Bela Lugosi and George Zucco means horror, perhaps campy and questionable, but horror nonetheless. This movie is doubly unique as the only Lugosi film in color, and the only one with Lugosi and Zucco appearing together. In fact, they’re feuding cousins. Zucco is Dr. Van Ee, an asylum director. There’s two other Ees, his daughter-in-law Laura (Molly Lamont) and son Ward (Roland Vamo). Lugosi is Prof. Leonide, a hynotist, accompanied by Indigo (Angelo Rossetti). There’s an asylum bodyguard, Bill (Nat Pendleton), a maid, Lilybeth (Gladys Blake). and a reporter, Terry (Douglas Fowley); Jane’s (Joyce Compton) is Terry’s girlfriend/coworker. It seems that Laura is pressed into service as narrator, quite an effort, as she’s a corpse. Getting her into this compromising position has to do with some of the oddballs (aren’t they all in this sort of movie?) characters.
An asylum is pretty much the perfect horror movie setting; but the first disappointment is that it’s merely a former asylum. No patients to make for on-deck ghostly presences; at least, though there’s something of a haunted house atmosphere. Anyway, we start off in the morgue with Laura’s body. “The authorities are at sea about what killed her” the examiner says. Dr. Van Ee is pouring over her as her flashback begins. Ward’s bugging her for a divorce. The elder Van Ee says “leave it to me.”
Lots of ‘Ooh, ooh, woo’ music introduces and segues between scenes. Leonide and Indigo show up. Raymond is everpresent, an unfunny embodiment of comic relief. Ward chats with Leonide about Laura. Spooky death mask face at the window, same as when Laura’s flashback started. Apparently Laura may have had another identity as Laurette La Valle, a French singer (partnered with a Rene, with allusions to the color green). “Look out for the man with the green mask” the maid warns, delivering a package with a simulation of her head inside.
She pulls a gun on Raymond when he boorishly intrudes. Now Laura’s throttling the maid for accepting the weird package. (Strangely, except for Laura/Laurette’s green fetish, the color palette here is missing green entirely). The maid knows of her La Valle identity. Van Ee lets on that Leonide used to be a patient there. Then he keels over. More green mask guy in the window. Terry shows up with Jane, apparently acquaintances of Bill. They’re there because of Van Ee’s call to the police just before he collapsed. He’s ok, recovering on a gurney.
Terry brings up the fact the Laura used to be Laurette. Laura says she’s been messed with by Van Ee and asks Terry to help her. Lillybeth collapses, pronounced dead. Laura passes out; Terry grills Van Ees Senior and Junior about Laura. The issue is whether Laura is losing it, or if she’s been driven to the edge. Then we see that Leonide might be the masked man. Jane’s passed out with the greenish mask on her face; Leonide hauls Lillybeth out of her room via a secret passageway.
The front door opens by itself. Terry and Bill see Leonide skulking around outside; but someone mugs him from behind. Lillybeth shows up too, “a perfect stiff” but maybe not dead afterall. Van Ee explains that she’s been in an hypnotic trance. Leonide pops in. He says there’s a “madman on the premises.” Terry lays into Van Ee again. With Leonide’s Hungarian commands, he wakens Lillybeth. Jane goes on about the green face. What about Laura?
She appears in a greenish glow. Some hidden voice (Rene) explains that she’s Laurette: he was not only her husband, but allegedly a Nazi spy whom she turned in–supposedly executed–he’s “come back.” Meanwhile, outside, Bill finds ‘Mrs. Williams’, i.e., Rene. He was Leonide’s assistant. So then, Rene sought his revenge on his ex-wife by trying to drive her nuts, as well as hypnotize her (why bother with that?).
Flash forward to the morgue–she’s dead all right, frightened to death. Yeah, and I’m pretty much bored to death. The last few scenes were by far the best part of the movie; there’s some tension, and some mystery, along with a good dose of special effects. Otherwise, Scared to Death was very disappointing. The setting could’ve been a pretty cool ‘old dark house’, but only occasionally was it dark. In fact, the lightning was garish, fairly intense.
Perhaps because of a lot of overacting–especially Pendleton, Compton, and Fowley–the tone flops from comedy to mystery, then jerks back into psychological horror territory for a few thankful scenes. Compton acts in such a stereotypically (for the time) dumb female way that she’s childish and just annoying. Fowley acts as though he’s on a vacation, then gets integrity out of nowhere. Pendleton is the worst case–he dredges up so much screen time with his weak Leo Gorcey-esque witty malapropisms.
I’m not saying that comedy can’t work well in the horror/mystery genre. Gorcey did a great job with his non-stop asides in these roles. Pendleton is no Gorcey; and, for comedy to work there has to be a contrasting tone for it to play against. Here, the tone is up in the air. I would call it screwball-horror; not exactly a good mix. Actually, Scared to Death has a cool premise, and Laura’s hidden past makes a lot of dramatic sense. The development and presentation of these elements was almost completely compromised, however.
Farmermouse thought most of these folks were fools, but he had to admit that the green mask was creepy, so he gives this four Hungarian folk sayings. 4/10.