With the advent of a new year (millennium, etc.), this seems an appropriate good to examine our roots. By which I mean the roots of the Bad Movie phenomena itself. As I mentioned in my amazing origin story, my ardor for Bad Movies seems a natural byproduct of my childhood love for the classic â€“ and not so classic — horror films of the 1930s and ’40s. As a kid, I was enrapt by the Universal horror pictures of legend. However, I, like many of my peers, lacked the discernment to much differentiate between those films and their skid row studio knockoffs. It was thus a boon, for us if not for himself, that Bela Lugosi’s career slide resulted in his appearing in seemingly dozens of these shoestring efforts. I mean, yes, even as a kid you could tell which of the period’s horror flicks were better than others. Still, anything with a Lugosi or Boris Karloff (or John Carradine or Lionel Atwill or George Zuccoâ€¦) was fine with me.
As I aged (oh, how I aged), my love for these films remained. At the same time, my recognition of their varying levels of quality deepened. This residual ability to both recognize and yet still love schlock is the touchstone of my now nearly lifelong hobby. Nor am I alone in this. Most hardcore Bad Movie fans, it seems, were similarly in the sway of genre fare whilst in their developmental years. Perhaps the cheesy sci-fi epics of the ’50s rather than the gothics of the ’30s and ’40s, but still. For many of us, this is where it all began.
And now new technologies allow us to revisit those innocent days of yore. Unfortunately, the old poverty row fare of which I speak no longer seems to appear much on television, particularly on what free TV stations are left. Yet amongst the varied benefits of the DVD revolution has been the reemergence of many of the goofy cheapjack Monogram and PRC movies that I grew up watching in the ’70s.
In particular, the poverty row oeuvre of Bela Lugosi has been made increasingly available. Due to the efforts of such distributors as The Roan Group (recently bought out by Troma â€“ keeping my fingers crossed), flicks like The Corpse Vanishes, Ghosts on the Loose and The Devil Bat have made themselves available to a new generation of fans. Aside from the reasonable prices, these discs also generally present by far the best presentation of such fare. Admittedly, the prints tend to be scratched up and sometimes the soundtracks are muffled or slightly distorted. Still, the transfers beat hands down any previous video editions. Besides, such defects only seem appropriate, and can even add to the nostalgia of watching these films.
Of greatest interest to fans of the classic horror age are the cheap horror, thriller and detective movies of this ilk starring Bela and his eternal co-partner in fame, Boris Karloff. As the legend goes, Lugosi inadvertently created his own worst rival. This occurred when he haughtily turned down the role of The Monster in Frankenstein, Universal’s quickly produced follow-up to Dracula. Lugosi liked neither the silent nature of the role nor the heavy make-up it would entail. Karloff got the part instead and made cinema history, and Lugosi would never again escape from his competitor’s shadow.
Karloff managed to star in the poverty row stuff while still maintaining a career in big studio fare. This was largely based on his far greater facility with the language and the fact that, let’s admit it, he was a better and more versatile actor than Lugosi. (Although Bela was capable of much better work than he is often given credit for. Check him out in The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein for examples of how good his acting could be.) Moreover, Lugosi was a spendthrift who was in constant need of money. This forced him to appear in whatever would earn him a fast buck. The resultant parade of schlock eventually caused the bigger studios, like Universal, to scorn his services. Even when he did get the occasional role in a major studio film, his lack of stature forced him to accept far less money than what, say, Karloff would have received for the same role.
Fate even conspired to rob Bela of appearances in his trademark role, Count Dracula. Despite his fame from the part, Lugosi was to play the Count only twice on film. (Ironically, this most profitable ‘appearance’ as Dracula emanated from a film from which his participation was cut, Dracula’s Daughter. Lugosi, at the short-lived peak of his career, had received a ‘play or pay’ contract for the picture.) Despite his success on the stage in the part â€“ Lugosi eventually would perform in the theatrical version of Dracula over ten thousand times â€“ Bela was only was cast in the 1931 film version after a number of other actors turned the part down. He wasn’t to re-don the cape cinematically until seventeen years later, in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Admittedly, he played a quite similar character in the underrated Return of the Vampire, but that was made by Columbia. Afraid of being sued by Universal, the studio named their undead predator Baron Latos. Universal, meanwhile, was trying to fashion Lon Chaney, Jr., as a one-man monster factory. Thus he rather than Lugosi was assigned title role in Son of Dracula. (The worst part is that Chaney was utterly miscast in the part.) Following that miscue, the rather more appropriate John Carradine was tapped to play the part. He assayed the Count in brief appearances in the monster rally flicks House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. The gaunt Carradine, with his Shakespeare-trained pipes, made a great Count. Sadly, he never got to play the part at length until he was well too old to do so properly.
Meanwhile, the bitter Lugosi went from one schlockfest to the next. By the late ’30s, he was starring in six The Ape Man’s for every small part in a The Wolf Man or Ghost of Frankenstein. He in time became addicted to drugs and was unable to procure work of any kind. By the time he checked himself into a clinic and kicked the habit (to the extent he did), he was an emaciated shadow of his former self. He was rescued, in a manner of speaking, by Ed Wood, Jr., who was thrilled to work with such a ‘name’ actor. While there was an element of exploitation in Wood’s patronage, he was the only person to provide Lugosi with the work he so desperately craved. Lugosi eventually passed away after filming a few minutes of Wood’s projected The Vampire’s Tomb. Famously, Wood was to later build the sparse amount of footage into Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Despite all this, though, Lugosi left an impressive amount of work behind. Of good to great films, he starred in Dracula, The Black Cat, The Raven, Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Ray and others. Meanwhile, his Poverty Row junk towers over that of such competitors as Lionel Atwill or George Zucco. That’s because Lugosi was too much of a pro, or a ham, if you’re being uncharitable, to phone in even the worst role. No matter whether a prestige Universal film or the most atrocious example of production line hackwork, Lugosi always gave you your money’s worth. He was never the actor Karloff was, but his sheer screen presence consistently proved hypnotic. Films that would be nearly unwatchable sixty years later instead remain a treat due to that ineffable Lugosi magic.
