Friday, January 22, 2010
SPOOKS RUN WILD (1941)
RATING: ** & 1/2 out of ****
PLOT: Under-privileged kids (The East Side Kids) from the city are sent to a camp in the country to experience nature and get some fresh air. The bus makes a quick pit-stop in a town that looks mysteriously like the leftover set of a low budget western. While in town, three of the kids – Muggs (Leo Gorcey), Glimpy (Huntz Hall) and Danny (Bobby Jordan) stop at the soda shop and flirt with the waitress (Rosemary Portia). While there, they hear a report on the radio that a “monster killer” is on the loose and headed to the very vicinity that the boys are off to. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Nardo (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant Luigi (Angelo Rossitto) ask a gas station attendant (P.J. Kelly) for directions to the abandoned Billings estate, and are soon visiting the gravesite of the estate’s namesake until chased off by the shotgun wielding groundskeeper. The kids, now camped near the same gravesite hear the gunfire and set off to the graveyard to investigate, leading to their pal Pee Wee (David Gorcey) getting shot. They go to the nearest building for help – the Billings estate – where they meet Nardo and Luigi. Nardo offers to put the kids up until Pee Wee is healed, but they are soon convinced that Nardo is the “monster killer,” leading to a series of exciting and comical misadventures in the old, dark spooky house. Also after the “monster killer” is Dr. Von Grosch (Dennis Moore), a self-professed monster hunter. The disappearance of the kids leads their guardians (Dave O’Brien and Dorothy Short) and the local authorities to investigate the Billings Mansion as well. Will the Kids expose the real “monster killer” or are they on the wrong trail?
REVIEW: From 1935 to 1958 the “gang of kids” comedy troupe known variably as the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys entertained audiences with their mix of wise guy antics, witty malapropisms, seasoned slapstick and brassy New York personalities. Like Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello, the troupe often appeared in stories using tried-and-true comedy motifs – the old west, life in the military, deflating society and especially getting mixed up with monsters, ghosts and other “old dark house” trappings. In fact, “Spooks Run Wild” is the second of the Kids' haunted house endeavors (the first being “Boys of the City” the year before), but it’s the first horror-comedy the gang made with Huntz Hall among its members. Huntz would make an indelible impression as the years went on playing off of Leo Gorcey. The two would form a team within the larger team – a definite duo amidst the group dynamic. “Spooks” was also the first of two films the troupe would make with boogeyman Bela Lugosi, the follow-up being “Ghosts on the Loose” (1943). When the East Side Kids series gave way to the Bowery Boys series, the new incarnation of the gang went on to make five additional bona fide horror-comedies… and it can be argued that at least another four Bowery Boys entries count as horror-onable mention due to their “fantastic” content including hypnotists, magic genies and even an encounter with ‘Ol Scratch himself!
During their “East Side Kids” phase at Monogram Studios, the biggest horrors the troupe faced were extremely low budgets, hack screenwriters, less-than-diligent directors and weak supporting casts. These issues would be somewhat rectified when Monogram became Allied Artists and the troupe became The Bowery Boys. “Spooks Run Wild” is definitely lacking in the script department, and the majority of the supporting cast is lackluster, but the low budget actually helps makes the spooky environs even spookier (downright creepy at times in fact) and the (often ad-libbed) performances from the leads (the main Kids, Lugosi and Rossitto) are full-blooded enough to sell the material.
As slapdash as the script is, it is at least self-aware enough to attempt to stay true to the hallmarks of horror-comedies. Two instances in particular come to mind. First is the scenario of having the funny characters getting scared just hearing or reading of the legend of a monster. In this case, it's a bit of a foreshadow of the famous scene in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" where Costello reads the legend of Dracula aloud just as the Count emerges from his coffin. Here both the gas station attendant and later the East Side Kids read from what is essentially a thinly veiled version of the novel Dracula with the character names changed (to protect Monogram from lawsuits, no doubt).
The next scenario involves a character inquiring about an ominous pace or name (often a village or mansion or even just a family surname) and getting a horrified response, as when Nardo asks the gas station attendant where the Billings estate is:
"The Billings estate? Why it ain't been lived in for 10 years - not since old man Billings was murdered... in his sleep!" This bit is found even in “straight” horror films, going back at least as far as the first film adaptation of Dracula, 1922’s “Nosferatu.”
