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Film Review: Scared To Death (1947)

“From a slab in the morgue, a dead young woman tells the bizarre tale of how she got there, through a maze of murder involving a hypnotist, a midget and a mysterious figure in a blue mask.” (courtesy IMDB)

This week I’m discussing a rare treat, if not a particularly good one. This week I’m reviewing Bela Lugosi‘s only colour horror film. I’m using the terms loosely here – ‘colour’, ‘horror’ and ‘film’ – Scared To Death (1947). Scared To Death is an interesting film for two reasons. The first and most obvious one, is that it’s Bela Lugosi’s only colour horror film. Secondly, it’s the first film to be narrated by a dead character. Not just that, a psychic dead character who can remember scenes in which she wasn’t present. How about that! I mean, a dead person narrating is avant garde enough, but a dead narrator with clairvoyance? Wow!

Billy Wilder tried the same trick in Sunset Boulevard (1950) three years later, but even he wasn’t daring enough to give his main character clairvoyance, whether they were alive or dead. Christy Cabanne, the director of Scared To Death, was obviously onto something – or on something. Bela Lugosi makes sure you know it’s Bela by sweeping around with his cape all the time. It was a bad habit of his, and he was barred entry into many antique shops.

But there is another giant of fantasy film that tends to be overlooked when Scared To Death is discussed. Did I say ‘giant’? I mean ‘dwarf’. Yes, Bela Lugosi’s lip-reading dwarf with the attitude problem, Indigo, appeared in one of the major science fiction trilogies of all time. I’m speaking, of course, of Kenny Baker! No I’m not – fooled you! Kenny Baker was only thirteen years old when this film was made. I’m talking, of course, of Angelo Rossitto, who was the Master half of Master-Blaster in Mad Max III Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He also played Klang in H.R. Pufnstuf (1971), for those of you who are indeed ‘pufnstuf’. But his career goes back to being one of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Sadly he passed away in 1991, but he will be remembered through such films as Galaxina (1980), Little Cigars (1973), and one of my all-time favourites, Hellzapoppin (1941).

Nat Pendleton delivers a sensitive portrayal of big Bill ‘Bull’ Raymond. Nat played against Abbott and Costello in the Buck Private films which, at the time, was not considered a sexual position – I’m so sorry I said that. Molly Lamont, who plays the corpse narrator as if she was born to the role, was South African and that’s about as interesting as she gets. Then there’s Roland Varno, who plays her husband. He was famous for such films as Return Of The Vampire (1944), Three Live Ghosts (1936) and Hitler’s Children (1943), for his stirring role of ‘uncredited’.

So, now to Bela. For those of you who have made it this far and still don’t know about Bela Lugosi, I’m not going to help you. Instead, why not rent Ed Wood (1994) and watch Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning performance as Lugosi. In fact, do it right now! Go on! Get up off the couch, go to the video store…no, wait. Sorry, it’ll just make your head hurt – more. Lugosi had effectively peaked with Dracula (1931) and was on a slow spiral downwards that would end ultimately with Ed Wood in Glen Or Glenda (1953), and his last performance in Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), where he died after a single scene and was replaced with a much taller chiropractor who held his cape in front of his face to enhance the illusion. By this time Lugosi and I were no longer on speaking terms. His constant need for ‘medicine’ and cash had drained me dry – I was finding him a real bloodsucker.

On the other hand I never had a problem with George Zucco, even after he was institutionalised. He had a hard time separating his real life with his work, and became convinced he was actually a mad scientist. Still, it was Hollywood and he could continue to get work. It wasn’t until he tried to graft the head of a dalmatian onto the body of his wife that they committed him. I went to visit him in the asylum but apparently that was a little counterproductive.

Don’t you hate it when they give the last line of the film away in the title? Anyway, please return next week to witness the awe-inspiring terror that is Crypt Of The Living Dead (1972). Though, if they’re living, why do they need a crypt? Wouldn’t a bungalow do? Anyway, toodles!

Scared To Death (1947)

About Nigel Honeybone

"Rondo Award Winner Nigel Honeybone's debut was as Hamlet's dead father, portraying him as a tall posh skeleton. This triumph was followed in Richard III, as the remains of a young prince which he interpreted as a tall posh skeleton. He began attracting starring roles. Henry VIII was scaled down to suit Honeybone's very personalised view of this famous king. Honeybone suggested that perhaps he really was quite skeletal, quite tall, and quite posh. MacBeth, Shylock and Othello followed, all played as tall, skeletal and posh, respectively. Considering his reputation for playing tall English skeletons, many believed that the real Honeybone inside to be something very different, like a squat hunchback perhaps. Interestingly enough, Honeybone did once play a squat hunchback, but it was as a tall posh skeleton. But he was propelled into the film world when, in Psycho (1960), he wore women's clothing for the very first time. The seed of an idea was planted and, after working with director Ed Wood for five years, he realised the unlimited possibilities of tall posh skeletons who dressed in women's clothing. He went on to wear women's clothing in thirteen major motion pictures, including the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Star Wars (1977), heartbreaking as the remains of Aunt Beru. With the onslaught of special effects came the demise of real actors in these sorts of roles. After modeling for CGI skeletons in Total Recall (1990) and Toys (1992), the only possible step forward for a tall posh skeleton was television, imparting his knowledge and expertise of the arts. As well as writing for the world's best genre news website HORROR NEWS, Nigel Honeybone also presents the finest examples of B-grade horror on THE SCHLOCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW seen every Friday night on TVS Television Sydney." (Fantales candy wrapper)

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