Scared to Death’s main claim to fame is that it was, as far as I know, Bela Lugosi’s only feature film in colour. Sadly that’s the only thing it really has going for it.
It wasn’t made in Technicolor (far too expensive for a cheapo B-movie such as this) but using a cut-price colour format. The public domain print I saw was so awful it’s impossible to say if the colour ever looked any good or not.
This is typical 1940s American horror, and that is definitely not a good thing. It’s more murder mystery/thriller than actual horror, and (the worst nightmare of all) it’s yet another misguided attempt to combine horror with comedy.
It’s told in flashback by a dead woman on a slab in the county morgue, and that fact along with the title effectively kills just about any suspense at all. The incredibly inept direction by Christy Cabanne and a truly abysmal and hopelessly confused script also contributes to making this a supremely uninteresting little movie.
George Zucco is Dr Josef Van Ee who runs an expensive private clinic. His son, in a moment of drunken inspiration, married a woman he now hates. And although she hates him and accuses father and son of keeping her locked in the clinic against her will, she won’t give him a divorce. This is one of the many glaring plot inconsistencies.
Things become marginally interesting when Dr Van ee’s long-lost cousin Professor Leonide turns up. This is Bela Lugosi, and he’s a stage magician and hypnotist, and had ben his cousin’s business partner before absconding with a large sum of money. The professor is accompanied by a midget, for reasons that are never explained. There’s a private detective (the almost unbelievably unfunny and annoying Nat Pendleton providing some dismal comic relief) permanently stationed in the clinic, for reasons that are never adequately explained.
There’s a suspicion that murder may be afoot, and a newspaper reporter suddenly shows up (for reasons that are never adequately explained). There’s lots of running about, some excruciatingly bad dialogue, there’s a masked face that keeps appearing at the window, and there’s a maid who appears to be dead. An there are hidden passages in the clinic (for reasons that are never adequately explained).
It’s finally all explained in an outrageous cheat ending, but by that stage one is simply relieved that the movie is finally over. That was a remarkably long and arduous 65
The bad dialogue, inept direction and poor acting are par for the course for 1940s US horror (with a few outstanding exceptions of course such as the Val Lewton RKO horror films). This movie suffers from an additional weakness - the flashback structure doesn’t work at all and wrecks what little chance the movie ever had of being a worthwhile exercise. And the flashbacks are executed in an appallingly ham-fisted manner.
It’s also fairly typical of much American horror of this period in that it contains some reasonably decent ideas that could have provided the basis for a good horror B-movie, but it’s so poorly made and the comic relief is so annoying that the ideas are wasted completely.
On the plus side George Zucco is quite good but he isn’t given anywhere near enough to do. And Bela Lugosi gives it his best shot, and is pretty good. And he gets to wear a cape.
For Bela Lugosi completists only.