Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Long Arm of Coincidence: SCARED TO DEATH (1947)


Bela Lugosi's only color film, and maybe the only horror film period from 1947, surreal poverty row quickie SCARED TO DEATH makes no concessions to atmosphere or tone. Instead, along its zippy charge to the finish line, it rounds an array of weird bases, forgetting to stay in a single sport analogy with the reckless, sloppy speed of someone stealing home on a loping base hit, then running to first again before sneaking off into its rightful track where a gym teacher in a green mask waits to remind it that it's been out this whole time. 

Figures, then, that it was director Christy Cabanne's 162nd feature, writer Walter Abbott's first, and production company Golden Gate Picture's last. Figures because Scareed to Death doesn't really give a shit if it makes any sense, but we don't care because it's never dull and always surreal. Over the course of a breathless 70 minutes--with abstract scenes ever punctuated by extraneous dial-focus cuts back and forth to a dead narrator in the homey chill of a morgue--the film rollicks with a kind of gives-a-shit journeyman 'one-shot' fecklessness and everything-kitchen-sink-size 'I finally have a voice' irreverence we usually see only in international new wave breakthroughs that, if done independently, ala Godard's Alphaville, earn their auteur acclaim, and if done for a major studio, like Suzuki's Branded to Kill, get him fired. Both Godard and Suzuki were fans of poverty row films like Scared to Death, and their cheerful disregard for the conventions of big studio narrative filmmaking, their discovery of 'accidental' Brechtian anti-narrative as a means of riffing off the well-worn themes of popular genres, like jazz soloists riffing off the standards of American Songbook. Watched in this light, Scared to Death alchemically transcends its lowly state as a B-mystery Lugosi vehicle. Through recklessly genre-buckling surrealist brio it begins to loom wobbly and large as a nonsensical exercise in Marx Bros/Beckett noir post-structuralism. 

Racing through an ornate plot full of gaslighting, shady pasts (what went on in war-torn Europe doesn't stay in war-torn Europe, even though you thought you left it in a concentration camp, like that cockblocking Victor Lazlo), and idiot-told/nothing-signifying fury, Scared to Death proves itself a mind-bending gem might seem incomprehensible -but, and this is how you know it's a masterpiece-- the more times you see it, the weirder and more incomprehensible it gets. As Michael Weldon lovingly wondered "Were the people who made this on some strange, mind-bending drug?" [1] 

Maybe we'll never know, but one thing we do know for sure, is that you should be when watching. It won't help, but then again, it can't hurt. Then again, you may not need any; the film itself might be enough. 


Narrated from a slab in the morgue, and set at a former mental institution (that was 'before the war'), the setting makes no attempt at atmosphere, what we get instead is wallpaper and a kind of Colonial-modern taste of townhouse decor the office and home of Dr. Van Ee (George Zucco) who harbors strange secrets about his past, secrets the film never does delve into. Why, for example, does he need a private duty policeman  (Nat Pendleton) if it's no longer a home of the insane. As with the hiring of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla (1939), the answer may lie in whom he hires, i.e. if you want to seem to have performed due diligence prior to a murder yet don't want to see it actually prevented, hire a licensed moron (or three). But who is to be murdered? Surely not the wife of Van Ee's son Ward (Roland Varno), the paranoid Laura (Molly Lamont)? Laura claims she's being kept a virtual prisoner in her room, though her physician father-in-law, Dr. van Ee (George Zucco) and shusband both wish she'd leave. She's being kept a prisoner only by her own petty spite and fear or some unknown person. Why, is she so anxious to stay in this gloom-less house if she knows whomever is after her has arrived and is somewhere in its walls right now? What's Van Ee's story that he keeps a full-time hired detective/bodyguard? The  suspicious way Van Ee acts, the weird double meanings and cryptic assurances in the initial scene where he's examining Laura, do nothing to clarify anything. One could almost think one was in that post-structuralist Blow-Up blast radius, next to Elio Petri's A Quiet Day in the Country

These strange beats suggest a stage mystery-comedy specially designed to neither scare, amuse, nor inordinately offend (unless you think narrating after your dead is blasphemous), and in not doing all those things, it succeeds voluptuously. Though Zucco probably gets more screen time, Lugosi gets top-billing as 'wanted' magician-hypnotist Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi) who shows up at the door with his mute assistant Ingo (Angelo Rossitto), "one of the little men." They invite themselves to stay a few days (Van Ee says "I can't very well refuse." "How true, cousin Joseph. How... true"). He and Ingo spend most of the film creeping in and out of secret panels in search of some other unseen person or gesticulating at the moon. At one point he looks at Laura as she departs, snarling a weird poetry chant "Laurette... Laurette, I'll make a bet, the green masked man will get you yet."  Meanwhile, a scowling green mask regularly looks in from outside the window, but no one sees it. Bodies appear in one room and wind up downstairs, covered in a sheet on the doctor's examination table, as if by magic. Heads--delivered in boxes left at the door--doth roll. 