In some ways, Invisible Ghost is too good to be here. Take the contributions of journeyman director Joseph H. Lewis, for example. He really tried to jazz up the film beyond what was warranted by its miniscule budget and shooting schedule. Admittedly, the movie can’t stand up against the slick product the major studios were turning out. Still, it’s head and shoulders above the flatly directed efforts of hacks like William ‘One Shot’ Beaudine.
Comparatively innovative set-ups, like shooting through the flames of a fireplace, lend at least an attempted air of professionalism to the film. Even the numerous dolly shots employed here are somewhat ambitious for pictures of this ilk. The film always moves fairly quickly, although even at sixty-two minutes it sometimes lags. The death count is also surprisingly high. Of especial note is the work of black actor Charles Muse. While he does play a butler, he’s never employed for the kind of cheap ‘Negro’ humor that can often make films from this period so wince inducing. Instead, Muse is allowed to project a real intelligence and dignity, while his loyalty to his employer comes off as sort of noble.
Lewis would go on to become a director with a cult following of his own, due largely to a series of innovative film noirs in the ’40s and 50s that include Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. (Meanwhile, our friend Sgt. Andrew Borntreger over at Badmovies.org might be more interested in his 1952 epic Retreat, Hell!, aka You Can’t Stop the Marines.) Mr. Lewis also directed the Lionel Atwill programmer Mad Doctor of Market Street, which is sorta-kinda a Dr. Moreau knock-off, as well as a couple of early East Side Kids movies.
Even given the above, though, the film is so entirely goofy that I can’t resist giving it the full treatment. Lugosi certainly produced worse films amongst the eight he made for Monogram (this being the first), and the stuff he made with Wood makes this look like Gone With the Wind. Still, in terms of laugh out loud moments, loony plot twists and almost surrealistic character reactions, this definitely holds its own.
In essence, these films are the forefathers of the cheesy drive-in flicks put forth two decades later by people like Roger Corman. The major factor was that this was before television. People seeking cheap entertainment had to leave their homes. (Just as the ’50s drive-in market was sustained by a new class of automobile-owning teenagers, who possessed the wherewithal to flee the house when seeking their amusement.) In order to lure people out, theatres would offer packages of programming that would often last three to four hours. Studios like Monogram provided the ‘B’ movie, or the second feature used to fill out the then prevalent double bills. These, in turn, were buffered by coming attractions trailers, cartoon, news and comedy shorts, whatever. It wasn’t economical for studios to put two big-budget movies on one bill, for obvious reasons. Therefore, like the small fish that consume whatever the big fish leave behind, you got the poverty row studios. Perhaps a better analogy would be to the lampreys that hang off of sharks. It was, after all, a symbiotic relationship.
As with Corman two decades later, the Minors, as they were known, luxuriated in a remarkable situation. Almost any movie they produced would turn at least a small profit if kept to a strict budget. Therefore genre pictures â€“ detective movies, westerns, jungle films, horror flicks, etc., — were their cash cows. Genre films, by their very definition, are marked by their employment of accepted conventions. In a mystery someone is murdered, and the crime gets solved. In a western someone employs force to achieve their gains until shot down (or, more rarely, arrested) by the hero. And so on. The advantage was that the very conventions that defined such fare acted as templates that allowed them to be quickly assembled. Scripts would be dashed out and shooting periods would often last only a week. The idea was to make whatever sort of flick you could that fell into the correct budget range and would run sixty or so minutes.
Also as with Corman, an insatiable appetite for certain types of films meant that rapidity and economy in their production meant more than their actual execution. You stayed around for the second feature because you wanted to see a western or whatever, not particularly because you wanted to see a good western. If that was the case, you could wait until the majors made one. However, genre fans always want to see a new film, and seldom worry that much about how good it is. That hasn’t changed much. Moreover, the films were much shorter and tended to clip along at a fast rate. Since they were the ‘B’ movies, even general audiences learned to expect an often roughshod attitude towards logic and acting. They just didn’t want to be bored.
I should also tip my figurative hat to Invisible Ghost producer Sam Katzman. Few people could out-frugal this prolific fellow, as evidenced by the more than two hundred films he made in his thirty-odd year career. Katzman pioneered such money-saving devices as having crowds in his sci-fi pictures, such as The Giant Claw (our very first subject here), point in all different directions. This allowed him to cut in his menace from any direction he wished in post-production. Amongst Katzman’s Jabootu-ish fare we can include numerous Bowery Boys and Jungle Jim flicks, most of Lugosi’s prime schlock and genre titles such as The Werewolf, Creature with the Atomic Brain, Zombies of Mora Tau and the laff-riot JD potboiler Hot Rods to Hell. He also basically invented the Rock ‘n’ Roll picture with 1956’s Rock Around the Clock. In that latter vein he was eventually to produce a couple of particularly horrendous Elvis movies as well as the Roy Orbison curio The Fastest Guitar Alive. In fact, other then a couple of collaborations with stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen (It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, both produced prior [!!] to The Giant Claw), one can search in vain for a decent title in his copious credits.
Since this is an economically paced film, events (often) clip along in a swift fashion. We open with kindly Mr. Kessler (Lugosi) coming down the stairway of his home. As he reaches the main hallway he greets Evans, the butler, and then stops to gaze upon a woman’s portrait. Given how they’re dwelling upon this object in the very first scene of the film, I think we can safely assume that it’s ‘important.’ Informed that dinner is ready, Kessler enters the dining room. We are now served up our second clue as to where this film will be heading. For before taking his seat, Kessler pauses to address an empty chair at the dining table. A chair which, although unoccupied, has a full place setting laid out before it.
“You’re more beautiful than ever this evenink,” Kessler proclaims to his phantom dining companion. Evans begins to serve him soup, but is told to attend to “Mrs. Kessler” first. Nodding, Evans pantomimes out his appointed role. He then leaves the room and meets Virginia, Kessler’s daughter. They begin to discuss her father when the doorbell rings. Virginia answers the door and is chagrined to find Ralph, her beau. “I told you not to come here this evening,” she blurts. Ralph, who frankly comes off as a bit callow (i.e., a jerk), inquires, “What’s all the mystery about?”
