Forgotten Films: Scared to Death (1947)

Scared to Death marks the only time Bela Lugosi appeared in color.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 141st my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films

Some of the films I watch here I have never seen prior to their magic appearance on my TV or in my DVD player. This week is one of them. (Actually all of them except one since I restarted my columns here were new to me.) I mean, I want to see things I haven’t seen and then tell you about them.

This week’s movie was part of a double film set that I got quite a while back. The film was included with a Boris Karloff film, The Snake People, but I decided to try the Bela Lugosi one first. As with most people of my generation, I first encountered Mr. Lugosi when he wore the cape and ring of Count Dracula on an afternoon movie show which frequently featured Universal horror films. There he was with that accent, talking about the children of the night.

I saw those films when I lived near Wichita Falls, Texas, and the afternoon films were hosted by some local guy called Pinto Bean. The common variety stale jokes and puns were bearable as I got to see The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman and, of course, Dracula. And, in 1981, when I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver I met Mr. Science Fiction, Forrest J. Ackerman, who owned the Dracula crest ring. And, since he was wearing it, I got to see it. I didn’t get to wear it, but I stared at it up close and contemplated removing his finger and making a run for it. I was wearing a badge around my neck with my name on it in 36 point type, however, so I didn’t think I could get away with it. Saner thoughts prevailed.

Lugosi was not a great selector of roles. He had a few good roles, but nothing ever equaled that initial role. And, as the films Plan 9 From Outer Space and Ed Wood showed us, Lugosi lived much of his life in drug-addicted poverty.

So, on to Scared to Death. Lugosi was entering the final phase of his career when this was made. The film was from 1947 and Lugosi only made one more of any quality (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). He was soon headed to the Ed Wood stable for film internment.

Scared to Death features Molly Lamont as Laura Van Ee/Laurette La Valle. A beautiful young woman, she narrates this tale from a slab at the morgue where she is the subject of an autopsy. Laura is in an unhappy marriage with Ward Van Ee (Roland Varno). The couple lives at the mansion/office of Dr. Joseph Van Ee (horror great George Zucco). Dr. Van Ee is assisted by Lilybeth (Gladys Blake) who serves as a combination nurse/receptionist/maid. Lilybeth is hounded by lovesick moron Bill Raymond (Nat Pendleton), a former homicide detective with the IQ of a lightbulb and the character of one of the Dead End Kids. Dr. Van Ee’s cousin, Professor Leonide (Lugosi), shows up with a deaf mute midget, Indigo (Angelo Rossito).

Leonide is a former vaudeville hypnotist who was a former inmate at the sanitarium that would become Dr. Van Ee’s mansion. Rumor has it there are hidden passages that he was able to create without anyone noticing.

Laura is being threatened by someone who has sent her a mannequin head with her face. And there is a floating blue head (it’s supposed to be green, but it’s actually blue). And there’s a nosy reporter, Terry Lee (Douglas Fowler), with a dumb blonde girl friend, Joyce (Jane Cornell).

The plot is convoluted and not very good. The comic relief is not very funny. The flashbacks from the corpse are muddled and not very well handled. There are two saving graces to the film. At 65 minutes, it is short. And, according to the documentation of the DVD box, this is the only color film with Lugosi. All my memories of Bela are grainy black-and-white. So that excuses some of the issues.

Don’t go out of your way to find this one. The interesting things about it aren’t. I’m hoping the Karloff film is better, but I know it is also from late in Karloff’s career and I have my doubts there also.

But, your mileage may vary. As for me, I’ll watch Dracula or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.