“Roots of horror” fans that enjoy digging beneath the Italian and Spanish Giallo graves of the late ’60s and ‘70s will enjoy seeing Bela Lugosi in Scared to Death (directed by Christy Cabanne of the first Kharis-the-mummy flick, The Mummy’s Hand; he uses that film’s George Zucco here) as it is the only opportunity to see horror film’s definitive Count Dracula in the “Photographed in Full Natural Color” process—his only color film. However, for everyone else: Bela fluttering around on the cheap, one-set stage play environment with a sad-recycling of his iconic role as a Dracula-like stage magician (complete with an over-the-top hammy-bad accent) in a we’ve-seen-it-before-filmed-much-later-and-done-better, drive-her-mad-for-greed plot—is a pass.
Quicker than Norma Desmond can say, “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” the film goes all “Sunset Boulevard” on us, with William Holden, I mean Molly Lamont (Laura) “solving” her murder via flashbacks from a morgue slab. And like ‘ol Will, she narrates the whole movie. And even with all the morgue-exposition . . . you still don’t know what the hell is going on.
Turns out Laura’s ne’er do well husband and her loaded father-in-law doctor—who runs the sanitarium where her husband committed her—is pulling a Paul Naschy-style Panic Beats on poor Laura: murder-by-fright (without the blood or violence). Then we’re in a Ten Little Indians-rip with an Agatha Christie-menagerie featuring the requisite, weird maid, and Bela (who is really slicing the bacon—even more so than in The Devil Bat) as Professor Leonide, the requisite kook medical professional. Of course, he has a now PC-offensive-par-for-the-course deaf-mute midget sidekick (Angelo Rossitto of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and in the much better Monogram Studios’ Lugosi vehicle, The Corpse Vanishes (1942)), which are always assigned to doctors in the films of yesteryear.
Oh, what’s that? There’s a twist?
Bela’s professor is the cousin of Laura’s father-in-law doctor and Bela’s pre-Professor gig was working as an illusionist in Europe. But wait, Laura has a phobia about foreigners—and magicians—because she’s the widow and former stage partner of a Paris magician who was assassinated by the Nazis.
What’s that? Oh, another twist?
She fled the country because authorities believed she conspired with the Nazi’s to killer her husband. Oh, but wait . . . is Bela a Nazi agent? Does Bela have a personal beef since he was a competitor of Laura’s husband’s stage act? Are daddy-in-law and Bela in cahoots?
Of course, all porcine-slicing antagonists need a hammy protagonist, and all low-budget murder mysteries needs an Inspector Poirot (place this film on a train and you’d have a Murder on the Orient Express; on a paddle steamer, you’d have Death on the Nile), so in steps the bumbling P.I Bill Raymond (Nat Pendleton) who couldn’t cut himself out of a wet paper bag, let alone solve Laura’s murder. Then there’s the equally inept Lucille Ball clone, courtesy of Joyce Compton and that annoying pillbox hat.
Every Gothic-film noir hybrid needs a MacGuffin, so some weirdo keeps popping up in windows so people can scream about the “ghost in the blue mask” (which would have been a more effective title). However, because this an early ‘40s low budget film shot in color, the mask looks green to us—so it’s really a not-so-red, green herring. And the man-in-the-mask-nonsense has something to do with a mystical death mask of a dead Nazi patriot. Who’s behind the mask?
Well, it sure isn’t Alaric de Marnac from Naschy’s Panic Beats, that’s for sure. Laura’s fretting about being “scared to death”? Me, I am fretting that this film bored me to death.