Its blithe inconsistency of tone might all be a passive-aggressive attempt by Cabanne and Abbott to do as bad a job as possible to get out of a contract but I like to think they knew they had to get it done quick and cheap, and so just 'went for it,' throwing continuity to the wind. Sometimes a kind of loose deadpan Mad magazine irreverence takes over when freedom and speed make 'art' almost by the not wanting of it.  This is why Plan Nine from Outer Space is endlessly rewatchable, while 'better' films appall with their mediocre consistency and realismzz. This being a while before Antonioni let us see through the cracks of cinema's symbolic code, we have to find these Brechtian post-modern 'see around the sets'-y kernels where we may, and--all through the 40s--the Monogram Lugosi films were giving us instances thereto. One could view them as an expression of contempt for the subject matter, or as harbingers for the post-structuralist landscape to come:


 From top: The Voodoo Man's script is written after the 'real' events happen, the writer/hero even
suggests Bela Lugosi to star; The Ape Man's author peers through windows all through the film,
a kind of 'WTF' through-thread. As a kid, seeing these films on afternoonTV a lot, these kinds of moments
were like insider winks. We didn't understand 90% of the dialogue, but these moments let us know we really
weren't naive. We got post-modernism (We read Mad). That same kind of enshrined ambiguity of inference
would become key European art cinema language, but until we learned it, only children and audiences
seeing movies in languages they don't understand, in un-subtitled prints, could share our sweet mise-en-scene
theory forming aesthetic arrest.  
And I make an Ed Wood association not lightly, and not just because there's a cross dressing surprise (SPOILER!) at the end. Lugosi's long downward slide really begins here, his leanest stretch, All he'd done in the last three years before Scared were some small roles in RKO B-movies, and one lead villain role, in the Val Lewton spoof-- Zombies on Broadway (1945). [2] Aside from Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein the year after Scared, times were only going to get leaner until Ed Wood came calling, like Bela's personal morphine-hallucinated cross-dressing angel of death. And though this isn't really a Lugosi showcase he does get star billing and it holds up today as a great example of how one might handle being handed a question mark of a role, with murky ambiguous motivations not even known to the writer, and turn it into a plum.


The unique things about Scared would go onto pepper later films, like Billy Wilder's 1950 show biz horror-drama, Sunset Boulevard -right), which is narrated, not from a face-up lady in the morgue but a face-down a man in a pool. Other than that, the same, though if you had to guess which film was set in an old dark house holding an ape funeral, how could you ever guess it wouldn't be the poverty row 40s Lugosi chiller, but an A-list Billy Wilder classic? This Lugosi chiller doesn't even have a single dark corner, or ominous statue: it's all light and normal decor, peppered with some heads and masks. But it doesn't matter. Sunset is brilliant even as it veers ever towards a kind of razzing ageist misogyny, while Scared to Death is brilliant because doesn't have enough of anything to be anti-something else. It stays constantly fluid, as if Holden, Von Stroheim, and Swanson, and Wilder and the writers themselves, couldn't decide if they were making Salome, a making-of documentary playing themselves playing roles, or the roles of Norma, Max and Joe amidst the haunted waxworks and--being clever--decided to keep events, dialogue and performance cryptic enough each line could serve all three or four different readings.

The dialing back and forth to Laurette on the slab, for example, become almost comically nonsensical and redundant, as if the editor is venting some irritation with having to spread the length to over an hour. Even with the all-knowing perspective of the unmoored soul, she couldn't possibly know a lot of the details she shows us. Not only that, her comments are often unrelated to the scenes we see. "I became afraid and my mind started to crack" for example, dials back out to Bill the cop (Pendleton) hang-doggedly hitting on the brassy maid Lilybeth (Gladys Blake, taking a break from playing her usual brassy hairdressers and brassy telephone operators), calling her his "melancholy baby," his "wild Irish rose." Then we dial back to Laurette on the slab: "Then came a sinister pair!" We see Indigo and Leonide enter through the front door, like a pair of trick-or-treating funeral attendants. 

