NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed that for some of the short subject entries, I’m recounting more of the plot details within the actual review as opposed to the plot synopsis. The reason is that it’s often simply easier to just give an overview and speak to the highlights of a feature film and still manage to convey its essence (as opposed to including every single detail) while in the one, two and three reelers the limited running times sometimes require a play-by-play of the whole film to get the gist across to the reader. “Shivering Spooks” is just such a case.
RATING: *** out of **** (WITH RESERVATIONS)
PLOT: The Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) kids – this time consisting of (Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Mary Kornman, Joe Cobb, Johnny Downs, Scooter Lowry, Jackie Condon, Bobby Young and Jay .R. Smith) just want to play. Unfortunately, this disrupts the local phony spiritualist racket’s “séance.” The phony spiritualists decide to give the kids the scare of their lives. Can the kids put their fears aside long enough to expose the creeps and bring them to justice?
REVIEW: So here we have the second-ever Our Gang horror-comedy during the series’ silent movie run (the first being the previous year’s “Shootin’ Injuns”). You’ll note that I’ve rated this short three out of four stars “with reservations.” I’ll get to why at the proper moment.
The film starts off with a startling gag. We read via the opening title card that “Farina and Scooter never had to hunt for trouble – Trouble chased them!” And sure enough, the pair is on the run from an adult who is chasing them. A truant officer perhaps? Perhaps not – this man is (amazingly) shooting a gun! The camera then pulls back more to reveal that the shooting man is aiming at another man who runs ahead of the kids. The man being shot at pulls out his own gun and turns around to chase the original shooter, and the kids turn around as well. This leads to a back-and-forth change in direction as each man flip-flops control of the situation. It’s funny to see the kids run back and forth but at the same time unsettling because there’s a gun involved (and as we’ll see later, this short doesn’t shy away from the unsettling).
Two kids do not a gang make, so we soon see the rest of the gang pop out of their “Secret Cave” (the sign on it features a backwards “s”) to see the one man duck into a marketplace and knock the proprietor out. The other man arrives and revives the proprietor, but the proprietor sends him off. The original man then hides in the back of the market. The kids run over and claim to have seen the man duck into the back room. The proprietor tries to bribe the kids to keep quiet with an apple.
These mysterious goings-on are soon explained. A title card reveals the one man as “Professor Fleece – fake spiritualistic medium – swindler – wanted by the police.” We see him go into the backroom to “The operating room – where spirits are faked to fool the “suckers” There are lots of people involved in the “operation” which consists of phony séances put on for women customers (aka scam victims) waiting to hear from their dead husbands. The head spiritualist proceeds to put on an eerie levitation show (even spookier than the one seen in “You’ll Find Out”) – we know it’s eerie because we see the women’s legs teeter-and-tottering! Unlike those widows, we also see members of the fraud’s gang operating levers and buttons in the back room.
Meanwhile, the kids are outside making a racket. The spiritualist goes to chase them away. “Aw, chase y’r own self – y’ big Turk!” Two elements jump out here. First is the ease with which politically incorrect insults and racial slurs are uttered (equating Turks with deceitful rogues) and second is the odd set-up of the racket’s proximity to the kids’ outdoor play area. Apparently the spiritualists’ base of operations is near an open air opening, yet somehow can remain pitch black. It doesn’t make much sense but the film keeps it going (one theory may be that the gang’s lair just has windows that they can hear the kids through although we never see such a window).
Cut to Mary with Scooter and Farina. She’s about to read from a book called “Ghost Stories.” We see a page from the book – “The ghastly ghost moaned and groaned as it glided between the marble tombstones. One long white arm, one white boney finger was extended…” etc. It is effectively scary. And then we get another dose of racial humor in this exchange:
FARINA: Why is ghosts allus white – ain’t they no colored ghosts?”
MARY: Colored people can’t be ghosts – how would you see them in the dark?
FARINIA: They could carry lanterns, couldn’t they?
I’ll get into this more at the conclusion of the review, but for now I’ll just note that many films from the 1920s through the ‘60s have been criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes that were commonly held during the times in which the movies were made, and in the case of this film the criticism is definitely accurate. The above exchange is probably the mildest in the film, taking place as it does between two children who you could argue are just speaking out of innocent naiveté.
So getting back to that open-air lair or hideout with a window – your guess is as good as mine – one of the kids hits a baseball and it hits a phony spiritualist in the head. When the beaned baddie takes chase, the kids scamper into their secret cave. The spiritualists aren’t the only ones with tricks up their sleeves – using a clever, Rube Goldberg-esque device the kids pull strings and the shrubbery closes up behind them, camouflaging the entrance to their hideout. Just when they think they are safe, the cave begins to cave in on the kids! Ever-resourceful (and having a stash of pickaxes in the cave – maybe that’s how they got in in the first place), the kids decide to dig through the wall to the other side.
Back at the séance, a woman asks “Will I be married before I turn 24?” A spiritualist answers “Two knocks will signify “Yes” – Three knocks will mean “No” – and this sets up a gag rather succinctly as of course, they all hear the kids banging away. When the banging increases it naturally causes a panic among the séance customers.
The kids manage to break through the wall but they are all afraid to go through it, so they try to convince Farina to go first. “If you get killed, we’ll know it ain’t safe,” they tell him. Farina wasn’t born yesterday, however. “You won’t know it as much as I will,” he protests.
Just then Joe Cobb Joe Cobb sneezes and his sneeze blows out the candle. Now they are in the cave in the pitch black dark. They start making noises and yelps and that really scares the séance crowd – when they hear the noises beneath them they flee.
