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Scared To Death
cast: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, Molly Lamont, and Nat Pendleton

director: Christy Cabanne

65 minutes (U) 1947
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
SPOILER ALERT!
The arrival of the Professor as played by Bela Lugosi in Scared To Death does not provide the cue for the same anarchic glee as the arrival of the Professor as played by Harpo Marx in Animal Crackers (1930). Professor Leonide's arrival at the home of his cousin Dr Josef van Ee (George Zucco) coincides with the increasingly hysterical state of van Ee's daughter-in-law Laura (Molly Lamont). Laura believes her father-in-law, and husband Ward - who she married for a bet, are attempting to unhinge her mind to have her committed so that Ward can get out of their marriage, as she herself is keen to get out of the marriage, and away from Dr van Ee's sanatorium where they live, it is sometimes hard to see where the problem lies.

The film starts with the arrival of Laura's body at the morgue. The coroner, before performing his autopsy, wonders aloud if a corpse still retains its final thoughts, rather like the old idea of being able to 'see' a killer by photographing the retained image on a victim's eyeballs. We then hear Laura's voice taking us back to the incidents that led to her demise, a device used more famously in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard three years later. This is effectively the last bit of originality in the film.

Laura's plight would concern us more if she were more attractive, shallow though that observation might appear to be. Sharp-featured and shrewish, she generates sympathy for her ineffectual husband and her sinister father-in-law, George Zucco - who was a memorable Professor Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (1939).

The film manufactures mystery to keep us guessing, Dr van Ee has something in his past, hinted at by a woman caller but ultimately never revealed, Bela Lugosi's Professor Leonide is either a genuinely powerful psychic or a complete charlatan; the film is supposed to be a chilling mystery or a black comedy, in the style of the ubiquitous The Cat And The Canary, but we are never quite sure which. Certainly the comedy-quotient is raised with the arrival of Douglas Fowley's annoying newspaperman Terry Lee, and his dizzy blonde stereotype Jane. Other passages of humour are provided by Nat Pendleton's security guard hoping to solve the murder that will get him his old police job back in homicide.

During the mysterious comings and goings, secret passages, and Laura's rising hysteria a mysterious mask is seen floating outside the window; the point of this is never apparent as no one appears to see it until Jane spots it near the end. Eventually, all is revealed. Laura was a nightclub dancer who betrayed her husband and partner to the Nazis. She did this although he was loving and kind because she resented the power he had over her. She imagines he died facing the firing squad, a bloodstained blindfold plays a pivotal part in the story, but he survived and met Leonide in a concentration camp. The plan is to mete out vengeance, but Leonide has insisted that Rene, Laura's real husband, must not physically attack her, hence the plan to scare her to death which ultimately provides the coroner with his verdict.

Although clearly poor this film has no pretensions above its 'B' status and is short enough that the viewer will not feel that the time it takes to watch it has been stolen from them. I would not advise anyone to purchase it or even to go out of their way to watch it; perhaps one for Lugosi completists as it is one of only two of his films to be made in colour.
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