"then came a sinister pair' (centered)
The paradoxical conundrums and obvious discrepancies continue to accrue. Regularly using big words and then wondering what they mean, Pendleton's starts to ham his way through the whole show, at what point he even says "Which way did they go? Which way did they go?" while waving his fists around. Someone calls the operator to ask for the cops in an overreacting panic, then says it was a false alarm, but reporter Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley - the guy who "likes 'em stupid" in Cat Women of the Moon) shows up anyway, and brings his fiancee, the operator who clued him in on the phone call, Jane Cornell (Joyce Compton). What clue he has that something newsworthy is going on seems vague, and the way he shakes tales out of people seems intrusive, like a homicide detective trying to solve a murder in advance. Meanwhile a green death mask keeps 'looking' through the window (it has no eye holes), causing girls who see it to faint. And yet - if no one sees it but us, and it cannot see--for it has no eyeholes--how can a dead woman know it was there? Is this mask the embodiment of Laura's post-death all-seeing eye that allows her to comment on action she was upstairs for?  

Maybe not, but this sort of thing, and fine paradoxical examples of Ed Woodian ouroboros dialogue go looping around in lopsided orbit: Van Ee assures a mysterious lady in green that there are no abnormal things going on in his house, "nor will there ever be." She replies "Nevertheless, the way you were described to me, and the way your place was described to me, I am certain that I am in the right place!" Bull says to Laura he was hoping she'd get murdered so he could solve it and redeem himself with the homicide bureau ("who paid you to say these things to me?" Laura asks). He uses big words like "longitude" and "metabolism" then wonders what they mean. Vows to cook and slave and buy Lilybeth furs and jewels leave her cold ("I'd hate to hang by my neck until you got me those things..." Professor Leonide refuses to announce himself before coming in since "if I allowed myself to be announced I doubt I would be received anywhere" Van Ee lets us know Leonide (his cousin) helped pepper the house with secret panels when he was a "patient" there before the war. It was ostensibly so the guards could spy on the inmates, yet Leonide used one of the panels to escape! Who'd have thought!? Lilybeth drops dead after trying to blindfold Laura (her big phobia!) while in a hypnotic trance. She is then is revived by Leonide only because he can see that Bull "truly loves... this girl." Which is itself hilarious, and Lugosi knows it. Throughout his observations re: the women in the scene are bronzed in iron: he wryly calls Jane "delightful" and advises Lee "take good care... of her" and when Van Ee tells him Leonide he'll be staying in the room right next to Laura's he adds, "I know you'll like that." Why or how is never elaborated. Alas! And what does Lilybeth know that she taunts Laura about the man in the green mask ("I let him in! Maybe he's here right now, Miss Lavalle!") Did she really let him in?


These crazy quotes are just off the top of my head, but I could write you out the whole script and get the same surreal buzz I would transcribing Joyce, Nat Perrin, or Samuel Beckett, which is why my heart always sinks when I hear strange canned/echo-drenched French accented voice for the first time than announces Renee is ready to perform his magic act that acts as the film's climax. Hidden in some secret passage while speaking to the gathered players, he sounds not unlike Mel Welles' crab consciousness in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). There's no real build-up for this 'climax' and her past betrayal, odious thought it may be, hardly constitutes a war crime tribunal. Not can it be murder if she was scared to death in the process of confessing (maybe - it's never clear). In that weird sense it's hard to find something genuinely scary or punishable. Had post-war audiences seen enough murder? Film noir being already fading out, and 50s drive in sci-fi about to fade in, Scared is like the missing link in a chain that connects Arsenic and Old Lace-inspired wartime 'horror-comedy' (ala the underrated Boogeyman will Get You) to the psychosexual Freud/Kinsey flood of the late 50s-60s ala Suddenly Last Summer, Lilith, Three Faces of Eve, Psycho, Repulsion and Robert Bloch's semi-remake of Cabinet of Caligari (1962) starring Glynnis Johns (below).


