Last time around, I alluded in a vague way to the wild and woolly world of Poverty Row, the scuffed-up ugly underbelly of the American filmmaking industry in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. The name refers to an inexhaustible supply of short-lived and occasionally durable B-picture firms that latched onto the most profitable genres that the big studios dabbled in: mostly crime movies, horror, and Westerns, the things you could do on a budget using only available sets in Los Angeles. For our current purposes, the important thing about Poverty Row is that it's where those genres had to hang out when they got too shabby and shameful for the big studios. It was, famously, to this low-rent world that Bela Lugosi found himself banished after Universal ran out of things to do with the charismatic, threatening Hungarian import with a profoundly limited acting range. And as our current layover in post-WWII Poverty Row filmmaking, we have here not just one of Lugosi's many trashy, slightly embarrassing microbudget crapshows, though 1947's Scared to Death, is all of that and more. It also happens to be the only time Lugosi had a starring role in a movie in color, though the phrase "in color" already implied something more in 1947 than the rather shitty results of the Cinecolor process, here billed with no discernible shame as "Natural Color".

And that's not the film's only gimmick, either! As we'll discover almost immediately, Scared to Death is a murder mystery, narrated from the perspective of the dead body, from within the morgue. This was, incidentally, very nearly the exact framing narrative originally intended for Sunset Blvd. three years later, leading me to the hopefully ridiculous notion that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett not only saw this film but also saw fit to steal from it.

The body telling the story is that of Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont), pulled onto the slab by two doctors (Stanley Andrews and Stanley Price) for her autopsy. "One hates to perform an autopsy on a beautiful woman" says one of them in a line of dialogue pregnant with the worst implications. But she doesn't seem to mind very much, and to keep herself from being bored, I guess, she starts to tell us her story one that started just a couple of days earlier. It is a story that has only a small number of moving parts, but fuck me if I'm able to follow it. The first scene is enough to establish Scared to Death as dreck on every level, from the stilted dialogue delivered by uncomfortable actors in what seems likely to have been the first take, to the bargain basement production design, to the visceral ugliness of Cinecolor. And yet the first scene is at a level entirely above the movie to follow, which is all that on top of a screenplay, by William Abbott, that I'd be paying an undue compliment if I accused it of "bordering" on incoherence.

Let's start with the characters. That's enough to give us the shape of it. In life, Laura was the wife of Ward Van Ee (Roland Varno), the son of Dr. Joseph Van Ee (George Zucco), who is currently treating her nervous condition. Dr. Van Ee sort of openly hates his daughter-in-law, and both he and Ward want her to divorce the younger man, which she's perversely disinterested in doing, despite being certain that Dr. Van Ee is trying to drive her insane. This stable household situation is spiced up by the presence of an unduly nosy maid, Lilybeth (Gladys Blake), and an unbelievably dim security guard, Bill Raymond (Nat Pendleton), an ex-cop hoping for a juicy murder to serve as his ticket back to the force, when he's not trying to flirt with Lilybeth. A guest is coming along to imbalance things further: Dr. Van Ee's much hated cousin, Professor Leonide (Lugosi), who for no clear reason has a mute dwarf sidekick, Indigo (Angelo Rossitto). He's got blackmail on his mind, demanding a few days in the Van Ees' guest room in exchange for not telling the horrible things he knows about his cousin's past. Nothing whatsoever comes of this, but Leonide does possibly know something about Laura's own mysterious past, which Ward has apparently tracked back to her time in a European dance duo called Laurette and Rene, and though this information is presented extremely early on, it's not until minutes from the end that anybody goes further in exploring it than noting that "Laura" and "Laurette" are similar names.

