Friday, March 10, 2017

SCARED TO DEATH (1947)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

Just to get the classificatoon thing out of the way: though there is a mention of "mental telepathy" in SCARED TO DEATH, as well as a schtick in which the film is partially the flashback of a dead woman, I discount both of these as indicators of any "marvelous" content. The narration is not unlike that of SUNSET BOULEVARD three years later: a mere narrative device, not a delving into how unquiet spirits occupy themselves.

Coincidentally, workhouse director Christy Cabanne died the same year of the release of SUNSET BOULEVARD. Cabanne directed dozens of Hollywood films from the silent years up to 1948, but I would guess that the only films in his repertoire that are watched today are this film and 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND. The latter initiated a short run of Mummy-films that crystallizes the figure of the bandage-wrapped boogeyman for modern audiences. In contrast, SCARED TO DEATH seems to be more like the final nail in the coffin of the spooky murder-mystery.

Of course, such mysteries continued to made throughout the fifties, so SCARED was not the last of its kind. But the script, by a two-credit writer named Walter Abbott, seems to go out of its way to pile coincidence upon coincidence, as if having fun at the expense of this type of "mellerdramer." (Abbott's only other Hollywood credit was a comedy entitled STOP THAT CAB.)

After the brief introduction of the framing-device, in which we see a female corpse on a slab start to flash back to her recent past, all of the action takes place at a sanatorium run by George Zucco's character, Doctor Van Ee (could the scripter have meant to write "Van Eyck" and gave it up because of the difficulty of spelling the name?) Also residing at the building-- which looks like nothing but the usual Hollywood mansion-- are the doctor's son Ward and his wife Laura, an ex-cop named Bill, serving as bodyguard to the doctor, and a nosy maid, Lilybeth. The central conflict is swiftly presented: Laura is estranged from Ward but won't give him a divorce, and for some unknown reason Laura suffers from some sort of hyperactive nervous condition. Since Laura is the dead person on the slab in "real time," it's not hard to guess that someone is going to do Ward a big favor and get rid of his annoying wife, much in the vein of 1943's CALLING DOCTOR DEATH, which looks like a classic horror-film next to SCARED.

Quick as flies to a picnic, the Van Ee estate starts getting visitors. First is Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf-accomplice Indigo (Angelo Rossito, teaming with Lugosi for the third time, though he gets almost nothing to do). Conversation between the professor and the doctor establishes that they are cousins, and there's some dark secret they share, though it really doesn't amount to much of anything for Doctor Van Ee. However, husband Ward takes advantage of Leonide's visit to probe him about a mysterious photograph Ward just happens to have found somewhere, showing two dancers in masks. Ward doesn't exactly say that he thinks the dancer is his wife, or that he's hoping to find something in the photo that might get him out of his unhappy marriage, but that seems the only reason to approach a virtual stranger on the subject. (Ward knows Leonide from a youthful encounter but the two don't have any history together, as Leonide does with Ward's old man.)

Then a green-masked figure shows up, though only for the audience's benefit. Laura gets gaslighted when someone sends her a package containing the head of a female dummy (I never did get the supposed significance of this.) Abbott's script does eventually reveal the source of Laura's hypertension and the reason why she never wants anything covering her eyes, but it's certainly a lot of work to little effect.

Also visiting the house are Terry. a nosy reporter, and his girlfriend. His visit is at least a little more believable than Leonide's purely coincidental appearance: Laura calls Terry because of receiving the dummy-head, hoping she can make a case against her husband or her father-in-law for trying to drive her mad. In reality, it's the guy in the green mask who's the source of the head, and he also happens to be a master hypnotist, for he puts the nosy maid into a death-like trance for a time. (I couldn't follow the reason for this, either.) The reporter more or less picks up the role of viewpoint-character to suss out the identity of the mysterious figure, though for once he isn't a serial killer. He only executes one character in the whole film, and that's Laura, who is-- yes, here it comes-- "scared to death."

The movie has the distinction of being being Bela Lugosi's only color film, but since it's a pretty cheap-looking color process, there's little to no aesthetic merit to said distinction. Lugosi is fine, playing what I think is his last "red herring" role, but most of the actors, including character actor Nat Pendleton as the dumb flatfoot, just put in their time without distinction. Only Molly Lamont does well with the thin material, for she has to put across Laura's frenetic condition while keeping her unlikable. Interestingly, two years prior to SCARED, Lamont played a character in 1946's DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, a Lugosi-less sequel to Lugosi's 1940 DEVIL BAT.






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