Speaking of Dracula, the makers of this film are not shy about exploiting Bela’s connection to that film for all it is worth. In addition to the novel the characters read from, consider the following:
After the gas station attendant meets Lugosi, another man pulls up to the station who the attendant thinks is the book's equivalent of Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing - and the man confirms it.
An even more on-target allusion is this line from Bela at the gates of the cemetery: "City of the dead - do they too hear the howling of the frightened dogs?" which of course recalls the famous line spoken by Lugosi as “Dracula” in the 1931 classic: “Listen to them. Children of the night… what music they make!”
For the first two thirds of the movie, the plot is very episodic, counting on one simple incident after another to act as bridges between scenes. For example: Nardo and Luigi prowl the graveyard and the groundskeeper shoots at them. The kids decide to investigate the noise in the graveyard. Meanwhile Nardo and Luigi commence to the Billings estate by way of the underground dungeons leading into the old house. As the kids wander into the cemetery, Pee Wee is shot by the groundskeeper. The kids then stumble upon the old house and go inside to get Pee Wee help. Bela invites the kids to stay the night, escorting them to their rooms while carrying a candle and ominously reminding them how old and strange the house is.
As things progress, Scruno is convinced Pee Wee has succumbed to his gunshot wound and alerts the other kids. They set off to find Bela (a convenient excuse for them to ramble through various rooms in the house and get scared). As the kids search, Pee Wee gets up and walks out of the room as if in a trance. When Scruno catches up to the other kids, he tells them he's convinced that Pee Wee has been turned into a zombie, which makes everyone even more determined to find Bela.
But it is Bela who finds them, and it leads to a rather disconcerting moment as Muggs actually pushes Bela down (calling him "horror man" in the process - one of Lugosi's real-life nicknames that he shared with Boris Karloff), and Danny wraps Rossitto up in a carpet like a cocoon. It's pretty startling to modern viewers because of the age differences between Muggs and Bela's characters, not to mention the roughhousing of a dwarf.
From there, the film just becomes a series of blackout gags and vignettes as the kids continue their search for Pee Wee, pulling out as many horror-comedy chestnuts as the budget will allow (and this film is loaded with them: coffins, scary masks on walls, walking suits of armor, knives and weapons hanging on walls, cobwebs, graveyards, howling animals, candlesticks, self-moving objects, skulls).
Oh yeah, there's also a group of "guardians" and one is engaged to or going steady with a nurse. These characters are perfunctory to the plot but the film knows they're bland and barely necessary and so their screen time is mercifully short. This applies to the law enforcement characters as well - they're all used to move the plot along, but they are the most uninteresting characters in the film and the worst-performed, with stilted dialogue readings. These kind of movies (referred to as “poverty row” due to their ultra low budgets) didn't have many takes - in many cases scenes were shot in one take and printed as is, mistakes and all, so you often find the actors flubbing lines then correcting themselves – particularly these supporting characters.
The climax comes when the kids decide they'll scare Bela and Rossitto. With Scruno getting on Hall's shoulders, a black sheet thrown over their heads, and a skull placed on top, they do just that. Bela runs off in overwrought histrionics, perhaps the single most embarrassing scene he ever committed to film. The scene ends with Bela getting knocked out by the skull and tied up by the Kids. The kids then find Pee Wee alive and well... and then Bela reemerges (it's not explained how he got untied, perhaps Rossitto untied him?).
This is another of those films with a "surprise" ending that normally would cause a reviewer to use a SPOILER WARNING. I won't however because so much has already been written about this film's ending, and rightfully so. Because it really is a "cheat" ending. When the authorities come to arrest the monster, they find Bela and the Kids chumming it up - it turns out Bela is merely a friendly magician. And his "pursuer," Dr. Von Grosch is really the monster killer (not a good thing, as the plot has contrived to place the nurse in his clutches - but don't worry, as we witnessed earlier when Bela was knocked down, Muggs never met an older, taller man he couldn't tackle).
Yes, this is one of the many films in which Bela was a red herring, but the script is so poorly conceived that it doesn't play fair with the audience. Usually there are instances in such films where a character's actions could be misunderstood as having sinister motives but later when the actual nature of the character is revealed the very same actions are easily explained away as being benign. Not so in this film. It's never clearly explained why Bela would act so sinister or get as agitated as he does. But never you mind – no matter how many times Muggs and the gang tackle Bela and bean him in the head, he’s the forgiving sort. So much so that he performs a magic show for everyone in a “happy ending” that became typical for this sort of film. Bela makes the waitress disappear, Muggs volunteers to go into the box to find her, and when Bela pulls open the curtain, Muggs is inside kissing Scruno, who he thinks is the waitress!
