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Monday, December 18, 2006

I, THE AUDIENCE: SCARED TO DEATH 

OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE BAD LUGOSI

Bela Lugosi made a lot of movies. Great movies. Good movies. Not-so-good movies. Even before Dracula in 1931 made his name a household one, Lugosi had appeared in a bunch of movies in Europe and in America. After Dracula, Lugosi devoted his life to making a handful of great films (like The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher) and an evil army of bad movies. Silly movies. Dumb movies. Idiotic movies.

Yes, many of them are great in their way for people who like that sort of thing, but no one will ever paint a scene from Black Dragons on the side of a building in any of the latest trendy parts of Hollywood.

When you enter Bela's world, be ready for creaky old houses, the same old German village sets, nonsensical scientific explanations, indifferent (if you're lucky) acting from the supporting cast, East Side Kids, smart-ass dwarves, sleep-walking zombie women, bad gorilla suits, George Zucco, John Carradine, William Beaudine, and plots that would make Ed Wood think twice. And don't forget the spectacularly dumb cops.

I'm a big fan of Lugosi, but I really have no desire to see all of his movies. You never know when you're going to get a gem like Bowery at Midnight or a waste of celluloid like Night Monster where Lugosi plays a butler. Lugosi was in a number of films as a "red herring," murder mysteries where Lugosi was thrown in to fool the audience. If Lugosi is in it, you know he did it, just because he's Lugosi! Lugosi is in a lot of movies where he's given a motive and a creepy character to play among a number of other likely suspects, but then it turns out he didn't do it! (The rule of thumb is this: If Bela is playing a butler, he didn't do it.)

I don't mind them if they're dumb; I just don't want them to be boring! And some of these movies are pretty boring.

But not Scared to Death.

Every once in a while, I get a chance to see a Lugosi film I never saw before, and I dive in, just to see. Wonderfully dumb? Or boring? You never know until you watch.

And Scared to Death … Wow! Pretty dumb. Profoundly silly. Definitely not boring.

I almost don't have words.

For starters, it's Lugosi's only color film. It was made in 1947 with a process called Natural Color. It doesn't look natural to me, so I'm just assuming that reality was colored differently in the 1940s, that flesh was colored like a pink rose and all the walls were dark green and everyone glowed in the dark.

It starts at the morgue. The dead girl narrates her story. (This movie came out a few years before Sunset Boulevard, so Billy Wilder was stealing from the makers of this film, not the other way around.) She's lying on a slab and the camera lingers on her head and a voice-over tells us what happened. And her head dissolves and goes to a flashback. And every two or three minutes, the flashback dissolves back to her dead body and her voice-over says things like, "A rude surprise was in store for me the following morning" and "I became afraid and my mind started to crack" and "At last, he had me under his power."

The flashback takes place in a mansion that used to be an insane asylum. Now it's the home of a creepy doctor and an odd assortment of relatives and servants and hypnotists and reporters and magicians and whoever shows up. The creepy doctor is played by creepy George Zucco, a creepy actor who could have been king of Poverty Row horror if it hadn't been for Lugosi. Zucco, just like Lugosi, is a suspect just by being in the movie. Because he's creepy. And bald. And wears glasses. And he has a deep, scary voice and a threatening bedside manner.

Zucco's son, Ward, is married to Laura, and it turns out that Laura is the dead girl. So now we have to figure out who killed her, from a bunch of suspects. It won't be easy to figure out who did it because Laura is a fucking bitch. Anybody could have done it because she is so awful. Forget the cast. Everybody in the crew and everybody in the audience has just much as reason to kill her as anybody in the movie.

She accuses Zucco and his son of trying to drive her crazy. She hears noises and she keeps seeing a floating green mask. (We see it too, and it's pretty random. Just kinds pops up, floating outside the window every so often, sort of alternating between the random dissolves to the dead girl's head.)

Zucco and his son are both assholes and seem guilty of something.

There’s a maid named Lilibette. Laura tries to choke her in one scene because … it's too dumb to explain, but it gives Lilibette a motive.

Then the doorbell rings. This is the movie's favorite way to introduce new suspects. They just come to the door. And they always ask Zucco if they can stay and he always says, "sure." Which would be pretty nice of him if he wasn't so creepy.

So the first two people who come to the door are a transvestite named Mrs. Williams who is blackmailing Zucco, and a private security guard named Bill Raymond, who works for Zucco. Mrs. Williams is quickly sent on her way, but Bill Raymond is in the rest of the film, played by the great Nat Pendleton, who portrayed lots of lugs and gangsters in the films of the 1930s and ‘40s. In Scared to Death, he makes fun of a dwarf, acts dumb, gets tied up, runs around with a gun and provides the physical comedy.

The doorbell rings a little while later and in pops Bela Lugosi as the magician/hypnotist known as Professor Leonide. With him is the crazed dwarf called Miho, played by the great Angelo Rossitto. When Nat Pendleton insults him, Angelo stomps on his foot. Good for you, Angelo!

The professor has shown up because … well, I'm sure they explained it, but I can't remember. (I have notes, and they are legible, but they don't make any sense.) And he brought the dwarf because … he's really good at finding secret passages? The mansion is honeycombed with weird doors and sliding bookcases, and Angelo is always coming out or going in one. For no discernable reason because it never has anything to with the plot against Laura.

But they're both pretty creepy and they seem to know Laura from her days as a medium, so they are both suspects.

Later, the doorbell rings again, and a couple of reporters show up. They aren't really suspects, they gather clues and ask questions and … don't really figure it out, actually.

The whole movie is mostly just a bunch of weird tricks thrown together. Laura gets a package with a fake head in it and she screams. Gunshots are heard and everybody runs to the source and finds Nat Pendleton tied up. Zucco gets knocked unconscious and placed on a gurney. Lugosi wanders around on the grounds and waves his arms … for some reason. The female reporter passes out and has a green mask placed on her face. Laura, hypnotized, acts out her old night club performance. Angelo bolts out of a secret passage and tears across the room like a frightened cat. And so on and so on.

I'm not going to give away the ending. I could say, "The transvestite did it!" but that doesn't really tell you very much, and it's NOT the conclusion of the coroner.

By the way, this movie makes a lot more sense if you watch it with the sound off.

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