Bela Lugosi fan alert! This Monogram horror opus is yet another narrative-challenged fumble of unmotivated, incomprehensible characters… but Bela’s great in it, and in a central role, too. He’s a sympathetic non- maniac this time, if you don’t count his tendency to go into trances and (cough) smother random houseguests. Savant’s review has the lowdown on the interesting cast; Tom Weaver’s commentary has the authoritative lowdown on whole show.
KL Studio Classics
1941 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 64 min. / Street Date March 21, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, Clarence Muse, John McGuire, Betty Compson, Ernie Adams, Terry Walker, George Pembroke .
Cinematography: Harvey Gould, Marcel Le Picard
Film Editor: Robert Golden
Original Music: hahahahah, good one.
Written by Helen Martin & Al Martin
Produced by Sam Katzman
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Horror movie fans come in two varieties, obsessive and dangerously obsessive. Back in the 1960s we ‘monster kids’ had access to horror almost exclusively through what could be seen on TV, and to some degree through Super-8 digest versions of movies. The first real ‘cult’ attention I witnessed was for horror star Bela Lugosi. Boris Karloff was still alive and busy and accepted as a class-act perfomer. Adults knew him well from big stage plays (well, at least from the coverage given them in Life Magazine) and from frequent guest bits on TV variety shows. Boris? He’s a great actor.
With Lugosi it was different. Aside from Dracula, in some ways also a fairly creaky show, Lugosi had a few bits in good movies (like Ninotchka) but showed up far more frequently in Poverty Row productions. He could be fun but the movies were usually bad. Most had been sold to to TV early on and circulated in mangled prints. To pad their short running times out to a ninety- minute TV slot local stations could pour on the commercials, destroying whatever continuity might have been present. To see Bela’s strange performances fans scanned the TV logs looking for his name. The good Lugosi horror cheapies tend to have a high camp value, as with the men’s cologne gags in The Devil Bat. We imagined that Bela was always in on the joke, a notion not borne out by some performances that seem poorly judged. Karloff occasionally found himself in a no-budget threadbare embarrassment (The Ape, anyone?) but after 1940 Lugosi seemed to be consistently mis-used or abused in films. The show Scared to Death (1947) was filmed in crude Cinecolor, yet is one of the most incompetent feature films I’ve ever seen.
Stepping back to 1941 gives us the Monogram release Invisible Ghost produced by Sam Katzman. As a story and screenplay it’s borderline hopeless, yet it’s a favorite of Bela Lugosi fans for several reasons. It has an interesting cast and despite the illogical goings-on Bela gets to play a consistently sympathetic main character. Most importantly, the show’s director is Joseph H. Lewis, a great talent on the rise. An escapee from series westerns, working at most every budget studio in town he built a solid reputation as a legit cinema artist. Invisible Ghost may be a narrative mess but it’s well directed just the same.
Murders are taking place in the country mansion of wealthy Charles Kessler (Bela Lugosi). Kessler’s daughter Virginia worries for him, as does their loyal butler Evans (Clarence Muse): every year on his wedding anniversary, Charles celebrates a lonely dinner with his missing wife, who left him years ago for another man. He talks to her empty chair. When the maid Cecile (Terry Walker) is found strangled in her bed the cops take a special interest. Circumstantial evidence points to Virginia’s fiancé Ralph (John McGuire). Against the Kesslers’ protests he’s arrested, indicted, convicted and executed for the killing. Soon thereafter Ralph’s identical brother Paul (also John McGuire) returns from South America in search of the guilty party. More killings ensue starting with the gardener Jules (Ernie Adams). Even with the police watching closely nobody can detect the murderer.
In actuality, the killer is revealed early on — it’s Charles Kessler. His ‘invisible’ wife (Betty Compson) is not dead. She lost her mind in a car crash that claimed her lover. She has been cared for by the gardener and his wife for years. The wife sneaks out at night, to walk to the main house and stare up at the windows. When Charles sees her he goes into a murderous trance. He has no memory of his evil deeds.
Invisible Ghost starts from a position of illogic and just digs itself deeper. No good excuse is given for the gardener Jules to hide the brain-addled wife all this time. When Jules is killed his wife keeps up the deception for him. Even though servants and visitors are dropping like flies in the Kessler mansion nobody moves out, and indeed nobody seems suspicious of anyone else or even all that inconvenienced. When the police detective Williams (George Pembroke) barges in to ask questions and snoops around — which seems like a daily occurrence — the occupants behave as if the murders are happening to other people, somewhere else. Everyone is vaguely concerned, and that’s it.
