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.

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