Virginia makes to lead him into the library. However, Ralph has noted something happening in the dining room and heads over for a peek. (See prior note about his being a jerk.) By the time she catches up he’s witnessed her father conversing with his invisible tablemate. Here, less than four minutes into things, we get the plot spelled out for us. Pulling him into the library, Virginia spills the beans. Her mother died “several years ago” in a car accident, whilst attempting to run off with Kessler’s best friend. Kessler had worshipped his wife (no kidding!), and every year on their wedding anniversary he goes into this spell where he imagines her company for the evening.
Assuring her that he still loves her (yeah, wow), Ralph takes her into one of those almost-an-embrace things movie characters did back in the ’40s. They also indulge in a quick buss, which I felt a tad inappropriate for two people not even married yet, but there you go. In the midst of all this prurience Ralph senses a presence. Looking up, he sees Cecile the Maid. She’s standing at Virginia’s back and casting him a saucy come hither glance. From Ralph’s perturbed expression, we can tell that something’s going on between them. The moment is broken when the unknowing Virginia suggests to Ralph that they go for a ride.
Cecile heads for the kitchen, where Evans and Jules Mason, the gardener, are attending to various duties. A little expository dialog reveals that she’s just recently taken the job. She tries to get Evans to gossip about Ralph, but he won’t go for it. Then she complains about this being a “crazy house.” In case you’ve been thinking that the film’s first five minutes have been pretty slow, this is where it really starts taking off. Now that she’s that got a head of steam up, Cecile goes off on another subject. “And what about those murders?” she asks. “Jules says theirs been a lot of them! And no one’s ever been able to find out who did the killings!” Yeah, that’s probably something you’d want to ask about. Evans reacts by taking Jules to task for being a blabbermouth (!). He then deftly distracts Cecile by showing her where they keep the linens (!!). Yeah, sheets, murders, it’s all good.
As they leave, Jules surreptitiously reaches into his coat and removes a folded up paper bag. He then heads over to the fridge and begins to remove some food. To make sure we don’t just take him for a mooch, this is accompanied by dramatic music. Following this, he exits through the back door and out to the estate’s largish gardening shed, some distance from the house. There he lights a tiny candle-in-a-wine-bottle, which oddly begins to generate a klieg light’s worth of illumination a few seconds after it’s lit. Then he climbs down a handy trapdoor into the shed’s surprisingly roomy cellar. (I’m sure there’s also an acid pit down there somewhere.) Here we find none other than Mrs. Kessler hidden away, still very much among the living. (!!) Dressed in a ratty bathrobe, she’s apparently become rather addled from her ordeal.
“I want to go home,” she blankly peeps. “As soon as you feel better,” Jules replies, “I’m going to take you to your husband and daughter.” OK, let me see if I have this straight. Jules found Mrs. Kessler alive but ailing after the car she was fleeing her husband in crashed. He then decided that the best idea was to hide her in the gardening shed until she was well enough to go back to her family. This, uh, singular course of action he proceeded to follow, even after she was presumed to have died in the accident. Now, I don’t want to be unkind, but this situation really raises more questions than it answers.
* For instance, why would anyone think she was dead if no body was ever found? Do car crashes often result in missing bodies? Is this merely supposed to be a fiction that the family uses to skirt around the issue? Or is it supposed to be an official finding?
* How long is Jules planning to wait? I mean, Virginia said it’s been “several years” since the accident!
* If all these murders keep occurring at the house, what does it say about the cops that they’ve never stumbled over Mrs. Kessler’s rather transparent hiding place during the presumably numerous resultant investigations?
* If Jules has been sneaking her substance from the Kessler’s kitchen, wouldn’t Evans have noticed all the missing food over the years? He seems pretty on the ball.
* By the way, why does a gardening shed (well, building â€“ I thought it was the garage at first) sport a cellar, much less one with what must be a fifteen-foot high ceiling?
Anyhoo. Jules, having to get home to the wife, takes his leave. To our amusement, Mrs. Mason is in on the situation, too. Serving dinner, she asks, “Why don’t you tell Mr. Kessler about his wife?” Now, this seems like a fair question. Still, might it not have been more logically raised some time previously in the years he’s hidden her away? In any case, and I’m sure this is merely a coincidence, the query allows Jules to fill in the audience on the motivation for his actions. It’s basically because he wants to protect his beloved employer. “It would kill him if he saw her the way she is,” he explains. Good enough, my man.
“Jules, I’ve been thinking,” his wife continues. “Maybe she had something to do with all of these horrible murders.” Again, this seems the sort of topic that might have been discussed in times past. Jules isn’t buying it, though. “She’s like a child,” he notes. “She’s still dazed from the accident.” However, it strikes him that if anyone should learn of his hiding Mrs. Kessler, they might suspect him of the murders. (Huh? What?) Having reached this, er, unique conclusion, he makes a decision. “We must never tell anyone,” he warns his wife. Hmm.
Questions raised by this scene:
* How much time will Mrs. Kessler remain ‘dazed’ before it strikes Jules that she might require professional medical attention?
* Again, after the first three or four or however many murders, wouldn’t you think to mention this odd situation to the cops?
* Jules and the wife seem pretty lovey-dovey. Even given her odd acquiescence towards her husband’s bizarre antics, wouldn’t she eventually ask him to look for work somewhere less murder-prone?
* And given that Jules expects to return Mrs. Kessler home “soon,” whatever that might mean in this particular context, how does he expect “never” to tell anyone that he was the one hiding her?
We cut to Virginia and Ralph returning from their drive. (Given when this was made, I was a little surprised at seeing Virginia behind the wheel.) Damn, they made gigantically huge and cool cars in those days! Sigh. Anyway. Spying upon them is Cecile, who’s out having a smoke. Virginia heads inside, whereupon Ralph makes to walk home through the surrounding trees. As he approaches these, Cecile intercepts him. She turns out to be an old flame of Ralph’s and they begin to argue. She wants him back, he loves Virginia, she threatens to spill their sordid past, etc. Meanwhile, Evans, who’s come outside to take the car to the garage, is witness to their spat.
Questions raised by this scene:
* Isn’t it sort of a coincidence that Cecile is now working at the Kessler house? They don’t intimate that she got a job there on purpose, anyway.