Right about this point, Laura receives a package containing a wax head that looks uncannily like her own, which triggers Dr. Van Ee to give up the weak pretense of secrecy around his treatment of his daughter-in-law. But his call is intercepted by a canny reporter, Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley), who brings along his monumentally stupid gal Friday, Jane Cornell (Joyce Compton) to the Van Ee mansion for his investigation. And now that we have all the players lined up, the plot can commence to spinning around in wobbly circles as nobody works very hard to actually solve any of the confusions that crop up, mostly because everybody in the film other than Jane is apparently hiding some kind of gloomy secret or another. It's even more confusing to us than to the characters, since we know as none of them do that somebody is peering in through the mansion's windows, somebody wearing a blue mask. And this would apparently be the green mask that Leonide remembers as part of Laurette and Rene's act, since God bless 'em, the filmmakers built their entire narrative around an object specifically stated to be a color that the Cinecolor process couldn't reproduce.

It's simply not possible to convey how inept the storytelling is in Scared to Death: trying to summarise the story elements necessarily enforces a kind of structure on them that they lack in the original. It's very nearly Dadaist in its virtually complete absence of an actual narrative throughline connecting all of the baffling shit it throws out, in essentially random order. And, too, the conspicuous failure of every element of the filmmaking is so complete that one is tempted to assign some kind of intentionality to it. Horrible, no-budget filmmaking can explain things like the way that in the morgue opening, one of the actors jumps the gun on his cue, and the other keeps soldiering on delivering the lines as they were written, so we have two people talking over each other at different points in a conversation. That's just par for the course in these borderline amateur productions. But the way that seemingly every actor exists in a different kind of movie, from screwball horror to Gothic melodrama, speaks to a disinterest in creating any kind of unity that merely bad filmmaking can't answer. Director Christy Cabanne, almost all the way to the end of one of cinema's most prolific careers, must have had enough experience to know when his cast was spiraling off into a half-dozen different and irreconcilable dead ends, unless he was so repulsed by the total lack of continuity in the script that he didn't bother supplying continuity to the performances or imagery.

There's nothing at all about the film that's acceptable in the least, from its flat staging of characters against a set that never looks meaningfully like anything but a hastily-constructed trio of rooms, and a "forest" made up of some large bushes (the sets are the one point at which Cinecolor, unfortunately, lets us know exactly what reality looked like), to its desperate score by Carl Hoefle, pounding with theremin screams to try and convince us that the plaster-looking blue thing looking in through windows is somehow terrifying. The single thing that's most offensively incompetent is the return, at intervals, to Dead Laura's narration, which is always preceded by a theremin sting that gets prematurely cut off so that she can deliver one (and only one) line, and then always followed by the same sting, while the film dissolves in and out of the morgue so quickly that it's barely in focus in between. It's shoddily executed and serves to do absolutely nothing but guarantee that the film can't possibly manage to work up any momentum, not that it had much of a chance to do that between the lack of a clear plot and the absence of cause-and-effect relationships between any two actions performed by any characters, at any point in the feature.

In the absence of anything remotely good, at least the film can count on Zucco and Lugosi for their grave, vaguely threatening screen presence, though Lugosi in particular lacks an actual character to play - even at the end of the film, I had no real sense whether Leonide had been a villain all along or not (he's also, in color, too ruddy-cheeked and avuncular-looking; if ever an actor needed to have sallow skin and bleached features, it was Lugosi, but here, he looks like Santa wearing a Dracula cape. Yes, he's wearing the goddamn Dracula cape). It's so wildly awful that I can imagine the right combination of friends, mood-altering chemicals, and good spirits turning it into an extraordinarily fun bad movie night experience, though watching it alone and sober, I found myself suffering through pretty much every moment of it, too incredulous and confused to find it tedious, but also too shrill for it to be inadvertently funny. Being long since in the public domain, it's trivially easy to find the 65-minute film on the internet, if you're curious. But don't say I didn't warn you - this isn't just bad filmmaking, it's practically outsider art, made by an unusually incompetent outsider.

Body Count: 1, which is even more boring given that we know from the beginning who it's going to be.