt be made that the ham-fisted narration and hacky editing followed suit). Regardless, it is worth a watch for fans of the genre who have an hour or so to burn. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride.

To be continued: News June 2021

I’m sorry tonstant weader, we screwed up again at least as far as the anime fans out there are concerned. I intended to do a wrap up of both “Higurashi Gou” and “My Next Life as a Villainess,” since I finally finished both series not too long ago, as a sort of double review. The problem is, neither series ended up being particularly full review-worthy beyond what I’d already said, and now we’re in the middle a slew of retro thrillers.

That’s still going on, by the way. Expect more Bela Lugosi. However, to fill some time and tie up some note-quite-as-retro loose ends, here’s the best this blog could muster.

Let’s start with “Higurashi Gou,” the retread of anime’s classic time-bending high school horror. I had previously complained that this “Higurashi” was playing things a little too safe. To its credit, the series started getting increasingly downbeat and definitely gorier in its second half (episode 15 in particular stands out). While it might have been more for shock value than for probing deeper psychological themes, the darker atmosphere and a couple of late game twists meant that things felt riskier and more compelling.

Then the story blundered into melodrama for the conclusion. Episode 23 in particular felt pretty soapy, with a lot of family drama attempting to resolve itself. Episode 24 – the series finale – fared a little better but still sported some theatrics. Was it necessary for everyone present to step on a particular research professor’s notes to make a point? Probably not.

Still, the final episode did a decent job of contextualizing the psychology and adult problems of a certain villainous character who has often been a little cartoon-y. On the other hand, said character was still a bit fan service-y in said episode. One could complain about that if one desired, but I will reserve judgment.

I was ready to give the series a pass for going out on a dark, confusing note, but I saw a fat “to be continued,” presumably in July 2021. Fuck a duck. Just when I thought we’d had a complete story, we get left hanging. Worse, we get left hanging on purpose.

I’ll admit a partial failing on my part. An appreciation of “Gou” might be improved by an appreciation for the broader Higurashi/When They Cry franchise lore. A lot of the images and reveals are likely given depth or interest by an “aha! That particular item!” attitude. To be honest, while I count myself a Higruashi fan, I’ve never cared too much for the broader lore. Heresy? Maybe. For my own part, Hinamizawa syndrome could be parasitic, chemical, supernatural or extraterrestrial for all I care. What fascinates me much, much more – and what I did not see so much of this time around – is the masterful breakdown of human weakness apparent in the original anime, especially in certain cycles from the first season.

Shion did nothing wrong, by the way.

We should pivot.

One of my betters – I don’t remember the blog – hinted at something metaphysical, or at least meta-narrative, when it came to the conclusion of “My Next Life as a Villainess.” So I finished watching it. I didn’t get it. Which is not to say the series was a big let down, unworthy to those already interested in a show about reincarnation into a romance game, only this time you’re the bad guy, er, gal. If you’ve made it that far, you can make it to the end. Catarina’s constant and comic ignorance is consistently amusing (I will never understand the toy snakes though). It just wasn’t what I had been led to believe.

To be fair to notions of meta-whatnot, the 11th episode started like a back-to-the-real-world reversal of the series so far. The way it’s done is pretty boilerplate for an anime, but it can stil be fun to watch. In this case, it ended up being somewhat absurd, which was fine for the series. I would never advise anyone to take the advice of this blog, but the bottom line is that “Villainess” did OK in the long run.

There were some hiccups. The show lied about certain things, or at least it got garbled about its character interactions. And it got a little convoluted, if not outright convenient, at points. There’s another “to be continued” moment at the end – of course there is – but it feels tacked on, as if someone decided to add it last second. While that seems like something to complain about, it means the overall story still feels complete, something that can’t be said about “Higurashi.”

It’s probably my fault. My expectations were all off. I would definitely recommend “Higurashi” first as a thriller fan to a thriller fan, but I’d have to admit that “Villainess” at least ends. Something to consider when playing 2020 catch up. But whatever you decide, don’t watch “Japan Sinks.” I did get around to it, and it was… It probably does deserve its own review at some point.

Either way, that will end the anime reviews for the moment. Was this really news? I finished watching some anime over a long weekend? It was news for me.

We’ll get back to the black-and-white movies – with one exception – for the rest of the month. After that, there might be some game reviews in the pipeline, but I don’t have too much in mind. If you’ve got any suggestions on something I should be watching or playing or reading, and ultimately writing about, dust off that comment section, tonstant weader. I’m always happy to hear from you.