THE BOOTLEG FILES: SCARED TO DEATH

BOOTLEG FILES 401: “Scared to Death” (1947 horror film starring Bela Lugosi and George Zucco).

LAST SEEN: The film can be found on several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only as a public domain dupe.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: No one is going to help this orphan film.

My mother was a kid in the 1940s and early 1950s, and once I remarked to her that she was extremely lucky to be able to see the classic black-and-white movies of that era on the big screen. Upon hearing that remark, she looked at me rather strangely and replied, “Actually, we used to get excited whenever there was a color movie playing in the theaters.”

Indeed, color films were the prestige productions during Hollywood’s golden era. However, producing films in the Technicolor process was extremely expensive, and many smaller film companies were unable to afford the extra cost of non-monochrome film until the mid-1940s, when the lower-cost Cinecolor process became commercially available.

In 1946, an independent outfit called Golden Gate Pictures decided to take advantage of Cinecolor (and the audience’s desire for color films) by creating a horror flick that incorporates specific hues into its plot line. The film, which was conceived under the titles “Accent on Horror” and “The Autopsy,” was planned around Lionel Atwill, the British-born horror actor who was cast as a creepy doctor with a dark secret. However, Atwill fell ill before production was to begin and he was replaced by another British-born horror icon, George Zucco. Christy Cabanne, a veteran director whose career stretched back to the nickelodeon days, was hired to helm the project.

But the finished film, which took on the title “Scared to Death,” is solely remembered today for the presence of another horror legend: Bela Lugosi. Some sources incorrectly claim that this was Lugosi’s only color film – he actually appeared in the 1930 Technicolor production “Viennese Nights” and he was reportedly in a color promotional film to support the American Red Cross’ blood drive.

By the time Lugosi turned up in “Scared to Death,” his career was a shambles. During the 1940s, he was mostly reduced to playing mad scientist parts at the cheapo Monogram studio. Occasionally, he snagged insignificant small roles in B-level horror films produced at Universal and RKO, but these parts only confirmed that he was dangerously close to being a has-been. While “Scared to Death” was hardly a comeback role, it may have provided Lugosi with some degree of pleasure to know he was receiving top billing – even though his part was a supporting role in a wider ensemble effort.

“Scared to Death” begins with a hint of Ed Wood-style badness: two coroners enter a morgue where a body is lying beneath a white sheet on a slab. One coroner looks at the deceased and asks his colleague, “Is this the body?”

But things get much more interesting when the sheet is pulled back and the victim is shown to be a young woman. Suddenly, the woman’s voice is heard on the soundtrack – she begins to narrate the circumstances of her death through a flashback sequence!  This technique would be used a few years later for Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” though in “Scared to Death” the technique is used much less effectively because the camera repeatedly returns to the corpse and then flashes back to the action.

From here, things get weird. The recently deceased is Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont), an unpleasant woman living in the home of her father-in-law, the creepy Dr. Josef Van Ee (Zucco). Laura is unhappily married to her weak husband Ward (Roland Varno), but refuses to divorce him. Ward has received a tip that Laura may have been previously married and that her husband is still alive in Europe.

Dr. Van Ee’s house was previously used as an insane asylum, although a few nutty characters are still on the premises: a sassy maid (Gladys Blake) who openly harasses Laura and a dimwitted ex-cop wearing a derby (Nat Pendleton) who is eager for someone to get murdered in the house – once he solves a murder, he theorizes, he can get his police job back. Huh?

Adding to the confusion is the arrival of the doctor’s cousin, the mysterious hypnotist Professor Leonid (Lugosi), who travels with a deaf-mute dwarf named Inigo (Angelo Rossitto). Things become increasingly violent: Laura receives a courier package containing a wax head, the doctor is assaulted by an unknown assailant, a fast-talking sarcastic reporter (Douglas Fowley) and his dumb girlfriend (Joyce Compton) inexplicably show up, and a disembodied green mask floats outside of the house. There is a great deal of slamming door-style commotion and surprise pronouncements of barely-buried secrets that ultimately leads to Laura’s one-way trip to the morgue.

For a film that runs slight more than an hour, “Scared to Death” packs in too much information and too many characters into a tight setting. For the second half of the film, a surplus amount of action is hijacked by Fowley and Pendleton, who appear to be staging their own version of “The Front Page” while Blake and Compton vie to see which one can play dumbest.

The only genuine charm belongs Lugosi, who is allowed to roll off a series of amusing observations. For example, when the dumb maid asks if he wishes to be introduced, he replies, “My dear girl, if I allowed myself to be announced, I doubt I would be received anywhere!” When introduced to Pendleton’s ex-cop, Lugosi sneers and exclaims, “There is an air of inquiry about you that immediately offends my deepest nature! Something suggesting Scotland Yard, the French Sécurité, the Italian Carabinieri, the Turkish Polizi, and other minions of the law!”

Production on “Scared to Death” was completed in April 1946, but more than a year would pass before it would be dumped in theaters by the independent Screen Guild distribution outfit. Variety’s review dismissed it as a “dull, poorly put together melodrama that fails to generate goose pimples expected by a Bela Lugosi vehicle.” Even the appeal of a color horror failed to bring in the audiences, and “Scared to Death” was quickly forgotten. Lugosi would not work again in Hollywood until early 1948, when he revived his Dracula character for the comedy classic “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”

Over the years, a belated appreciation of Lugosi helped bring “Scared to Death” back from oblivion. The convenience of a lapsed copyright has enabled endless duping of this film, and the many second- and third-generation prints in circulation have varying degrees of visual quality.

If “Scared to Death” was a black-and-white movie, no one would bother with it. But the novelty of seeing Bela Lugosi in color has secured the film with a hint of notability. But even with color cinematography, it is still a pale affair.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on November 11, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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