Two scenes stand out as being completely inexplicable given the true identity of Nardo. First and most egregious, it's never explained how a cheap party magician could actually dematerialize with his assistant to avoid getting shot in the graveyard! Likewise, how to explain the scene where Muggs looks into a canister and sees a skull and crossbones emblem at the bottom, but when he tells the others, they look and the skull is gone? Nardo wasn’t even in the scene to pull off the illusion, so it is inferred that it is actually happening.
A sign of the times in which it was made, there is also some unfortunate racial humor in the film at the expense of the Scruno character, as witnessed in these two separate dialogue exchanges:
GLIMPY: Scruno, next time you come out of the dark, put a quart of whitewash on, will ya'?
SCRUNO: I'm so scared, I'm turning white now!
GLIMPY: You're yellow!
SCRUNO: If I'm yellow you're color blind.
To his credit Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison plays his role with vigor and creativity. He's a perfect comedic match for Gorcey and Hall in that he stays completely in character the whole movie (something that can’t be said for all the "kids"). And he's "one of the gang" – an accepted member of the group and not some subservient character to be walked all over.
Of course once you learn Morrison’s background, the above is no surprise – he was actually the most experienced of the East Side Kids. A child actor, he appeared in silent comedies with Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard and was one of the original “Our Gang” kids.
Morrison actually has one of the comic highlights of “Spooks” in a scene that's become a staple of horror-comedies, where a character doesn't realize the villain or monster is standing beside them as they lament their worries. In this case, Scruno is standing in the hallway waiting for Glimpy to reemerge from a magician's box when Bela walks beside him. After he accidentally taps Bela on the chest while looking the other way, he slowly turns to face him then runs off in fright, much to Bela's amusement.
Other than Morrison, it is of course Gorcey and Hall who dominate within the group. Gorcey is clearly the tough guy leader, a role he would perfect as Slip Mahoney in the Bowery Boys series, while the wise-cracking Glimpy shows signs of the multi-faceted Sach character to come – the simultaneously odd and dopey yet in some ways quite smart character that became a standard in such beloved characters as Ed Norton from “The Honeymooners” and Kramer from “Seinfeld.” While Bobby Jordan is much loved by die-hard fans of the troupe his Danny character here isn’t too memorable – better work lie ahead for Mr. Jordan.
Angelo Rossitto was a fixture in Hollywood – literally, as he ran a newsstand there. Legend has it that when Hollywood producers had a gig for him, they didn’t need to call his agent – they merely retrieved (and relieved) Angelo from his newsstand. He appeared in over 70 feature films between 1927 and 1987. “Spooks Run Wild” was the first of three films that would pair the dwarf actor with Lugosi. Other highlights in his 60 year film career include “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”) with Laurel & Hardy, “Hellzapoppin’” with Olsen & Johnson, the “Spider Woman” entry in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, a recurring role in the TV show “H.R. Pufnstuff,” the Al Adamson monster mash-up "Dracula vs. Frankenstein" and late in his career, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”
As for Bela, his presence adds considerably to this film. Unlike some of his other horror-comedy appearances where he plays it completely straight, here he shifts from being sinister to letting on that he's "in on the joke," getting into the spirit of the comedy. While his aforementioned “scared” bit is a decided misstep, Bela otherwise delivers an engaging and at times amiable performance.
Scruno is mistaken about one thing - it's not Pee Wee who's been zombiefied, but Dennis Moore as Dr. Von Grosch, the "monster hunter who is really the monster killer." It is Moore who seems in a catatonic state as he (unsuccessfully) tries to summon a performance along the lines of the chilling villainy of Charles Middleton (who filled such roles in various shorts and features with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges, El Brendel, Olsen & Johnson and Bert Gordon, among others). In Moore’s defense, he spent over 90% of his career in westerns, not comedies, horror films or horror-comedies (unlike Middleton who moved from genre to genre with ease).
The only other actor in the film who makes an impression is P.J. Kelly as the gas station attendant. A solid character actor, his roles ranged from bit parts to minor supporting roles, but he was always on top of his game, often playing butlers and doormen.
