Scared to Death (1946)

Rating: D-

Dir: Christy Cabanne
Star: George Zucco, Bela Lugosi, Molly Lamont, Roland Varno

A country house. A loveless marriage. Bela Lugosi. And a pissed-off, deaf-mute midget. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we know right from the start, because this opens with the wife lying in the morgue. For no readily apparent reason, she then proceeds to recount her story, in a series of appallingly-abrupt flashbacks, to reveal how she was…Scared To Death! Look, it’s the title of the film, I really don’t think it counts as a significant spoiler. Often mentioned as the only appearance in colour by Lugosi (though he was also in 1930’s Viennese Nights and 1931’s Fifty Million Frenchmen), it’s clear from his very first appearance that he’s still milking the Dracula vein, cape draped elegantly over his shoulder. However, equally apparent are signs of the decline that would see Lugosi ending up in Ed Wood flicks.

Not helping matters are a cast unsure whether this is comedy or horror. Some, such as the incompetent cop (Nat Pendleton – who won a wrestling silver in the 1920 Olympics) or the bubble-headed girlfriend, seem intent on milking the script for every laugh, while Zucco, as the father-in-law/doctor plays it so straight our first guess was a secret past as a Nazi medical officer. [Given this was 1946, it’s plausible!] Apart from the morgue scenes, the film never leaves the house, and it feels like a stage play, with director Cabanne doing virtually nothing to dissuade you from this impression. Okay, I confess, we fell asleep in the middle of this, so we’re in no credible position to criticize the story. However, when everything else is so mediocre – the acting, the direction, even the scientific view of hypnosis (telepathic commands?) – plot becomes almost irrelevant. On the plus side, the midget (Angelo Rossito) went on to play the “brains” part of Master-Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. So that’s nice.