* The confrontation takes place in the clearing from which Cecile watched Ralph and Virginia leave the car. This establishes a clear sightline to the automobile. Which is where Evans is now standing and watching them in turn. So how could they possibly not notice him there?
Inside, Virginia is telling Kessler that she thinks Ralph is the one. She expects him to pop the question any time now. (A nice touch is that there’s another picture of Mrs. Kessler on Kessler’s desk. It adds to the idea of his ongoing obsession with her.) Her father happily gives his approval. Having said her piece, Virgina runs upstairs to retire. Evans enters and inquires as to whether anything else will be needed. Kessler notices that the butler has injured his hand. Concerned that it might become infected, Kessler demands that he be allowed to properly bandage it. He then warmly thanks Evans for the special dinner arrangements. Admittedly, this is all done with broad strokes. Still, it works well to establish that Kessler is, in general, a pretty kindly gent. It also helps to explain why Evans and Jules feel such loyalty towards him. (Whether this kindness is enough to justify their continuing to work in a murder house, or Jules keeping Mrs. Kessler hidden in the gardening shed, is another matter.)
Now things start percolating. Kessler is shown to be reading in his room before retiring. Next we see Mrs. Kessler wander outside from the shed. Apparently sensing her presence, Kessler goes to his window and sees his wife. “You’d kill me,” she mumbles, looking up. “You’d kill anybody!” At this point, Kessler *cough* pretty obviously enters into a trance. Walking in that stiff, “I’m in a trance” manner, he wanders downstairs. (Watch for when Bela, having to stare dully forward, almost trips coming down the stairs.) As you might expect from the setup so far, he ends up outside Cecile’s door. As he enters we see her sitting up in bed. This film really was a bit racy for the time. She rather nonchalantly watches as Kessler removes his dressing gown, perhaps misunderstanding his motives. All in a day’s work, I suppose. However, Kessler’s maniacal grin soon tells the tale, and he smothers her to death with his heavy robe.
Questions raised by this scene:
* Wouldn’t it be prudent, given the murders that are constantly happening here, to have the staff keep their doors locked at night?
* Even if you weren’t told to do so, wouldn’t you anyway if, like Cecile, you knew of the house’s history?
The next morning, Evens goes to Cecile’s room to see where she is. (Wow! Continuity! Evans actually still has the bandage on his hand.) Getting no response after repeating knocking on her door, he opens it to find her body.
Questions raised by this scene:
* I have to say, Evens seems a bit slow to get worried here. I mean, let’s examine this. The phrase “all these murders” keeps getting used. Given that, I’m assuming that there have been, at a minimum, three murders in the house over the last “several years.” Two murders, it seems to me, wouldn’t warrant the word “all.” Three, meanwhile, would just be the smallest number that would qualify. Four or even more killings seems even more likely. Given this, I’d be half expecting to stumble across a body every time I turned around.
Being a good Gentleman’s Gentleman, Evans heads upstairs to fill in the boss before alerting the police. (On the other hand, given the authorities apparent track record here, this doesn’t really seem all that unreasonable.) Shocked, Kessler tells him to phone the cops before heading downstairs to see if anything can be done. It’s apparent that he has no memories of his murderous spells.
Police Lieutenant Williams is soon on the scene, asking questions in the parlor. He mentions that Cecile died the same way as “the chauffer, six months ago.” One difference is that there’s a clue this time, a note from a fellow “giving her the air.” Meanwhile, he expresses surprise that Kessler has decided to remain in the house after all this. Looking uncomfortable, Kessler explains that he stays for “sentimental reasons.” When this fails to impress, Virginia explains that “[m]y mother lived here, Lt.” Again, isn’t this the sort of fact that might have gleaned during one of the earlier investigations? No wonder none of these things have been solved yet.
Questions raised by this scene:
* I don’t want to beat this to death. Still, might it not strike the police that perhaps a maniac of some sort is hanging around the grounds? As far as I can tell, there are three largish structures on the estate: The house, the garage (which we never see) and the gardening shed. These latter, however, have quite evidently never been searched. We know this because when Jules entered the shed earlier in the movie he walked right over and opened the completely unobscured trap door! I mean, he hadn’t even lain a blanket over it! This is necessary, of course. Plot-wise, he mustn’t have cause to suspect that Mrs. Kessler’s been leaving the shed, and there’s no way she could re-cover the trap door after going back down into the cellar.
After one question — “You’re the gardener?” — the Lieutenant waves off Jules. At this point the reason for William’s poor rate of success is becoming rather clear. Inspector Clouseau’s interrogation of the household staff in The Pink Panther Strikes Again was model police work compared to this. (Admittedly, though, Williams doesn’t blemish a priceless Steinway.) Here he finally seems to notice that the note to Cecile is signed, by “Ralph.” Hey, yeah, that’s some good detective work there, Lieutenant. Virginia, naturally, is shocked, but remains convinced that it’s another ‘Ralph.’ Her faith is soon shaken when Evans explains about the set-to he saw between Ralph and Cecile the night before.
This is an interesting little display of shoddy plot mechanics. While it doesn’t jump out at you, the scene progresses through all the relevant points with an eye towards speed. (Again, the creed of these films was to keep them moving briskly along.) Here’s what I mean. Williams notices the signature. In response, Virginia explains that she’s “practically engaged” to a Ralph. However, rather than following up on this, the detective instead turns and asks Evans if he saw anything unusual last night. Of course, we know that he did, because he saw him see it. However, for the Lieutenant to jump from the note to suddenly asking Evans this seemingly out-of-left-field yet pivotal question is obviously meant to keep the scene as short as possible.
How quickly do these things move? We cut directly from Evans’ description of Ralph and Cecile’s conversation — phrased by the script, needless to say, for maximum circumstantial damage — to a typically screaming headline in “The Daily World” (!) relating that “ENGINEER ACCUSED OF MURDER”. Ralph is next seen explaining things to Virginia. “I knew Cecile a couple of years,” he explains. “She offered me the companionship I needed.” Well, that’s one way to phrase it. Freaked by Cecile’s sudden reappearance, Ralph decided to take a long, lonely drive into the country. What, you thought he’d have an alibi or something? Still, he maintains his innocence, although only Kessler and his daughter believe him. (Notice that Ralph has no family or friends of his own present. Extraneous characters would only slow things down.)