Actually Scared and 1he 1962 Caligari would make a fine double bill, allowing us to consider the 15 year gap between them just how readily the population flux in the wake of the Second World War led to the frustrations of the 50s housewife, forced to give up her riveting job to a returning vet (if the factory stayed open at all). With the return of men and the old patriarchal headlock, the psychosexual neuroses of the cute starched blondes who'd learned to be independent by holding full time jobs in the homefront workplace (lady cab drivers, for example, in 40s films like The Big Sleep and The Falcon in Hollywood), now compelled to give the reigns back to dudes and put their apron chains back on.
If unable to find recourse in satisfying sex lives or a posse of hyper-active children, turned to murder and madness. Electro-shock and lobotomies, hysterectomies and, if all else fails, birth control and liberation from the confines of male 'protection' - i.e. freedom (the zone where clandestine lesbian relations might be feasible).

This where we find Laura in Scared to Death. Her Paris-under-occupation hypnotist act is in the past, she has no role other than wife, and to hide in her room, freak out over branches at the window, stand up to cryptic threats from her father-in-law, and harass the household staff. AND YET! Laurette/Laura is, a trailblazer -- her paranoia and madness, like a slowly gathering storm, will move across the warm ocean the Freudian 50s, the bra-burning 60s, and finally blossom into a full on 70s women's lib typhoon.


HOLD ONTO THE PAST BEFORE THE PRESENT BECOMES IT.

What makes Scared resonate as indoor-child beloved art is its ability to be seen again and again, each new viewing doing little to shed light on the cryptic allusions to past crimes never fully elaborated on. I recently saw Dinner at Eight (1933) for the zillionth time and this time what I noticed was how the good old days before the Crash are recalled so glowingly it illuminates the desperate straits of the present, of aging and death in general, or remembering bright lights helping ease the descent into darkness. Scared to Death could almost be Dinner's deadpan satirical inverse. Trying not to look back to the darkness of the Second World War, to--at least between Leonide and cousin Joseph--let bygones be bygones, and trade the self-destructive intellectual gamesmanship of old Europe for the mire of grinning middle class American New World idiocy. Itching for something to happen, trying to generate tension with screams and faints, these players find only banal small town sameness starting to creep in the moment their slapdash exiting and entrancing ceases. Instead of Dinner at Eight-style monologues about the good old days, everyone plays their pasts as cards close to the vest and then, the big reveal as collaborators are ferreted out by presumed-dead concentration camp escapees, i.e. dinner is cancelled. But Desert is served.


RECOMMENDATIONS: 

If yer scared of a little CALIGARI semi-remake, you should also see on a double bill with The Awful Truth (with which it shares two actresses - each playing a Cary Grant rebound - Irene Dunne rival). Both films get better and better as the layered fine print is shuckered loose from their deceptively shallow shells. As I point in my award-skipping 2003 film The Lacan Hour there are so many "Momento Mori" skulls, masks, and head effigies in Scared one can't help but read the obvious meaning behind them, and the meaning is that obvious meaning itself has no meaning. The quick dick pic sketched and pocketed by Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski is the ultimate in phallic signifiers when using this yardstick to measure. 

Of coruse in order to 'get' this truth, you need to have seen Scared to Death so many times it ceases to make sense at all. Is staying indoors strung out on allergy medicine watching this film obsessively over and over not a kind of secret pathway to post-structuralist enlightenment? Or is it  a living death which, nonetheless, like the lowering of the shroud, may bring air conditioned peace? (3) See it on a triple bill with the 1962 Caligari and Antonioi's Red Desert  -in that order, while comfortable and, ideally, alone and strung out on allergy meds. See if I'm wrong! 

I know I'm not alone in loving this cockeyed caravan of a film: shout outs to renowned raconteur d'horreur classique David Del Valle (though even he admits it's "not Voodo Man") and a thanks and RIP to my old Scarlet Street mentor, Ken Hanke, who steered me to the best available transfer of this often-crappy PD title back in 2000 (PS, it's the 1999 Sling Shot DVD w/ Devil Bat "The Bela Lugosi Collection - Vol. 1" - worth getting, as the colors are upgraded and the detail is sharp. I think you can get it for $8 on Amazon -- yer welcome. 



SEE ALSO: 
and many the Woodisan gems from:

The BRECHT, GODARD WOOD Issue




NOTES:
1. Weldon, Michael Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983)
2. See: At Long Last Lost Lewtons
3. Allergy sufferers know that 'air conditioning season' usually signals the end of allergy trouble. What pollen remains is filtered out of the air during the AC process and for those of us with Nordic blood and allergies who hate humidity and heat, air conditioning + Bela Lugosi = nirvana.  

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