Meanwhile, the kids end up in the charlatans’ lair. Annoyed that their antics scared their customers away, the crooks decide to give the kids a good scare… and then some!
At first the scares are garden variety: For example, Farina runs at the sight of an Indian statue and then from a knight’s armor (whose arm falls off); while Joe keeps losing his pants and blaming it on Scooter, who he claims is so scared he keeps tugging at them (eventually he ties Scooter’s sleeves together).
Things soon escalate, both in terms of how scary the crooks get and the creative execution by the filmmakers of these bits. There are ingenious uses of subtitles within the film frames (as opposed to on title cards) when the criminals speak into a device that transmits their moans and groans through a loudspeaker. The words appear above the kids' heads, and the kids, not knowing where the "o-o-o-o"'s are coming from are mighty scared! Then when Farina hides under an end table the crooks in other room flip a switch that levitates the table up and down. It is a fantastic visual gag, punctuated by Farina’s exclamation, “How us angels do fly!”
It’s at this point that the film throws away all restraint regarding racial stereotypes. It all starts when one of the bad guys tells Farina that he’ll cut his ears off… and Farina turns white in fright.
This leads to the most disturbing element of the film, as the head charlatan dons what looks like a Klansman outfit that glows in the dark. On one level, the outfit is supposed to look like a scary ghost but unfortunately, it has the pointy-topped hood so common to Klan uniforms. This would be completely unsettling if not for the wild slapstick chase that ensues – both its silliness and the fact that Joe Cobb is also being chased by the pointy-hooded boogey man softens the blow a little, but just barely.
That’s not to say there aren’t positive elements to the scene – the mask the crook dons is scary (reminiscent of the face of the Man in the Moon in George Melies’ silent classic “A Trip to the Moon”), there is a great "flourescent" special effect that simulates the costume glowing, achieved by the use of a negative image wherein the "ghost" actually wears a black robe and the glowing effect comes from the shadows cast on the walls. Naturally frightened out of their wits by this phantasmogorial figure, Joe Cobb and Farina bump into each other a lot (for all intents and purposes it becomes the Joe Cobb and Farina show).
The scares continue at a frantic pace. The kids hide under a sheet on the bed as the bad guys keep pushing buttons and pulling levers to run their cheap funhouse style tricks. One such trick has a skeleton popping out of an armoire. There are also some goofy going’s on apart from the criminals, such as when the kids’ dog gets tangled up in a sheet and runs around wildly, the kids scampering away in fear.
While on the surface the gimmicks and gadgets the crooks employ are meant to be cheap, the visual results are quite effective, again due to some great effects of both the optical and mechanical variety. The atmosphere is so genuinely creepy at times that I believe people seeing this short in a theater for the first time were probably really scared, despite the fact that it’s a comedy.
The rousing finale anticipates Wheeler & Woolsey’s raucous finish to their own classic horror-comedy, 1935’s “The Nitwits,” as the kids get wise to what’s going on and drop vases from the balcony onto the heads of the criminals below. When the shopkeeper arrives with the police, the gang is rounded up and the kids are heroes.
Shivering Spooks is wildly inventive, the child performers are great, there are very effective special effects and a great mix of laughs and genuinely scary moments... but at the same time the fact that the charlatans wear pointed top white hoods like Klansman is really unsettling. There's a lot of racial humor in the old comedy films and usually the professionalism of the African-American performers helps these films rise above the tasteless gags, but when characters actually evoke the KKK it takes it to a whole other level that's tough to defend. So...
I give this film three stars for the kids, the atmosphere, the laughs and the scares, but zero stars for its racist content. The problem really is the pointy, triangular hoods – if the bad guys had just put sheets over their heads (as in some other Our Gang shorts), then the negative connotation disappears, but as it stands, the hoods are just a jarring image.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES: The best exchange is probably the aforementioned bit where Farina protests climbing through the wall.
Another good line is when one of the women at the séance asks, “Is my husband a good man? If so, since when?”
BEST GAGS: Without question, the bit with Farina and the levitating table is definitely the most riotous. Sight gags abound in this film, and the aforementioned antics of the kids being scared by the charlatans’ various tricks as well the sheet-wearing dog are all sure-fire laugh-getters.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: One of the kids in the gang, Johnny Downs went on to have quite a bit of success elsewhere. Among his film roles, he was Little Boy Blue in Laurel & Hardy’s “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”), made a couple of funny shorts for Columbia as a young man, appeared in the horror film “The Mad Monster,” as well as in Martin & Lewis’ “The Caddy.” He also appeared on television as a kid show host, on a show that showed Popeye cartoons and Little Rascals(!) shorts.
Professor Fleece’s assistant was played by Ham Kinsey. Ham’s claim to fame? Doubling for Stan Laurel as his stunt stand-in in several Laurel & Hardy shorts and features.
Speaking of Laurel & Hardy, the detective in “Shivering Spooks” is none other than one of Stan & Ollie’s perennial menaces, Tiny Sandford. In addition to appearing in numerous Laurel & Hardy films (including the horror comedy, “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case”), Sandford appeared several times with Charlie Chaplin (most notably in “The Gold Rush” and “Modern Times”) as well as in the Wheeler & Woolsey horror-comedy, “Mummy’s Boys.”
BUY THE FILM: This short has been released several times on various collections. The Lucky Corner, a site dedicated to Our Gang films has a listing of the various releases that include “Shivering Spooks” that you can check out by clicking here.
FURTHER READING: Without question, the only book anyone will ever need on the team is “Our Gang: the Life & Times of The Little Rascals” by Leonard Maltin. Buy the book here:
WATCH THE FILM: You can watch a portion of this public domain film here (this excerpt focuses on the scary climax):