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"Pardon me, Professor, but didn't I just see you outside baying at the moon?"
Exactly the sort of dialogue you'd expect to hear in a Bela Lugosi film from his later years. By the time Scared to Death (1947) was made, Lugosi was a long way down from the glory days of Dracula (1931) and just starting his final decade, a period marked by morphine addiction, financial ruin, and personal and professional disappointments. A distinguished stage actor, first in his native Hungary, then in Germany (where he fled in 1919 after engaging in the radical effort of organizing an actors union), he played a range of matinee-idol parts before donning the famous vampire cape in the highly successful 1927 Broadway version of Bram Stoker's horror novel. The success of the film version made him a star of the genre but also typecast him forever as the creepy movie villain.
In Scared to Death, Lugosi stars as Professor Leonide, a hypnotist who figures into the mysterious (and incredibly convoluted) story of a beautiful murder victim. The cheaply made thriller is no Sunset Blvd. (1950), but it does prefigure that classic's structural quirk by having the tale narrated by a corpse. From a slab in the morgue, the dead woman weaves a tale of murder involving a midget and a masked figure. And if you're looking for connections to other film classics, the victim thinks she's being driven to insanity by an unloving husband, the basic premise of Gaslight (1944). But once again, the comparison ends there.
Despite Lugosi's descent to Poverty Row employment and eccentric personal behavior (doing press interviews from a coffin, attending premieres with a gorilla on his arm), he treats his role in Scared to Death with great seriousness. And there are interesting performances as well from a few other actors who had seen better days. Nat Pendleton is not a household name today, but he was a dependable and popular character actor in a 25-year career that included roles in Abbott & Costello movies, almost all the Dr. Kildare/Dr. Gillespie series, and several major productions The Thin Man (1934), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), the Marx Brothers' At the Circus (1939). George Zucco's face should certainly be familiar to horror film fans from The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mad Monster (1942), and the Lugosi movie Voodoo Man (1944) and appearances in A-budget classics like Conquest (1937) with Greta Garbo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) with Charles Laughton, and Captain from Castille (1947) with Tyrone Power, one of eight films the prolific Zucco made that year.
And speaking of prolific, director Christy Cabanne chalked up one of the most prolific resumes of any filmmaker in Hollywood at that time, nearly 150 films in 36 years. His best known was probably The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937), based on the Bret Harte story. Cabanne chose to film Scared to Death in color, unlike most horror films of the 30s and 40s and the film remains Lugosi's only appearance in color.
Director: Christy Cabanne
Producer: William B. David (uncredited)
Screenplay: Walter Abbott
Cinematography: Marcel Le Picard
Editing: George McGuire
Art Direction: Harry Reif
Original Music: Carl Hoefle
Cast: Bela Lugosi (Professor Leonide), George Zucco (Dr. Joseph Van Ee), Molly Lamont (Laura Van Ee), Nat Pendleton (Bill "Bull" Raymond), Joyce Compton (Jane Cornell).
By Rob Nixon