Late night movie shows can be fun to watch as much for the host as for the show, at least in some cases. I was a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a kid, and I’ve occasionally caught other programs. Recently I decided to check out the show hosted by the Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira’s Movie Macabre. The show was first aired in the 1980s, and was brought back a couple years ago with new episodes. Hulu has a few of them available, which I felt was convenient as I’m not entirely sure what station airs them. My viewing selection was Bela Lugosi’s only starring role in a color film, 1947’s Scared to Death.
I was aware that, like MST3K and other programs of its ilk, Elvira isn’t exactly known for choosing A-grade movies. So I went into it with the expectations that this was a film for the Morbid Curiosity Files, and I was not disappointed in that front. Lugosi is both underutilized and poorly utilized in this film… it’s honestly a bit of an embarrassment for the veteran horror actor. Now, one might think that having Elvira periodically interject some quips in the film and having her comedy segments at the regular intervals for commercial breaks might distract a bit from the movie, and that’s a fair assessment. But after about 10 minutes of the film, I think most viewers will be looking for a distraction.
Truthfully, there are several films I’ve seen where Elvira would have been a welcome distraction.
The movie is centered around Mrs. Laura Van Ee, which has to be one of the most awkward surnames in cinema. Played by Molly Lamont, the film opens with Laura on a slab in the city morgue; she’s been scared to death. The coroner wonders what might have been going through her mind, and the audience is subjected to precisely that, as Laura narrates the events leading up to her own demise. Roughly every ten minutes or so, she interjects a needless line of narration — of the “little did I know” sort — and the film undergoes wavy transitions back to her lifeless face. It’s more than a little obnoxious. So is Laura, who in life is just short of stark raving mad, ranting about how her husband Ward (Roland Varno) and father-in-law Joseph (George Zucco) are conspiring to drive her insane and frighten her.
She makes the accusation while letting Dr. Van Ee give her a medical checkup, which shows an inconsistent level of trust.
She soon has genuine cause to be alarmed, however, as eerie events begin happening soon after the arrival of Dr. Van Ee’s long-estranged (and just plain strange) cousin, Professor Leonardo Leonide (Bela Lugosi), and his assistant, the deaf-mute dwarf Inigo (Angelo Rossitto). Lugosi gets to do his usual eccentric charmer act, but despite being the ostensible star, he’s not really on the screen all that much. Most of the screen time is devoted to intrepid reporter Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley), who is present for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. He arrives after his ditzy dispatcher girlfriend (Joyce Compton) tells him of an interrupted call to the police HQ from the Van Ee estate, but considering the police themselves never show, it’s just one of several plot holes. The only police presence is a security guard who was kicked off the force, played by Nat Pendleton, who serves as comic relief. He actually does get a few funny lines, but not enough to offset the extremely stilted dialogue that permeates the rest of the film. Writer Walter Abbott — who has only one other credit to his name — is presumably to blame for the dialogue and the plotting issues. Much of the acting is just standing around listening, and a great deal of the dialogue consists of setups from “As you know” to “As I was telling you before”, in lieu of actually showing events in question or having characters talk like actual human beings. But then, actual human beings appear to be in rare supply in this script, as nearly every character is superhumanly stupid. Of particular note is Mr. Lee’s girlfriend Jane, who is so flighty she gives the impression that she would forget to breathe if not reminded. She’s incapable of stringing three sentences together, which is an unfortunate character trait for a character who is required to explain a key part of the plot at one point. The other characters get annoyed, but frankly not as much as the audience.
I’d say women should find the character insulting, but she’s really more of an embarrassment to the entire human race.
The directing isn’t much better. There are a lot of odd cuts, even scene transitions that appear to be going back to the same scene — a film-making hallmark I had previously thought was exclusive to Manos: the Hands of Fate. It would be tempting to be generous and suggest this was due to it being edited for television, for the Movie Macabre treatment, but no — the episode of Elvira’s Movie Macabre is a full 30 minutes longer than the film’s original run time. Nothing was cut from the film in order to make room for Elvira’s segments, and that means any editing errors in the film are inherent to the film itself. Which means that the only person to blame for this mess of a movie is director Christy Cabanne.
Most of the acting is poor. The more talented actors are under-used. The dialogue is generally awful aside from a few amusing lines here and there. And while there’s a decent premise in the plot, it’s executed in a spectacularly awful fashion. Elvira was mildly amusing, but Scared to Death is just a scary mess.