The show falls into the strange realm of lower-end Hollywood movies that attain a specific, poverty-inspired level of surrealism. When character motivation makes little sense, a weird feeling of dreamlike unreality sets in. Suddenly the sets begin to look like they’re made of paper. When the acting or direction is poor, the films can sometimes not hang together in the most basic way. Combine that irrational quality with the old experience of seeing shows in murky prints on fuzzy old TV reception in the middle of the night, and nothing makes sense. It was like a pre-drug drug experience. Plot events seem like non-sequiturs, as if it doesn’t matter in what order scenes occur. Without writing and acting clues to guide us, a show like Scared to Death can feel like a journey into madness.
Invisible Ghost is somewhat irrational but the feeling of dislocation is tempered by a couple of good performances and of course the good direction. The cops and most of the marginal characterizations are generic-colorless. An extra dreamlike kick is the dumb cop Ryan, played by an actor named Fred Kelsey, who always has a Hitler mustache and often wore a bowler hat. He apparently served as the blueprint for Tex Avery’s detective character in the bizarre cartoon Who Killed Who? (1943). When a character seems morphed from a cartoon the air of unreality just gets thicker.
The leading man and leading lady are an odd couple too. John McGuire plays the look-alike brother Paul as if he’s just Ralph, returned from the grave looking no worse for wear. As Virginia, Polly Ann Young so underplays the arrival of Paul, you’d think she’s had a lobotomy and also believes he’s Ralph. The attractive couple do little but react to events. More midnight killings in the house? Gee, that’s too bad. Let’s all go to bed in separate rooms behind unlocked doors. See you in the morning!
John McGuire had been a John Ford discovery, and in the great Will Rogers movie Steamboat ‘Round the Bend he played a proto- John Wayne hero, even going by the name ‘Duke.’ His character in the Ford film is unjustly accused and threatened with hanging, as well.
Invisible Ghost is the last feature film of Polly Ann Young, a former child actress who had a fairly tepid film career. She would seem to play a key role in an oft-told story about Joan Crawford. According to publicist Bob Thomas, back in the late ’20s the MGM starlet Crawford spent her nights polishing her image as a live wire by dancing and drinking at The Ambassador on Wilshire. To play the field of actors, producers and directors Crawford always went stag with some select girlfriends, and Polly seems to have been one of them. One evening Polly brought along her fourteen year-old younger sister, Loretta Young. Loretta was so gorgeous that she monopolized all the male attention, something that the already controlling and jealous Crawford couldn’t stand. Furious, she told Polly that there’d be hell to pay if that Loretta brat didn’t stay home where she belonged.
When we realize who’s sister she is Polly Ann Young suddenly looks even prettier. The answer to “Any more like you at home?” is a resounding Yes. All we really remember about Polly in Invisible Ghost is her big, dark eyes and her sentimental attraction to her father, Bela. There’s just no distinct character for her to play.
Kessler’s mystery wife is none other than Betty Compson, who is given sixth billing here yet twelve years before was a big star in the silent era. Only silent fans would know that she’s absolutely incandescent in Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928). Sternberg gave her the full visual treatment he later poured on Marlene Dietrich. Here in Invisible Ghost Betty has mussed hair, wears a ratty housecoat and has a faraway look in her eyes. All she does is wander to the house to ‘motivate’ Kessler’s murders. It is a strange role… as if the screenwriters worked backwards from that recurring, dreamlike image of Bela’s Kessler looking out the window, to see his ‘ghost’ wife in the light below. Did one of the writers have a dream of being haunted by a lost love? A dream that motivated them to wake up, run downstairs and raid the refrigerator?
A happy anomaly in Invisible Ghost is the part given Clarence Muse, an extremely popular black actor who was a genuine star in Monogram- level pictures and occasionally a featured performer in mainstream movies. Muse’s butler Evans is the most intelligent, self-possessed and thoughtful character we see. He’s always courteous but discreet, and clearly concerned for Charles Kessler. Evans doesn’t snitch about Ralph and Cecile to Virginia, and when he gives evidence to the cops he’s always honest and thorough.
