"Scared to Death" is notable in film history as the only film Bela Lugosi ever made in Colour. Unfortunately, all the other things that might be considered "notable" about it aren't exactly very positive.
Christy Cabanne's b-movie disaster is a shambling, stage-bound mess. The addition of some (now faded) colour does nothing to relieve the unremitting air of shoddiness and desperation that pervades, as the likes of b movie veteran George Zucco ("The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes") —once compelling in his portrayal of Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes - are forced to muddle their way through a confused, clunking, and frankly ungrammatical script as best they can.
Unlike "The Corpse Vanishes", where the low budget parade of freakery and oddity is at least stitched into a scenario that shows some degree of wit, and which is elaborated with a self-conscious charm, "Scared to Death" manages to appear at once flat and lifeless while also being always absurd and confusing! The film begins with two doctors pondering over the corpse of a beautiful woman on a mortuary slab. The camera then pans in on her face and the dead woman begins to narrate the story of the events which led to her demise.
This framing device (later famously used in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd") is completely unnecessary. Quite aside from the fact that most of the time she is narrating events to which she was not a party, and so could not have known anything of — it, if anything, ends up making the film look even flatter and deflated than it would have anyway. For every time we sharply cut back to a clearly still-framed image of the dead woman, who then delivers a few lines of echo-strewn dialogue of the "later that evening ..." variety, it simply has the effect of casting each set-bound sequence adrift, making the film seem like a disconnected trail of isolated scenes — like one of those cost-cutting tv episodes which is merely a collection of clips from previous episodes strung together by a quickly-shot framing device. One suspects that the only reason it was used at all was because the director didn't have enough linking material to glue the film together with.
Flashing back to the surgery of Dr. Josef Van Ee (George Zucco), we learn that the dead woman was his patient and was apparently being treated for a morbid fear of blindfolds! Laura is married to the doctor's son Ward Van Ee (Roland Varno). The two are ganging up on her, supposedly keeping her prisoner in the house-cum-surgery while they attempt to persuade/force her to grant Ward a divorce. A motley collection of characters then start to turn up at the house one by one: there is a sacked ex-cop, Bull Raymond (Nat Pendleton), now working as a private investigator and whose shtick is that he's supposed to be a bit thick, but keeps coming out with elaborate and perceptive lines of dialogue which he then has to ask to be explained to him! There is a reporter and his dumb blonde sidekick who suspect there is a story in the place, concerning Laura and Ward which harks back to a war time magician's stage act.
An estranged cousin of Dr. Van Ee then appears: Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi) comes equipped with requisite opera cap and hat as well as his own dwarf servant (played by Angelo Rossitto, who also appears in "The Corpse Vanishes"). He and Dr. Van Ee appear to have a strained relationship due to some mysterious past grievance. There is a man in a green mask who keeps popping up outside windows, and Laura is receiving strange letters. Later, a box is delivered to her which contains a dummy's head! When the maid, Lilly Beth (Gladys Blake) is apparently murdered, the film belatedly becomes a sort of comedy/mystery whodunit involving war time spying escapades and a sort of Edgar Wallace-style villain whose unmasking involves transvestitism — a nod to Bela Lugosi's coming career in Ed Wood films such as "Glen or Glenda": the only parts he would shortly find himself able to get.
The irony is that despite having a role in which he is required simply to play up a version of his Dracula persona as an ambiguous, possibly evil mesmerist, Bela Lugosi is actually pretty good in this film. Such a mishmash of elements obtrude that the film probably didn't really need him as anything other than box office draw, but his scenes are compelling in a way no others in the movie are. Although the film is replete with experienced actors whose filmographies were (or would become) quite lengthy, they, unlike Lugosi are always reliant on a shoddy, unfunny and very muddled script. Thus George Zucco, for instance, normally a very watchable and accomplished actor from the period, is made to seem more wooden and incompetent than he was, while Lugosi (an actor who always had to work around a somewhat limited capacity for delivering lines) flourishes in a visual performance of great theatrical extravagance and richness.
The film is released in the UK by Network DVD on a budget priced disc with no extras. The print is faded and full of dirt and scratches but is otherwise fairly good looking for an un-restored film. This is for determined Lugosi completists only, though.