All in all, “Spooks Run Wild” is not a great film when compared to all films – in the “real world” it averages a 1 and ½ star rating at best, but as an entertaining and enjoyable horror-comedy I think it rates higher, hence my 2 and ½ star rating. Sure the script is no great shakes and the production values are nil, but the main kids really do a great job (Hall, Gorcey and Morrison in particular) and Bela is his usual reliable self, practically making this film the very definition of "rising above the material." There are also plenty of “old dark house” tropes and allusions to Dracula to satisfy fans of both horror-comedies and horror films in general. For classic comedy fans there is the bonus of watching Gorcey and Hall at work – their Muggs and Glimpy characters are a lot like their later Bowery Boys counterparts Slip and Sach, so from the standpoint of charting the development of those characters it's also interesting to watch. In fact, it’s one of the first of the East Side Kids films where the comedy of the lead "kids" characters isn't incidental but comes to the forefront - they are constantly wisecracking, whacking each other around and otherwise getting involved in slapstick antics. Much of the shtick is ad-libbed, which gives this otherwise ramshackle entry just the kick it needs to make it not only watchable but highly fun as well.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
(Bela shows Glimpy and Skinny (Daniel Haines) to their room in the mansion)
GLIMPY: A very charming room in a repulsive sort of way!
SKINNY: This looks like one of those beds George Washington slept in.
GLIMPY (pounding it with a mountain of dust rising into the air): Well it's about time they changed the sheets!
BELA: I understand this room was occupied by the late owner of this house at the time of his death. I hope this knowledge will not disturb your sleep.
MUGGS: Have you ever seen a live skeleton?
SCRUNO: No sir, and if I never do, it'll be too soon!
DANNY: How can you read in the dark?
GLIMPY: I went to Night School!
SCRUNO: If something happens to me, you'll notify my mammy right?
GLIMPY: Sure, sure.
SCRUNO: And if something happens to you, who should I notify?
HALL: If you notify me first, nothing will happen!
MUGGS: Hey, this looks like the place where the plot begins to thicken
The early East Side Kids films liked to tweak the noses of the censors - in this one, Hall, pretending to be the murdered owner of the old house accuses Bela of "scaring the health out of him!" Two years later it is Bela who will get the opportunity to razz the censors in his next horror-comedy with the Kids, "Ghosts on the Loose."
The best sight gags are the aforementioned bit where Bela sneaks up on Scruno, Muggs and the gang look through the canister to see the skull, and Glimpy and Scruno don a skull-headed disguise to scare Bela.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Two Abbott & Costello alumni have bit parts. Lou’s brother (and frequent co-star in Abbott & Costello movies) Pat Costello is seen briefly as the bus driver, while Joe Kirk (who also appeared in several Abbott & Costello movies and had the recurring role of Mr. Bacciagalupe in the “Abbott & Costello Show” TV series) has just as brief a role as a camp counselor.
BUY THE FILM: “Spooks Run Wild” is in the public domain, and as such can be found as a free streaming video on several websites, a video download and as a DVD from several manufacturers. You can order a DVD that presents the film as a double-feature with the other East Side Kids/Bela Lugosi team-up "Ghosts on the Loose" here:
FURTHER READING: There are several books out relating to the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys troupe. The one that focuses specifically on the movies is “The Films of the Bowery Boys” by David Hayes and Brent Walker. It is out-of-print but you can find it from second-hand booksellers. The authors also have a site that acts as an addendum to the original publication, which you can access by clicking here.
Two more recent books that I haven't read yet but that come highly recommended are "From Broadway to the Bowery: A History and Filmography of the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys Films" by Leonard Getz and "Hollywood’s Made-to-Order Punks: The Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys" by Richard Roat.
Another great book is “Poverty Row Horrors” by film historian Tom Weaver. Also out-of-print, it is an in-depth evaluation of the major horror-themed releases from Monogram, PRC and Republic from 1940 through 1946. As such, it features reviews of several horror-comedies, including three from the East Side Kids. Weaver is no fan of horror-comedies, but the book is essential for the great background information he offers as well as first-hand interviews. Not to mention the fact that it features reviews of ten Bela Lugosi films!
There are several reviews of “Spooks Run Wild” on the internet as well, and you can read the review from DVD Drive-in here.
Watch the trailer here:
BE SURE TO JOIN US NEXT TIME WHEN WE TAKE A LOOK AT DON KNOTTS IN “THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN!”