Cut to the trial, which will be portrayed in a snazzy series of character close-ups. This proves a somewhat hit or miss technique. In terms of being a respectable directorial gambit, it’s a success. In terms of disguising the fact that the filmmakers didn’t have an actual courtroom set at their disposal, it doesn’t quite work so well. During this sequence we see Jules on the stand. I thought this a bit odd, since he doesn’t know anything (that he’s revealing, anyway) which would seem of any possible interest to either the defense or the prosecution.
Next we hear the Prosecutor. “The Coroner’s testimony,” he proclaims, “should convince you that the defendant had sufficient reason for wanting to be rid of the victim.” This would also be a tad strange, were it true. Testimony from a coroner would presumably be on forensic issues, and thus not go to motive. Perhaps they mean the jury would glean this from the findings of a Coroner’s Inquest. One might have been convened to officially establish whether Cecile’s death looked to be a homicide, and if the matter should be brought to trial. On the other hand, maybe I’m thinking about this more than the filmmakers did.
Even more bizarre is that the Prosecutor’s statement is declarative in nature. This would lead the average court watcher to assume that the remark emanated from either his opening statement or his final arguments. Yet we hear it said in between shots of Jules and then Evans testifying on the stand.
You know, I believe I am thinking about this more than the filmmakers did.
Now they knew how to dish out some justice in those days, even if they got some of the details wrong. (Like convicting the wrong guy, that sort of thing.) So Ralph is quickly sentenced to take a ride on Ol’ Sparky. We next see him on visiting day, listening to Virginia through a chicken-wire barrier. Two things struck me about this scene. First, Ralph is still wearing his civilian clothes, including his suit jacket. Frankly, I think after you’ve been given a death sentence you pretty much are required to wear prison garb. More amusing is that the actress playing Virginia is clearly looking a bit off to her right, rather than at Ralph, who’s sitting directly in front of her. I can only assume that this sequence was a late addition to the script. If I’ve not mistaken, she’s looking in that direction so as to read her lines off a cue card.
Kessler and Virginia meet with the Governor, pleading for a stay. This, needless to say, goes nowhere. We then cut to a cleric offering Ralph a final bit of consolation. The guards arrive and they head off for that last walk. This scene is illustrative of how director Lewis manages to lend the film some atmosphere while adhering to his miserly budget. Utilizing some minimal sets and imaginative lighting, he’s able to make this sequence surprisingly effective. We then cut to the Kessler place. The phone rings, and Kessler informs Virginia that the execution has taken place.
We jump to some time shortly in the future. Evans is seen answering the front bell. Opening the door, he’s rather surprised to find Ralph standing on the doorstep. This is another scene much to the filmmakers’ credit. It would have been extraordinarily easy to have actor Muse do an eye-popping ‘Comical Negro’ reaction take to this, yet they don’t. Instead, he merely looks shocked, as you might imagine he would. Ralph asks to see the Kesslers. The shaken Evans commits a rare domestic faux pas by merely pointing him towards the dining room, rather than going ahead and warning his employer.
Ralph enters the room with a mild “I hope I’m not intruding.” Looking up, the Kesslers react with some bewilderment — although not as much as you might think — upon being confronted by this apparition. The situation is soon explained, however, when the man reveals himself to be Paul, Ralph’s twin brother. (!!) He’s been in South America, we learn, and has only just arrived back in the States. I was less than surprised to hear this, as films of the time often sent characters south of the border when the script required them to be incommunicado.
Kessler comments on his amazing resemblance to his late brother. (Actually, they don’t look exactly alike â€“ Ralph wore his shirts with an open collar, while his sibling tends to wear a tie.) Paul blandly responds with a somewhat lame “Sorry to have startled you.” Making this remark even funnier is that Paul reveals that Ralph had written him of his relationship with Virginia. I mean, think about it. You learn that your exact twin has been executed, and so you head straight to the house of his lover, who you’ve never met. Moreover, you do so without in sending any word first, or even knowing if she’s aware that you exist. I don’t know, I have a feeling Miss Manners would call him to task on this. Anyway, he’s just lucky that Virginia doesn’t have a weak heart or anything.
Questions raised by this scene:
* So, Paul is like the biggest, most inconsiderate jerk in history, right?
By the way, in case you’re thinking of cutting the film some slack due to its age, don’t. The ‘twin brother’ trope was a wheezy chestnut even back in the ’40s. Even better, considering how the film treats this moronic device as a big plot twist, is that actor John McGuire is quite clearly announced to be playing two parts â€“ and this is in the film’s opening credits.
Anyway, back to our photoplay. Evans checks into the kitchen to engage in a little â€“ very little â€“ bit of comic relief with Jules. “Do I look pale?” he ‘humorously’ asks, the film’s sole attempt to play off of the actor’s race. Meanwhile, Paul is in the dining room hashing things out with the Kesslers, who seem to have rather quickly adapted to the situation. “Did he have a good attorney?” he asks. “Oh, one of the very best!” Virginia replies. “He’s handled all of Dad’s legal affairs for years!” Now, I don’t want to be picky. Still, unless Kessler had led a very different life than they’ve suggested so far, this would indicate someone who doesn’t do criminal law for a living. This would be akin to asking if a relative who died on the operating table had a good heart surgeon, and being told, “Oh, yes, why the man’s been our family doctor for ever!”
After coffee, the three repair to the parlor, a much more appropriate venue for discussing the trial and execution of Paul’s brother. Paul admits that he’d like to stay around and find out who actually murdered Cecile. “It’s something I would like to know too,” Kessler observes. Yeah, it must be inconvenient having to replace the dead help all the time. After all, here it is six months later and they still haven’t gotten a new chauffer yet. In any case, Kessler invites Paul to stay with them, despite the fact that you’d think Virginia might find that a tad creepy.
Around about this time Mrs. Kessler â€“ remember her? — goes out for another little stroll. Meanwhile, Kessler calls Paul from the top of the stairs, intending to show him his room. (Watch how Paul nonchalantly places his hand on Virginia’s back to guide her up the stairs. Her complete lack of reaction to this slayed me.) Anyway, we cut to Kessler reading in his room, when again he stands and walks over to his window. There’s the wife, and here comes the trance. Kessler ambles out to the hallway and heads downstairs. He sees Evans enter the dining room and we assume that he’s toast. Off comes the robe, but Evans has exited by the time Kessler springs.
Kessler ducks into the back quarters in search of prey and finds Jules ransacking the refrigerator. (That Evans seemed to be cleaning up the dining room but failed to head to the kitchen himself seems a bit, shall we say, convenient.) Anyway, exit Jules. Evans enters the kitchen the next morning to find his body sprawled across the floor. Evans is so shocked that he actually calls the police before reporting the incident to Kessler. When Kessler is informed, he reacts to the news like someone who keeps getting ants despite having the exterminator in every month. I also like how Evans tells him that “the gardener” is dead. You’d think they could at least refer to him by name.
Questions raised by this scene:
* Presumably Jules was raiding the fridge for Mrs. Kessler. Soâ€¦where does he live? What, he goes home after work, has dinner, and then back to the Kessler house to steal food? And he does this when Evans is still up and about? And this has been going on for years and no one’s caught on?
* Jules’ wife seemed a pretty diligent sort. Don’t you think she would have raised a cry at her husband’s night long absence, especially given the whole Murder House thing?
Lt. Williams arrives and examines the corpse. (Latest in a series, collect ’em all.) “Strangled,” he notes. “Well, here we go again!” Here we learn that Jules had worked for Kessler for about three years. This is bad scripting. Mrs. Kessler’s accident, we keep hearing, happened “several” years ago. This would seem to indicate that we’re talking at least two years. Jules’ bizarre loyalty to his employer would make more sense if he’d been working for Kessler longer than a year before the incident occurred. Admittedly, not a great deal more sense, but stillâ€¦
Told that Kessler has a houseguest (in such a way that he doesn’t learn his identity), Williams sends for the guy. As you might imagine, he’s somewhat surprised to see Paul walk in, having arrested his identical twin for murder. They repair to the library â€“ of course â€“ to continue one of the Lieutenant’s trademark cursory investigations. Kessler asks if strangulation wouldn’t have left a mark on the throat. “There weren’t any on [Cecile],” Williams replies, an observation you’d think he’d avoid offering, given the circumstances. Paul, unsurprisingly, jumps on his statement. “And they were killed the same way, is that right?” he asks. “That doesn’t prove a thing!” Williams replies. “All the others got it, always the same way!” Which doesn’t really seem like a point he should be making right at that particular moment.
Williams leaves the room and Paul asks Virginia what he meant by “the others.” She explains about the other murders. Here we get another classic reaction. Rather than jumping up and yelling, “Holy crap! This was raised at the trial, right?!”, he instead asks, “Why in the world do you stay in this place?” (!!) Her answer? “We can’t leave.” Yeah, because then there’d be no movie.
I think I’ve been pretty patient about this. Still, now that the point has been at least tacitly raised, how the hell did a jury convict Ralph on that murder charge? Yes, there was a circumstantial case against him, and a fairly strong one. And I’ll even grant, for argument’s sake, that juries were quicker to convict in those days. Even so, you’d have to think a prior series of murders in the same locale, following the same M.O., would constitute ‘reasonable doubt’ to just about anybody. Hell, Lt. Williams, and during the investigation, publicly noted that Cecile died in the same manner as the Kesslers’ chauffer had half a year earlier. Once they got him to admit this on the stand, the prosecutor’s case would gone up like the Hindenburg.
Paul, still sort of bugged by the whole ‘other murders’ things, intercepts Williams in the hallway. “What’s bothering ya?” the detective asks. (!!) Paul replies that he’d like info on these ‘other murders’ he’s been hearing about. “Well, there’s been quite a lot of ’em,” Williams replies. “Some of the best brains in the department have tried to solve them.” (Psst! Search the gardening shed, dumbass!) “Were the other murders brought up at my brother’s trial?” Paul inquires. Here Williams finally seems to get what the bee in Paul’s bonnet is. “That was different,” he responds. “That was a cut and dry case!” Also, technically, shouldn’t Paul be asking Ralph’s lawyer about that? Seems like a point he might have wanted to raise to the jury, being, you know, the attorney for the defense and all.
Apparently figuring that there’s no use arguing the point (!!), Paul more or shrugs and moves on. He asks why they haven’t “closed down” the house. Williams explains that they tried, but Kessler took them to court. Then he continues by noting that Kessler apparently wanted to stay because, and I quote: “I guess he’s waiting for his wife to come back. She left him several years ago. An awful scandal at the time.” With that, Williams takes his leave, and he and Paul politely nod to one another as he goes. (!!)
Questions raised by this scene:
* Wait, uhâ€¦isn’t Mrs. Kessler supposed to have officially died in the car crash? Because that’s not what comes across from Williams’ statement.
* If Kessler has litigated against police actions to close his house, and if this was such “an awful scandal,” how could Williams not have known, as we saw him ask earlier, why the Kesslers stay in the house?
Kessler receives a plot contrivance, er, phone call, asking him down to the Coroner’s office. (?) When next we see him, he’s telling that worthy “that’s all the information I can give you.” Huh? When do witnesses get called down to the Coroner’s office to give their statements? Shouldn’t that office be getting their info from the investigating police officer? (Of course, given what a chowder head Williams is, perhaps the Coroner’s Office was learned to work around him whenever possible.) Kessler asks if they’ve notified Jules’ wife about the murder yet. Now, I don’t know what Emily Post has to say about this situation. Still, it might be nice for Kessler to personally give her a ring, given how her husband was the latest in a chain of homicides that have occurred in his house. I don’t know, a sympathy card just doesn’t seem to cut it.
Coincidentally enough, Jules’ wife at that moment pops into the Coroner’s office, wanting to see the body. She acts like she’s never seen Kessler before (?) and he keeps quiet as she enters the connecting room. You know, the large, empty room that abuts the office of the Coroner and contains nothing but the table holding Jules’ body, which is kept under a sheet. That room. Here we get a scene so inexplicably moronic and weird that I still don’t know what to make of it. The Coroner leaves and she lifts the sheet to findâ€¦that Jules is still alive! (??!!) She screams and Kessler runs into the room. Upon seeing the man who tried to kill him, however, Jules immediately dies of shock! (Or something.) I mean, what’s the bloody point? Was the movie a few minutes short, and the producer told them to whip up another big ‘shock’ bit for the trailer? I mean, what the hell?!
