Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Without Doubt, The Murderer’s Insane. The Picture Tells Us That."

Invisible Ghost(1941)
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire

Bela Lugosi made several silly movies throughout the 1940s, mostly for Monogram Studios, which became like his second home from 1941-1945. He made nine movies for the studio, all of which have become cult classics in one way or the other. Several of them have been reviewed on this very blog, but the best of them is reviewed here, and that's Invisible Ghost. Now, these films were light years away from the work he made at Universal Studios, but they were entertaining, and while most of the plots left something to be desired, the films were still made enjoyable by Lugosi's presence, as he went through his familiar bag of tricks and was surrounded by the most eccentric plots and characters, until his late in life encounter with Ed Wood.

This bizarre film begins with the seemingly normal and respectable, Mr. Kessler(Bela Lugosi) dining with his wife...except she's not there, because she died ten years ago that very night. His faithful servant, Evans(Clarence Muse, who is excellent here) waits on him, er, them, while his distressed daughter, Virginia(Polly Ann Young) and her suitor, Ralph(John McGuire) look on. They are sympathetic to Kessler and it's nice to see Lugosi in what appears to be, a slightly crazy, but not villainous part. Trouble arrives, however, in the form of a blonde maid(Terry Walker) who has a past relationship with Ralph. She threatens to blackmail him for ditching her years ago, but does not get very far, as she is murdered that night by Mr. Kessler. Why? Well, Mr. Kessler goes insane every time he sees his wife, which his gardener, Jules(Ernie Adams) has thoughtfully kept locked away for reasons unknown. She gets out every night, looking like a ghost and drives the poor man crazy, again, for reasons unknown.
When the woman is found murdered the next day, Ralph is the suspect, even though murders were reported around the estate for years. Clarence Muse being a sneak, listened in on the argument the night before, and that evidence finds Ralph guilty and he is quite improbably, executed for his crimes!

The film's logic stretches to the breaking point, when Ralph's identical twin(also McGuire) arrives from South America to investigate his brother's death. He is warmly welcomed into the family, but is suspicious of the whole thing, for good reason. A stereotypical, cigar-munching detective arrives(George Pembroke) along with comedy regular, Fred Kelsey, who probably played a detective more than any other actor in cinema and they investigate. Kessler sees his dead wife again and murders Kelsey, who proceeds to fall from behind a curtain, and this time has defaced the portrait of his wife as well. The next evening, he strangles the duumb gardener, as well, who wakes up at the morgue and dies again upon seeing Kessler.
The confusing plot continues onward with the detective convinced that it must be Evans, the butler portrayed by Clarence Muse, but the sudden discovery of Mrs. Kessler eating out of the icebox, causes Mr. Kessler to go bonkers again and he tries to strangle the detective. However, the Mrs. passes away and Kessler is left out of his trance and ready to pay for his crimes, devastated when he discovers that he was indeed, the murderer.

Invisible Ghost is a very strange and silly movie, but unlike other Monograms, it's actually well acted and compelling, despite it's many plot discrepancies. Director Lewis really is able to get a decent amount of moodiness out of the picture, relying on heavy shadow and atmosphere and in some instances, reminds us why we found Lugosi so frightening in the first place. When Lugosi preys on Terry Walker, the camera is from her point of view, the image of Lugosi creeping in closer to her, to us really, evokes images from Tod Browning's Dracula(1931). While the creepy lighting formed over Lugosi's face when he goes mad, illustrates a sinister quality that is still effective.
Lugosi has a half-way sympathetic part here and plays it well. He really does seem like a decent man, though his dilemma is one that has yet to appear in the guide of any respected psychiatrist. It's poor science, for sure, but works for a film like this and Lugosi makes the most of it, even adding a tinge of humor, at least for me. When Bela speaks of his joy eating apple pie, it's hard to suppress a smile.
Clarence Muse brings dignity and authority to the role of Evans the butler, a part that could have easily have been caricatured and demeaning, but actually comes off as intelligent and multi-dimensional. He makes Evans sympathetic and take charge, elements missing in most other parts written for African Americans at that time. Muse was an able character actor, appearing in dozens of Hollywood films for decades, emerging as a true film pioneer. He also made his mark on an earlier Lugosi film, as the cabdriver in the classic, White Zombie(1932).
Polly Ann Young is better than her material and above average for the types that these films generally attracted, and is probably the best leading lady Monogram had, besides, Louise Currie. She brings sympathy to her role of the understanding daughter, and likewise she is supported by John McGuire who does an adequate job in the dual role of the two brothers.
While, Invisible Ghost is enjoyable for Lugosi fans, the film suffers from a truly nonsensical plot. Besides, the reasons for Lugosi becoming a killer, there's also the disappearance of his wife, which comes off as equally ludicrous. If one is perceived as missing, why assume she is dead? If one was grieving over such a loss, why keep it a secret, as the gardener did, well aware of all that was going on in the house? These stick out like a sore thumb, even if they are accepted by the audience.
Plus, why exactly is Mrs. Kessler insane? Was it because of the "accident", and if so, why was proper aid not given her and how is no one aware that she has been on the grounds? Wouldn't anybody suspect the missing food? No question, Invisible Ghost can be a headache if you think about it too much.

For some reason, this is one of the Lugosi films I watch the most often. Perhaps it's because of the short running time(barely over an hour) or the opportunity  to see the star in a sympathetic light. It's certainly an entertaining film in Lugosi's era of decline and one that still manages to rise above it's material, proving the parts are greater than the whole. It's not as goofy as The Devil Bat(1940) or The Ape Man(1942), but it does contain a good Lugosi performance and solid direction, and frankly for most classic horror fans, that's plenty of reason to give this one a glance.
Invisible Ghost may never rise to the ranks of classics, but considering the amount of formulaic horror pictures produced today, it's actually a pretty harmless bit of fun that has aged better because of that fact. Who would ever thought seventy years ago that anyone would be watching, let alone, enjoying this wonderful piece of fluff, today?

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