Saturday, February 25, 2012

"You Scared The Health Out Of Me!"

Spooks Run Wild(1941)
Director: Phil Rosen
Cast: Bela Lugosi, The East Side Kids, Dennis Moore

I originally saw a trailer for this as a kid on Ted Newsom's Dracula: A Cinematic Scrapbook(1991) and instantly knew that this was something I wanted to see. Now mind you, I was only six years old, but the concept of Dracula(Bela Lugosi), ghosts, a haunted house, Angelo Rossito and the East Side Kids, appealed to me. Despite it's public domain status, it was actually several years until I was able to track down this low budgeter, and it was a happy experience.
Spooks Run Wild is one of Bela's "Monogram Nine" a series of film she starred in from 1941-1945, that effectively ended his career in Hollywood. They were low budget, tacky and oftentimes, ineptly filmed, yet they maintain a certain level of fascination today. Bela was often able to overcome the haphazard direction and poor writing, and these films became yet another piece in the puzzle of the Lugosi enigma. Films such as these, only endeared the actor's fans more to the man, and have helped in keeping the mystique alive, due to the wide availability of these titles.

This was the second of Lugosi's second films for Monogram pictures and one of the more enjoyable of the bunch. The premise is fun as the East Side Kids are sent from the city to the country for "rehabilitation" Meanwhile, a mad killer is on the loose called the "monster killer" and Bela Lugosi arrives in town, en route to a mysterious old mansion that is supposedly haunted!
Of course, the kids decide to break out of their confines and go exploring...ending up at the haunted house and running into the worst cemetary caretaker of all time. After shooting at Lugosi and Angelo Rossito simply for walking in the graveyard at night(!), he actually shoots one of the boys with a shotgun!(Later on in the film, he defends himself to the police by saying, "ah, it was only buckshot!")

The kids worry about their friend, so they take him to the spooky mansion on the hill, where Lugosi takes care of the wounded teen. Meanwhile, the boys' nurse(Dorothy Short) goes looking for them with the aid of Dr. Von Grosch(Dennis Moore) who claims that he is out to hunt the "Monster." The remainder of the film involves alot of haunted house shenanigans, as the boys try to find their wounded friend, who ends up sleepwalking throughout the mansion, and inevitably, Lugosi is suspected of being the monster. The best part of the picture is when the gang get back at Lugosi, by dressing up as a skull-faced ghost and trying to frighten him. Lugosi's acting in this scene is priceless and worth the price of admission!
Well, it turns out that Lugosi is not the monster, but that Von Grosch fellow is, so he's sought out and after a brief scuffle, brought to justice. The film concludes with a magic show performed by Lugosi, all too briefly.
Oh, and the kid who got shot was okay. Apparently, buckshot isn't so bad?

Spooks Run Wild is one of the more entertaining of the Monogram features that Lugosi made in the 40s, and probably the East Side Kids film that best stands up today. The comedy of the gang was always an acquired taste, but they are fairly likeable here, particularly Sunshine Sammy Morrsion, a former silent Our Gang star, who is really very funny as the only black kid in the group, managing to overcome stereotypes and such. It's interesting to see how these characters developed over the course of the series, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall already honing in on they're characterizations.
It's a fast-paced film, too, complete with all manner of old dark house cliches, from sliding panels, secret passageways, skeletons, a sinister actor, a stormy night etc.
Lugosi seems to be having a good time here, and has way more to do than he would in the follow-up film, the lamentable, Ghosts on the Loose(1943), where he barely interacts with the gang at all. Lugosi's scared bit was always one of my favorite of his, and is still one of the funniest scenes he has ever been part of.(Lugosi was actually very skilled in comedy, believe it or not. Check out Broadminded(1931) and International House(1933) for proof to this claim, as he steals many scenes in these two classics.)
Spooks Run Wild is far from being a classic film, but also not quite up to the level of moron picture, that producer Sam Katzman described his films. It's enjoyable and a mild diversion for a Saturday afternoon and still a blast today.


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