We cut to Kessler and Paul discussing the incident in the dining room. “It was ghastly,” Kessler explains. “I don’t believe I was ever more startled in my life.” Yeah, that’d be up there, I guess. Paul, meanwhile, reveals his own keen insights into the Human Condition. “It must have been a terrific shock to see him come back to life,” he offers. Evans enters, apologizing for dinner being late. The new cook (!) is having a bit of trouble. Back in the kitchen we meet her, a matronly woman named Maria. She’s burned the roast and fears she’ll be fired. “I like it here,” she explains, having apparently formed this opinion in the hours that she’s been employed there. “It’s so nice and quiet.” Evans raises an eyebrow. “Ever read the papers?” he asks. “No, they’re just full of trash,” she responds. “Murders and stuff.” “Well, what you don’t knowâ€¦” a phrase Evans begins and then conspicuously fails to finish. Ha! It’s funny, because she could end up being murdered and doesn’t even know it! What a hoot!
Questions raised by this scene:
* Where do they keep finding staff for this place? Given Williams’ comment that there have been “quite a few” murders here, which at this point I must assume to mean at least five or six, well, you’d think word would get around. This is, after all, a town where a wife running off with another man was regarded as an “awful scandal.” You think a house where they were always tripping over murder victims would also inspire its share of gossip.
* Do they just hire anybody who shows up? We know a chauffer was killed. Yet it’s now more than six months later, and no new chauffer. Then Cecile gets killed. No new maid. Then the gardener gets whacked, and who do they hire? A cook! Am I missing something?
Evans later goes to the library and reports to Kessler that the cook is talking of quitting. She feels that she ruined dinner, and thus should quietly withdraw from the position. Kessler, kindly soul that he is, won’t hear of it. He heads to the kitchen and fulsomely praises her culinary efforts. Reassured, the cook decides to stay.
Questions raised by this scene:
* Again, I think this scene is meant to portray what a lovable and easygoing chap Kessler is. No one involved with the film, either the characters or the people actually making it, seems to think that either Kessler or Evans has any sort of obligation to warn new staff that they might well end up being strangled to death. If anything, the film seems to find the situation somewhat comical. In fact, when I think about it, nobody really seems all that stirred up about the killings at all. When one happens everyone reacts in an “Oh, boy, not again!” fashion until the whole thing blows over in a day or two. Certainly, there’s never a point in the proceedings in which anyone expresses unease at staying in the place.
Paul and Virginia retire to their respective rooms. Meanwhile, Kessler, still downstairs in the library, gets that old familiar feeling. Turning, he sees Mrs. Kessler glaring at him through a storm-lashed window. (Wouldn’t you think that sooner or later Jules’ widow would decide to tell somebody about Mrs. Kessler being in the gardening shed?) Kessler begins to head for the back of the house, but changes his mind and goes upstairs instead. He strolls around a while, eating up running time. Er, I mean, increasing suspense. Finally he enters *gasp* Virginia’s room, the door to which, needless to say, is unlocked. He removes his robe and is slooowly moving in for the kill whenâ€¦lightning strikes and brings him to his senses. Confused, he heads back downstairs. Paul has seen the last part of this and follows him, asking if anything is wrong. Kessler (Lugosi does a pretty good job of conveying his befuddlement here) reassures him and sends him back up to bed. The respite is short, however, for Mrs. Kessler is still lurking outside. Kessler again appears to enter his trance.
Questions raised by this scene:
* Does Kessler’s compulsion force him to walk a flight of stairs when before he kills someone? I mean, the two times he’s upstairs, he walks downstairs to find a victim. This time he’s downstairs, and does the opposite. (Note: If I were naturally suspicious, I might conjecture that the filmmakers have Kessler traverse the stairs before each killing so as to pad out the running time.)
Kessler, Paul and Virginia come downstairs the next morning. There they are shocked to find that the portrait of Mrs. Kessler has been savagely vandalized. Frightened, Kessler runs off to see is anyone has been injured or killed. The other two ruefully approach the painting. “Nothing could have hurt my father more,” Virginia notes. Paul’s reply, meanwhile, is one for the books. Gazing upon the sundered portrait, he exclaims, “It’s unquestionably the work of a madman!” You know, Paul, I think you’ve got something there. Between the ruined painting and all those murders I guess I’d have to agree with you! Actually, apparently I was giving the characters too much credit. “Do you think there’s any connection between this and what has happened before?” Virginia asks. Paul, not wanting to jump to any conclusions, admits that he doesn’t know. Presumably they don’t want to rule out the idea of there being two maniacs running around the house, one who kills people and another who kills paintings.
Finding that Evans and Marie are safe, Kessler returns to the portrait. (When Marie asks why Kessler was so concerned, Evans grins and replies, “He thought that you were murdered!” Huh? So much for keeping quiet about the whole thing!) The doorbell rings and, coincidentally, Williams makes an appearance. Here Kessler proves a somewhat more astute detective than either his daughter or Paul. “Find me the person who did it,” he informs the Lieutenant, “and you’ve got your murderer!” Williams, though, drops a bombshell. He’d assigned cops to secretly hang around the house all night. They’ve just reported that no one went in or out. Therefore someone staying in the house must be the killer.
At this, Paul quietly motions to Williams. Through the library door can be seen the tips of a man’s shoes, sticking out from behind a curtain. (Oh, bru-ther!) Williams whips the drapes back and reveals *gasp!* the body of one of his officers. (Do actual dead people normally remain on their feet until a curtain or cupboard door is pulled aside, whereupon they fall? I have my doubts.) I especially like how the ‘corpse’ quite noticeably blinks his eyes as he tumbles forward.
Following this we see Kessler and Williams with Marie. Kessler (?!) is interrogating her, but she didn’t hear or see anything out of the ordinary during the previous night. Actually, we soon learn why Williams is letting Kessler do the questioning. When Marie mentions the odd fact that food keeps disappearing from the kitchen, Williams laughs off the idea that this could be relevant. “You ought to hire detectives to watch it!” he japes. Kessler enjoys a good laugh this, too, but seeks to sooth Marie’s feelings. “That’s what you get for being such an excellent cook!” he tells her.
Paul intercepts Williams in the hallway and hands him a bit piece of cloth he found tangled up in the butchered portrait. (Why does the police department even bother to send Williams out there? Why not just let Kessler and Paul investigate and turn in their findings later?) Williams asks him to keep quiet about it and then heads upstairs to search for a matching piece of clothing. (Williams, doing investigative work! Imagine that!) Later he pops up and shows Kessler his robe. It matches the cloth found in the painting, and he notes that it was found in Evan’s room. Kessler and his daughter are incredulous that he’s accusing the loyal manservant. “You’re just trying to make a case!” Virginia snorts. (Considering the earlier arrest of Ralph, that accusation does have a certain weight to it.) “Well, somebody’s been doing these killings!” the Lieutenant replies. Which, sadly, remains the finest piece of deductive reasoning that Williams has offered to date.
Williams makes to question and/or arrest Evans. Paul intervenes, however, noting that if he wants to convict Evans he’ll need more evidence. (Yeah, you’d think.) Reacting to the impetuousness of this amateur sleuth, Williams exclaims, “Now everybody wants to be a detective!” And a good thing, too, or they’d only have the police to rely on. Paul, meanwhile, follows with what may be the greatest line of dialog in film history. (See IMMORTAL DIALOG.) Anyway, since the killer is apparently a psychopath, Paul suggests calling in a psychiatrist. Williams sneers at this goofy, radical idea, but ultimately gives in.
Cut to another through-the-fireplace shot of the gang conferring with the psychiatrist in Kessler’s bedroom. (The only reason I can think of to explain why this particular scene was placed here is because that’s where the fireplace was.) The idea, I guess, is that they want him to examine Evans and see if he is crazy. “That’s very easy to determine,” the fellow replies. Huh! Who knew? Paul, meanwhile, has some questions. “Is it possible,” he asks, “for a man to be normal, say, for two or three months, and then go completely insane for an hour or two?” “Yes, quite common,” the psychiatrist responds. Kessler, meanwhile, is sitting back in his favorite chair and puffing on a stogie. “This should be most interesting,” he comments mildly, apparently referring to the possibility that his butler will soon be revealed to be a raving serial murderer.
Just then a fuse blows and the power goes out. Evans, meanwhile, is told to report to Kessler’s room. Here Paul has just lit some candle in the back of the room. These provide about the exact same amount of illumination as the electric lights did earlier, which I thought a bit strange. Kessler gets up and invites Evans to sit in his chair. Here the psychiatrist begins the most suspect sanity test this side of Miracle on 34th Street. First he asks Evans if he knows who Kessler is. Then he asks if he believes his employer to be insane.
At about this time, we see Mrs. Kessler sneaking into the kitchen to grab some food. This time, however, she gets nabbed by some cops. They decide to take her upstairs to Lt. Williams.
Having asked if Evans thinks Kessler is crazy, the psychiatrist now asks whether he thinks Williams is crazy. (What the hell kind of ‘sanity’ test is this, anyway?) Soon, though, the cops bring Mrs. Kessler into the room and Kessler begins to trance out. “I’m dead, Charles,” she tells her husband. “You hear me? I’m dead!” She then repeats, “You’d kill me! You’d kill anybody!” Seeing Kessler in his spell, Williams orders Mrs. Kessler removed from the room. Kessler reacts by dazedly stumbling out into the hall, followed by Williams and Paul. As they draw near, Kessler spins around and attacks Williams. As this is occurring, we see Mrs. Kessler, hidden in another room, slump to the floor. (?!) As she’s being pronounced dead (??!!), we see Kessler regain his senses. Confused, he is told that he’s the murderer, leaving him very much shocked.
Downstairs, as he’s being led away, Kessler pauses in front of the portrait of his wife. “Nothing can part us now, darlink,” he says. Are we to assume from this that he’ll be executed? Because he wigged out in front of like six or seven witnesses. I’d have to think that an insanity plea would be in order. Anyway. End picture.
The Whole Psychic Thing:
The biggest question the film leaves us with is whether there was supposed to be some kind of psychic connection, or voodoo, or something going on between Kessler and his wife. Did he just go into a murderous trance upon seeing her, or was she somehow controlling or guiding his actions? There are some hints to the latter. He always seems to sense her presence before seeing her, even when she’s some distance away. It as well seems significant that she twice says “You’d kill anybody,” before he fully goes into his murderous trance. (And the first time in circumstances in which he couldn’t possibly have heard her.) Also, it appears possible she conjures herself to death at the end of the movie. “I’m dead, Charles,” she tells him, and sure enough, moments later she falls lifeless to the floor. Whereupon Kessler wakes from his spell, despite being in another part of the house.
Soâ€¦what? Was she an unfaithful wife who became an amnesiac after a near-fatal car accident? Or was she fleeing Kessler for enough of a reason so as to want revenge after failing to escape him? Or, we could ask similar questions about Kessler. Jealous husband driven to madness by his beloved wife’s infidelity and apparent death? Or victim of some sort of black magic spell? Sadly, I guess we’ll never know.
On another issue, the DVD of this film includes the film’s trailer. Oddly, it includes footage of Jules coming awake in the morgue, followed by his wife screaming. In the actual film, though, his wife just shrieks and we only learn of Jules’ apparent resurrection when Kessler and the Coroner enter the room. This makes me wonder if the film is just edited differently than the trailer (I hate when they do that) or if the print they used here was glitched and the footage was just missing.
Oh, and one more thing. What’s with the title? There’s no ‘ghost’ in this picture. And if you stretch the meaning of that word to mean Mrs. Kessler, well, she’s hardly invisible. Quite the opposite, since it’s the sight of her that drives Kessler to murder. So what the heck?
Paul explains the meaning of the vandalized portrait of Mrs. Kessler: “Without doubt, the murderer’s insane. The picture tells us that.”