The equal status given Evans is remarkable. When critic Joel E. Siegel wished to contrast producer Val Lewton’s progressive presentation of blacks relative to what the competition was doing, the example he gave was of Willie Best popping his eyes and running from a locked room, leaving an outline-shaped cartoon hole in the door. Everybody in Invisible Ghost treats Evans with dignity, even the dumbbell cop Ryan. Considering the state of blacks in Hollywood shows that detail adds fuel to the movie’s general feeling of dreamlike unreality.
The IMDB identifies co-writer Helen Martin as being the same person as the actress Helen Martin, a veteran of the American Negro theater and Broadway. She was a familiar comedienne on TV and the inspiration for Tyler Perry’s Madea character. Is she responsible for the respectful treatment given actor Clarence Muse? No, says researcher Tom Weaver; the IMDB is mistaken. In 1940 Ms. Martin was busy in the New York theater scene, and nowhere near Hollywood. It’s wise not to assume that the IMDB always has its facts straight.
Finally, there’s Bela’s Charles Kessler, the nice-guy killer. Kessler is a considerate softie all through the show, unaware of his murderous trances. All we can assume is that his killings are the result of the unexpressed rage at losing his wife. All of this remains unexplained. He doesn’t seem to want to kill the wife, so why does he want to kill other people, none of whom have any reason to become a target? He even threatens his own daughter. Invisible Ghost is a fave Lugosi picture because he has a great deal of screen time, his character is sympathetic, and his performance has consistency and even a little variety. He has a role to play, which is often not the case. Too bad the role doesn’t actually make sense.
The last and probably most important reason that Invisible Ghost feels more satisfying to film fans is the contribution of director Joseph H. Lewis. Although he can do nothing with the frustrating screenplay his movie departs from Monogram’s style-challenged norm. There are no show-off shots, just intelligent coverage, small camera moves, and expressive angles that create the illusion that something is going on, when it really isn’t. ‘Wagon Wheel Lewis’ shows off his penchant for shooting through foreground bric-a-brac early on, when hanging farm implements decorate a shot in the gardener’s rooms. Lewis also shoots a couple of scenes through a fire. Rather than a sloppy collection of coverage the film’s shots seem well planned.
Unable to fix the screwball script Lewis chooses to give distinction to Lugosi’s three hypno-trance scenes. The same depth composition recurs in each, looking down through the window to Mrs. Kessler on the grass below. A close-up of Lugosi goes out of focus, and then comes back to reveal him changed into a (quiet) maniac on an inexplicable murder mission.
Other choices animate scenes that would otherwise be dull. A brilliant audio selection enhances the moment when poor Cecile is discovered dead, hanging half out of her bed. We see the tableau from a discreet distance, through a doorway. Lewis (or somebody) makes the scene memorable by having her radio left on, playing a morning exercise broadcast. The limp body contrasts with the radio voice counting off numbers and exhorting listeners to ‘be alive.’ This is the kind of image-audio juxtaposition that Fritz Lang would approve of.
Invisible Ghost is barely watchable yet it’s a favorite of Bela Lugosi’s Poverty Row efforts. My mind usually drifts in movies like this, to the point where I have to look up a synopsis to remember what happened. Invisible Ghost kept my full attention at all times. Verdict — if you like Lugosi, it will appeal.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Invisible Ghost is a good scan of somewhat uneven surviving elements for this B&W picture, apparently re-issued by Astor Films. Licensed by Melange LLC, it somehow wandered into the Republic library, which itself was swallowed whole by Paramount-Viacom. The first reel or so looks like it’s coming from exellent quality footage, but most of the rest of the picture takes a step down to dupe material of a slightly lower quality. It’s definitely not some bogus source, though, and it’s surely the best the film has been in eons. It will please fans familiar with those wretched Public Domain copies we’ve seen.
Kino includes some horror trailers but the purchase-clincher here will likely be Tom Weaver’s audio commentary. The film is right up Tom’s avenue of expertise (and personal preference, methinks) and he gives us a good rundown on the limited data his researches and interviews have uncovered. He does say that it came up as the fave title in a fan poll of Lugosi pix from this period, which is another indication that it’s not a total dog. Tom practically has a variety show going in this commentary, as he hands off the microphone to four other experts — Gary Rhodes, Dr. Robert J. Kiss, Larry Blamire and Robert Tinnell. A couple of them simply relate anecdotes, remembering how they first encountered the film. Good show.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Almost Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tom Weaver, with guests Gary Rhodes and Dr. Robert J. Kiss; trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2017
Here’s Joe Dante on The Invisible Ghost
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson