Wednesday, August 31, 2011
** & ½ out of ****
PLOT: Alfalfa has launched a detective agency and appointed Porky and Buckwheat as deputies. Darla brings the intrepid trio their first case: they must find her missing candy. While stowing away in the trunk of a vehicle to tail their prime suspect, the kids are transported to a “horror house” amusement attraction that they think is real, complete with scary voices, images and monster figures that leap out at the gang! Can these little rascals solve the case even though they’re scared silly?!
REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Leonard Maltin. I admire him greatly for his determination to give proper scholarly due to genre films and the folks that made them at a time when cinema cognoscenti at large deemed them unworthy of such analysis. Perhaps it was the fact that he was only 15 when he began writing for the Classic Images tabloid and starting his own fanzine, Film Fan Monthly that he was able to so casually deflect the stuffy critics’ objections like a spitball feebly bouncing off a corkboard. After all, when you’re young your world is young, and it really doesn’t matter what old, snobbish codgers say, right?
Leonard went on to pen many books that I’ve devoured over the years, beginning with my own youth borrowing his works from a northern New Jersey library. His books helped shaped me – not just my love of classic genre films but also as a fellow writer and historian. I can’t count the times in my own career when I turned a phrase and upon review, realized how “Maltinesque” it was!
Among my favorite Maltin books are “Movie Comedy Teams,” “The Great Movie Comedians,” “The Great Movie Shorts” (aka “Selected Short Subjects”) and “Of Mice & Magic: a History of American Animated Cartoons.” Books on all these subjects have been written since, some quite good but for me the Maltin books always top their competitors, due to the sheer love and verve for his subject matters that Maltin pores into every page as well as the diligent research. To this day, Maltin has written what I consider to be the definitive book on the Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) shorts, “Our Gang: the Life and Times of The Little Rascals.”
In Leonard Maltin’s wonderful “Our Gang” book, he notes that the final entry in a film series is frequently “assembled hastily, with little care” to fulfill a contract and move on and that “Hide and Shriek,” the final “Our Gang” short to be produced at Hal Roach Studios before MGM took over the series is the “exception to that rule.” Further, he states that “it offers some fresh story slants” and that by being a spoof it “really doesn’t matter that its haunted house scenes give off a definite air of contrivance.”
I love Leonard Maltin and agree with him most of the time, but my reaction to this particular short leaves me in disagreement with him this time. “Hide and Shriek” is enjoyable inasmuch as it’s the last go-round for the kids at Roach, but there are a few things missing.
It’s almost as if the Roach crew just said, “this is the last one, let’s make this as easy as possible – kids getting scared – that’s the easiest ‘plot’ there is – and we can shoot on location at the local carnival funhouse.”
On top of that, they didn’t even have a complete cast of kids to work with. Either they were off on summer vacations or the studio just felt it wasn’t worth all the paychecks. The film is left to rest squarely on the shoulders of Alfalfa, Porky and Buckwheat and while they are all great individually when put together as a trio there’s no balance – they really do need a solid “fourth” like Spanky (who was probably off shooting “Peck’s Bad Boy at the Circus” at the time). Darla offers some brief support but otherwise we’re left with non-performances from kids Gary “Junior” Jasgur and Leonard “Percy” Landy.
Further hampering the potential success of this short is the fact that it is a “one-reeler.” As mentioned in my review of the Our Gang short “Spooky Hooky” (which you can read by clicking here) there was no time for character development once the series went from 20 minute stories to 10 minute entries… and certainly no time for nuances. This is painfully evident in “Hide & Shriek” which relies entirely on contrivance and incident as forward (barely) momentum.
The short opens as Buckwheat and Porky come to the door of Alfalfa’s “secret hideout” which now bears the sign “Detektive Agensy X-10 Sooper Slooth.” Just the sign on the door alone confirms how this short strains for laughs. A couple of choicely placed misspellings would have been amusing but with every word misspelled it’s a bit labored.
This leads to probably the best bit in the film, which can’t bode well since we’re barely a minute in. Alfalfa swears in Porky and Buckwheat with an oath that is truly comical and the trio performs the sequence with the whimsical charm that longtime viewers are accustomed to from the “Gang.” The oath has the kids promise that “In spite of terror in the day and danger in the night, I’ll get my man or fall fainting from my wound!” The oath concludes with an “Amen” – appropriate since they’ll ultimately be so scared in the dark that they’ll need some prayers! Porky is then christened “X-6” while Buckwheat is dubbed “X-6 ½.” A mild chuckle there, but a heartier laugh as the duo is given special hats – a British bobby helmet for Porky and a French foreign legion cap for Buckwheat!
The second best bit follows as Alfalfa researches disguises. When Darla comes calling, Alfalfa greets her at the door in full Silas Barnaby garb, including beard, hat, cape and cane! This was the third and final appearance (so to speak) of the Barnaby character whose irrepressible villainy was so potent in Laurel & Hardy’s classic feature “Babes in Toyland” (aka “The March of the Wooden Soldiers”) and another “Our Gang” short called “Our Gang Follies of 1938. Only this time, actor Henry Brandon isn’t playing the part… and there’s not part to play. It’s merely a disguise for Alfalfa and a cute in-joke homage by the filmmakers.
Now we get to the “plot,” such as it is. The next section of the short details Darla bringing the case of her “missing candy” to Alfalfa. Alfalfa goes through some shtick revolving around interrogating and implicating Junior and Percy (a rather bland kid with a blank stare that repeatedly exclaims, “Phooey!”) in the crime. It’s mildly amusing at best; smile-inducing but not much more. It merely provides for a contrivance that will get our heroes into the nearby spook house attraction, unbeknownst to them. As they follow Junior and Percy from their headquarters, the “detectives” see the pair climb into a truck. Alfalfa and co. then climb into a big crate on the back of the truck, not realizing that Percy and Junior have come out the other side and have walked off. Workers finish loading the truck and take off, with the audience clued in to where they’re headed as one crate is labeled, “The Haunted House Amusement Pier – Long Beach.” This provides an interesting reference for history buffs as the Long Beach Pike was a boardwalk built and populated with amusement attractions going back to 1902, and known as “"The Place Where Fun Was Invented".
Now the short launches into its second and final act. The kids emerge from the crate scared by the spooky darkness. Alfalfa flips a switch hoping to turn the lights on, but it activates a record with a spooky voice instead. “Many enter this evil house, but few depart alive,” says the voice, menacingly. The great Billy Bletcher is credited with doing voices for this short (I spoke a bit about Bletcher in my review of “Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers” which you can read when you click here).
The voice implores the kids to “choose” a door that will lead to safety or doom. Another reference to “Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers” is made as out of the first door pops a Bogeyman costume, its arms wildly flailing about!
The appearance of the Bogeyman kicks off the obligatory “string of fright gags” the fill many of the short subjects in the “horror-comedy” genre. Here’s an itemized list of the gags that follow:
• Porky and Alfalfa walk through a door marked “EXIT,” where a strange half-giant/half Asian dragon creature billowing smoke from its nostrils yells out “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!” The duo try to run away but end up running in place as the floor is really a treadmill.
• Buckwheat sees a fishbowl where the fish’s skeletons are visible through their bodies!
• Sitting down at the bench in front of a pipe organ, Buckwheat is further scared by a skeleton that descends and begins playing a spooky tune on the organ!
• Buckwheat is frozen in fear as a second skeleton descends and places its arm around his shoulder.
• The trio falls through a trap door and down a slide into more dingy darkness.
• The scary voice tells them to sit in a special chair but the kids refuse – until they come face-to-face with a pitchfork-wielding skeleton with Satan’s face as they try to escape!
• Once locked in the seat, it begins to move and the kids face a circular buzz saw spinning right toward their necks!
Of course, all of the above are merely the funhouse attractions of the “Haunted House.” The kids are safely deposited outside where they promptly run back to their headquarters. They find Darla waiting there, who explains that she simply had misplaced the candy.
“Please, don’t ever mention candy or detectives to me again,” exclaims Alfalfa in response as the short sputters to a close.
The gags in this final half of the film are not just literally mechanical, however – in my opinion they are figuratively mechanical, too. The filmmakers seem to just be going through the motions – the gags are lethargic, flat and stilted. What enjoyment is to be had is due to the good will and affection audiences have toward Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Porky from previous films. Likewise, the short gets a tremendous boost from the voice-over involvement of Billy Bletcher.
But this alas is not the kids’ best work, really through no fault of their own. The problem lies with the fact that the “scare comedy” sequence is a result of the very contrivance Leonard Maltin freely acknowledged. In “Spooky Hooky,” the plot hinges on the kids trying to recover their “sick notes” from the dark and scary schoolhouse after hours (they had planned to play hooky but changed their minds once they heard the teacher planned a trip to the circus). You’re more invested in the kids’ quest in “Spooky Hooky” and the predicament that results than you are with “Hide and Shriek”’s detective squad who have merely been deposited into the “haunted house” unwittingly.
In my opinion, “Hide and Shriek” as a whole comes off as a “cut and run” entry done on the fly, with an easy solution being handed to the producers on a plate via the Long Beach pier’s Haunted House attraction. For me, the kids and Bletcher’s frantic vocal delivery elevate it to a half star above average, but it’s a close call. Still, if you enjoy this “gang” of “rascals,” you could do worse than spending ten minutes watching their magnum Roach opus.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
WORKER: Hey, this joint gives me the willies! C’mon, this is no place for us!”
HAUNTED HOUSE PROPRIETOR or JANITOR (see "SPOTTED IN THE CAST" for explanation): “Ha ha ha ha – if you boys want to get the wits scared out of you come out any time!”
ALFALFA: Buckwheat, try that door and see if we can get out.
BUCKWHEAT (shaking his head “no”): Uhn-uh.
ALFALFA: Whatsamatter? You scared?
DISEMBODIED VOICE: If you want to get out alive sit on that bench!
ALFALFA: Nothing doing, you double-crosser!
BEST GAGS: The aforementioned bits where Alfalfa swears in Porky and Buckwheat as deputies, the nods to “Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers” with the Barnaby disguise and Bogeyman in the haunted house, and Buckwheat’s encounter with skeletons (after all, the pairing of Buckwheat and bones also worked wonders in “Spooky Hooky”).
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: A much bigger mystery than what happened to Darla's candy is the supporting cast of this film. Both Leonard Maltin's book and the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) list Fred Holmes playing "the janitor." The IMDB website also lists Dick Elliott as playing the "Haunted House Proprietor." The confusion comes from the fact that the fellow who appears to own the haunted house and utter the line, "If you boys want to be scared out of your wits..." doesn't look like Dick Elliott at all and is most likely Fred Holmes. Given this disparity, let's highlight both fine thesps here.
Character actor Dick Elliott is one of those actors who had bit roles in everything from shorts and series entries to feature films, whether prestigious A-films, cheaper B-movies or lower Z-for-zero budget quickies. Some of the classics he appeared in include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “High Noon.” He made appearances in the Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol and Joe McDoakes shorts. Series entries graced with Elliott’s presence include Mr. Moto, Nancy Drew (in fact, the entry with horror-comedy overtones called “The Hidden Staircase”), Henry Aldrich, Blondie, Boston Blackie, Lone Wolf and Joe Palooka series. When TV came in, he had a recurring role as Officer Murphy on “Dick Tracy” and a few years later as “Mayor Pike” on “The Andy Griffith Show.” He appeared in several different roles in various episodes of “The Lone Ranger,” “I Love Lucy” and “Superman.” On the comedy feature film front, he appeared in a couple of Bob Hope classics (“My Favorite Blonde,” “The Paleface), Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Silly Billies,” the borderline horror-comedy “The Body Disappears” with Edward Everett Horton, the Frankie Darrow-Mantan Moreland starrer “Up in the Air” and several Bowery Boys entries including the “horror-onable mentions,” “Hold That Hypnotist” and “Up in Smoke.” Besides “Hide and Shriek,” the most overt horror-comedy to feature Elliott is the Harry Langdon talkie short, “Shivers.”
Fred Holmes' career was much more brief and seemed to be relegated to play bit parts primarily in Hal Roach-produced shorts and features. Not such a bad gig though as the majority of the time he was either appearing alongside Laurel & Hardy or the Our Gang kids. Holmes appeared with Laurel & Hardy in such classics as "Two Tars," "Wrong Again," "Going Bye Bye," "Babes in Toyland" and "Our Relations." In the Our Gang series Holmes also turned up in "Noisy Noises," "For Pete's Sake," "Beginner's Luck," "Teacher's Beau," "The Lucky Corner" and "Rushin' Balet." He had bits alongside the legend Harold Lloyd in "Hot Water" and was also among the all-star cast of "If I Had a Million," most notable for its sequence with W.C. Fields. Other comedy greats whose films Holmes appeared in include Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, Vernon Dent, Franklin Pangborn, Arthur Houseman, Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd.
BUY THE FILM:
“Hide and Shriek” has been released on home video several times. Two of the most recent releases include collections that range from a handful of shorts to a collection containing all the sound shorts originally produced at Hal Roach Studios. Buy them here:
There are two great blogs highlighting the horror comedies of Our Gang/the Little Rascals. Click here to read The Haunted Closet and click here to read Ghosts of Halloween Past.
As for books, the ultimate one on the kids is “Our Gang: the Life & Times of The Little Rascals” by Leonard Maltin. Buy the book here:
WATCH THE FILM:
Nothing beats seeing the short in its entirety with its original soundtrack intact, but if you want to get a taste of the flavor of this short here is an excerpt that was released to the 8mm home movie market in a silent edition with subtitles (8mm and Super 8 were the original “home video” before there was home video – you can read my post about the hobby when you click here). For 8mm home video release, “Hide and Shriek” was renamed “The Haunted House”:
Monday, August 29, 2011
Hey fans - just a quick note to let you know I now have a Twitter account. If you're interested in my various pop culture-related projects, from Scared Silly to my comic book work and everywhere in-between, I encourage you to follow me there as I "tweet" about endeavors past, present and future. Just click here to get to my Twitter page.
As for the photo up-top, yes, that's the skeleton of famous Looney Tunes cartoon character Tweety Bird. Korean artist Hyungkoo Lee made a series of skeletons he calls "Animatus" which analyzes the skeletal structure of our favorite cartoon stars. Of course, we love that here at Scared Silly - the more skeletons the better! You can see Lee's other creations when you click here.
Since we're on a bird theme (after all, birds "tweeted" long before humans did), let's pull out a classic public domain Flip the Frog cartoon. We've shown "Spooks" before here at Scared Silly - that one has a brief gag with a cuckoo clock inhabited by a skeleton bird. This time, let's take a look at a Flip flick where the cuckoo is the title star, the "old dark house" spoof "The Cuckoo Murder Case." Hmmmm... perhaps that explains his skeletal appearance in "Spooks?!" Anyway... ENJOY!
Thursday, August 18, 2011
...but no, I won't be wearing the disguise that Scarlett the Vampire/Vampire Hunter wears in the above illustration.
I will, however be autographing copies of the "Archie's Weird Mysteries" paperback collection - featuring horror-comedy comic book tales based on the animated series of the same name - this Saturday, August 20th at The Little Shop of Comics (great name, eh?) in Scotch Plains, NJ.
I wrote the stories and I'll be joined by artist-supreme Fernando Ruiz (you can read more about the series by clicking here). Fernando will be giving away sketches and we'll both be signing anything and everything we've worked on - not just "Archie's Weird Mysteries." So if you're in the area, stop on by and say hello - we'll be there from 2PM to 5PM that day.
For further details, click right here.
If you need further persuasion, Poe the kitten (and reigning Scared Silly mas-cat) has prepared this special video encouraging you to come out and support your favorite horror-comedy-meister! MUCH THANKS in advance!
Monday, August 8, 2011
In previous posts (which you can read here and here) I mentioned recently-released comic book projects in which I played a part. I highlighted the “Archie’s Weird Mysteries” paperback collection in particular for its relevance to my “Scared Silly” project – after all, just like a typical Hollywood horror-comedy the comic misadventures I wrote based on the animated series of the same name often had Archie and his friends mixed up with monsters, mad scientists and yes, aliens!
The “Archie’s Weird Mysteries” paperback reprinted one of my favorite stories, about Archie and his friends getting mixed up in an intergalactic baseball game between two rival alien teams. The Brawnux were the champion jocks of the universe, while the Smelltoids were more adept at using their brains than their brawn.
Now comes “The Best of Archie Comics.” This is another project I had a hand in. It was released when I wasn't paying attention (I had no idea when this one was supposed to come out). It’s a whopping 400 pages (and an additional 20 if you get the hardcover) that collects stories of Archie and Archie-owned properties from every decade since the 1940s, by all the top writers and artists of each decade. PLUS it includes insights from many Archie creators and fans, and some historical text on each decade. It includes some quotes from me and I wrote much of the historical text within, but for Scared Silly fans the biggest draw may be the inclusion of a short tale I wrote as a follow-up to that intergalactic baseball game story.
Ultimately, my contributions to “The Best of Archie Comics” are just a small part of what is a massive team effort – credit is due to the great team of staff editors and designers at Archie for putting it together. Plus so many great folks and dear friends quoted within as well as stories they were involved in either as artists, writers, editors, etc. - such a huge list but including Dan Parent, Fernando Ruiz, Michael Uslan, Stephen Oswald, Suzannah Rowntree. Joe Morciglio, Mike Pellerito... heck, so, so many I don't think Blogger offers enough "character" space to mention them all but you get the idea... well done, everyone.
You can pre-order a copy of the deluxe hardcover version (releasing in October) at the bottom of this post, or find the softcover copy at your local comic shop (click here to use the Comic Shop Locator Service to find the store nearest you).
…and for more outer space silliness, here’s John Landis’ commentary of the trailer for the Three Stooges’ feature, “Have Rocket, Will Travel,” courtesy of our friends at Trailers From Hell. ENJOY!
Monday, August 1, 2011
**&3/4 out of ****
PLOT: Buster Keaton is a bank teller at a bank where one of the managers is running a crooked side “business” to fleece customers of their cash. Orchestrating an “inside job” the wayward co-worker’s henchman attempt to rob Buster. Through a series of mishaps that leave Buster’s hands filled with glue, he is able to turn the tables on the would-be-robbers. In the process, however Buster is caught with a gun stuck in one hand and cash stuck to the other, leading the owner of the bank to suspect Buster of the crime. Buster takes refuge in a tricked-out house which is also doubling as the hideout for his crooked co-worker and gang. Meanwhile, an acting troupe run off the stage for their horrible performance of “Faust” also hide in the house. Between the various contraptions like collapsing staircases and trap doors as well as thugs dressed like ghosts and skeletons… and let’s not forget the devil Faust wandering about – Buster must clear his name, catch the crooks, get the girl and keep from being scared!
REVIEW: Never have preconceived notions. I must admit before I started watching this short I had guessed that the highest I could possibly score it would be 2 to 2 and ¼ stars out of 4. The reason? I am one of the few who holds a unique position on Buster Keaton. While I admire Keaton greatly and think he’s a genius filmmaker in terms of his direction, most of the time I don’t laugh much at his films or feel any connection to the protagonists he plays. It really just comes down to his deadpan style. Of the silent solo clowns, I most often throw my lot in with Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was very inventive, too; not genius-level inventive like Keaton (although close) but still he managed to conceive some amazing set-pieces in his comedy. More importantly, he played a character to who I could root and relate. Lloyd’s character, like Keaton’s was a man trying to get ahead but he was not detached. You knew Lloyd’s emotions. He didn’t just wear them on his sleeves but on his trouser legs as well! Which is not to say that one style is “better” than another but just that I personally prefer a character to who I can relate.
Having said that, there are limitations to Keaton’s character that make the horror-comedy in particular a mostly unsuitable sub-genre for him. It pretty much begins and ends with the fact that Keaton can never get too scared, and if he does get scared, it’s not for long – otherwise he threatens to diminish his character’s main feature: the stoic and deadpan “stone face.”
...and yet, as you can see from my rating, the film ends up succeeding more than I thought it would. It’s a close call, but there are enough touches that work to make it almost worthy of a full three stars.
Common to silent comedies, this short starts off with a humorous opening title card: “Wall Street – The palatial parking place of the Bull and the Bear – mostly the Bull.” No time is wasted as the first visual gag follows immediately after the title card: Buster pratfalls out of a taxi on his way to work. As he runs through his routine so he can man his station at the local bank, Buster treats his fans to his time-honed acrobatics – leaping, climbing and tumbling his way through his surroundings.
There is brevity of set-up in this short – one minute in the scene jumps from Buster’s arrival at the bank to an interior of a house with this title card, “The bank cashier and his band of counterfeiters have a strong reason for making people believe this house is haunted.” The burly bank teller demonstrates just how he can make people believe the house is haunted by pulling a lever. His first trick: flattening the stairs so that those climbing fall to the bottom! This will be the first of several “tricked-out house” gags in the short, and they anticipate similar gags in the silent Our Gang shorts “Shootin’ Injuns” and “Shivering Spooks” that would follow a few years later.
Back to the bank, a pretty young girl convinces Buster to open the time-lock on the vault for an early withdrawal. The woman returns a short time later to reveal she received a counterfeit bill, and the bank president says he’ll have the police look into the matter, much to the concern of the crooked bank teller.
Buster then gets into some bits of business with a glue pot, money and bank statements – he has accidentally gotten glue on his hands and everything sticks! Just as he removes one element from his hands, he ends up stuck to another! It is classic Keaton physical dexterity at work. Of course, as he hands off money to a customer, the stickiness just compounds matters! Soon everyone in the bank has money stuck to their hands and feet!
The silent comedies with their knockabout slapstick often get a bad rap from some quarters for (in “their” opinion) being “dated” and having a “sameness” to them but too often what’s forgotten is not only the visually inventive gags but the truly audacious and outrageous lengths comedians would go to get laughs in their films. These bits are usually jarringly unexpected, and “The Haunted House” contains this gem: to get a man who is stuck to the floor by the seat of his pants unstuck, Buster first conks him on the head and then pours boiling hot water onto the floor to loosen the glue’s grip!
Before too long Buster’s hands are stuck in his pockets. Eventually he breaks his hands free, and when robbers come to hold up the bank and carelessly leave their guns at the counter, Buster successfully chases them off… and then is summarily confronted by the bank officials because he’s still holding the guns and looks like he robbed the place himself with all the glue-filled money stuck in his pockets. In his inimitable way, however Buster manages to escape (sort of – he ends up back in the vault).
Continuing with this film’s brisk pacing of transitions (almost as if it’s a comic book and the scene’s abrupt change is easily explained away with a “MEANWHILE” caption) we are taken to a local theater where, a title tells us, “That night the Daredevil Opera Company was executing Faust – and he deserved it!” The title card writer isn’t kidding, either as a man throws a whole head of lettuce (or maybe it was cabbage – hard to tell in a black & white movie) at the performer on-stage, leading to the entire audience chasing the actors out the back of the theater.
…and then we’re back at the bank with Buster, where a wonderfully written title tells us, “After searching everywhere else the police found him where he was.” Buster runs into the blue-tinted night. The sheriff and his men take chase but when Buster runs into the title house, they stop short, exclaiming “That house is haunted.”
Once inside, Buster sees a man in a sheet walk by but is nonplused. He begins to nonchalantly explore the home, touching various objects. When he opens a book it sets off a smoke bomb. Then the ghost (man in sheet) runs in, frightened by a lawman’s rifle being shot and Buster runs up the stairs to avoid the ghost… but the ghost merely runs into another room, leaving Buster on the stairs perplexed… and soon at the bottom of the stairs on his butt as the “trick stairs” are activated.
The actors on the run from the angry audience soon duck into the house just as Buster did. This adds some extra elements to the spooky fun because now “the devil” Faust is in the trick house. Perhaps the funniest moments come in the scene where the actor in the Faust costume confronts Buster. Buster plops down in a chair at the sight of ‘ol scratch and is quizzical about the whole matter. He touches the actor to see if he’s “real”… and perhaps to assure himself he’s not just having a delusion. This one little bit is a brilliant piece of acting on Buster’s part as he acts with his eyes – he keeps his stone face but his eyes belie the fact that he is simultaneously curious and scared out of his wits. By default, that makes this the funniest scene in this “scare comedy” that otherwise finds its hero not-very-scared. The scene gets even funnier as Buster rightly decides the Faust actor is not the real Satan after kicking him in the shin and getting the expected reaction!
Buster’s hysterical attempts to explain the collapsing staircase are met with disbelief by Faust, who walks away only to be replaced by a man in a sheet while Buster isn’t looking! A brief tussle leads to a genuine scare-take from Keaton in inimitable fashion: a back flip that ends up with Buster lying on the ground! This is followed by the classic horror-comedy stand-by of a person pretending to be a chair with a blanket draped over their body. When the “arms” of the chair cup around Buster’s waist, we see one of the few times on film where Buster’s stone face actually registers an emotion!
Genuinely scared now, Buster runs out of the room. He regains his composure a bit then ends up following a couple of men in creepy skeleton outfits (another horror-comedy standby) into a room where they are assembling disembodied mannequin parts into a whole “man.” And a “real man” at that! The effect is suitably eerie and is the first instance in the film where something truly supernatural has occurred, and suddenly at that. This is one of those “just go with it” moments that turns up from time to time in horror comedies – it’s been established that the crooked banker and his gang are aware that “the little man from the bank is upstairs” and are determined to scare him away with tricks, yet they also slip in something totally unexplainable. This would happen again in such films as The East Side Kids’ “Spooks Run Wild,” where Bela Lugosi and his assistant Angelo Rossitto – mere stage magicians – somehow vanish into thin air as bullets are shot directly at them; and the Shemp Howard-Billy Gilbert-Maxie Rosenbloom starrer “Crazy Knights,” where John Hamilton, despite otherwise being presented as a man up to no-good tricks (literally and figuratively) actually turns transparent and floats away without any explanation. These bizarre occurrences are usually tossed off without a second thought, and such is the case here.
As often happens in two reel spook spoofs, the climactic action picks up a frenetic pace as various characters dart from one room to another and various scare gags are pulled off. By the end of “The Haunted House” this means that various combinations of the gangsters, the lawmen, the actors from the Faust play and Buster intersect. The gags are fairly unconnected. At one point, Buster sits on a sofa to catch his breath, putting his arm around a sheet-clad figure with the expected reaction. He sails down the collapsing staircase headfirst as if it is a playground slide when another figure in a sheet approaches. A tried and true gag occurs when one of the sheet-wearing crooks grabs Buster by his coattails and Buster frantically tries to run away but ends up running in place while the carpet under his feet turns in circles!
I mentioned earlier that critics of the day had become all too aware of the typical silent comedy conventions, overused as they were. One such gimmick was “the chase” scene, and “The Haunted House” breaks this trope out for its finale, too. When the Faust actor’s cape catches on fire just as he’s being confronted by one of the sheet wearing gangsters, this film’s obligatory chase ensues as he jumps out the window and scares off the waiting law enforcement officials. But back in the house, to Keaton’s credit the “chase scene” takes on a different, absurdist tone. Buster directs traffic as various sheet wearing gangsters pass each other in the hall as they rather languidly cross from room to room. This scenario of having various characters dart (or merely cross) from room to room became a staple of not only horror-comedies but also animation in everything from the Beatles’ full-length animated feature “Yellow Submarine” to the “Scooby Doo” Saturday morning cartoon series.
One of the best gags soon follows as Buster decides to outwit the collapsing staircase by first gently stepping on one or two steps the way one would dip their foot into a swimming pool to test the temperature of the water, only to promptly sliding down the banister… where he ends up on the 2nd step which promptly collapses, sending him to the ground!
With a minute to go we come to learn there is a trap door that deposits people in the basement hideout of the crooks. Why this device comes into the short so late is a mystery, as surely there could have been great “bits of business” built around this prop.
When all is said and done, Buster saves the day (with a well-tossed vase to a crook’s head foreshadowing the hysterical climax of Wheeler & Woolsey’s 1930s classic, “The Nitwits”) and gets the girl… but in one of the more bizarre horror-comedy endings on par with the “shock endings” in Laurel & Hardy films, the villain knocks Buster dead and he ascends the stairway to heaven… which promptly collapses sending him into hell! Until he wakes up, of course – the villain merely knocked Buster out!
The gags in the haunted house are fun and inventive, but as previously mentioned, Buster in a “scare” comedy can be a disconnect – again, he is the “great Stone Face” and a lot of “scare comedy” relies on “reaction takes.” In the initial sequences inside the “haunted” house, Buster is only ever momentarily “scared.” He shrugs things off so quickly that his emotionless persona doesn’t register the same laughs as say cartoon superstar Bugs Bunny, who didn't scare easily but would generally come at his would-be tormentors with a steady stream of head-spinning double-talk and physical distraction techniques. That may sound like an unfair comparison – after all this is a silent movie – but the physical “recovery” for Buster just happens too fast to elicit many laughs. That’s not necessarily a knock on Keaton as much as it is an acknowledgement that his stock style and the horror-comedy genre are not the best match. Indeed, it seems Metro, distributors of the short felt the same – they don’t even feature one of the haunted house scenes on the movie poster, opting instead for Buster’s gummed-up glue gaggery.
As in many of the silent comedies, the co-stars are game and really bring a lot to the proceedings with their lively playing. Almost by default given Keaton’s deadpan style, the supporting cast comes off alive and kicking indeed with big and broad body language and facial expressions, as well as frantic physicality. Among the cast members are Virginia Fox, who spent the ‘20s as a supporting player in Mack Sennett shorts including several Buster Keaton entries. She also co-starred with other famous silent clowns including Charlie’s brother Sydney Chaplin, Charley Chase, Ford Sterling, Ben Turpin, James Finlayson, Billy Bevan, Vernon Dent, Marie Prevost and others, and was an ex-wife of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Also on-hand is Joe Roberts. A family friend of Keaton’s, Roberts was primarily a supporting player in Keaton shorts although he also appeared in Bobby Dunn shorts and a smattering of features including the Mary Pickford version of “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Natalie Talmadge played mostly uncredited bit roles (usually quite small bits) in Keaton films as well as small parts in her sister Constance’s comedies and her sister Norma’s dramas. Outside of Keaton’s “Our Hospitality” the most famous movie Talmadge appeared in was the silent classic, “Intolerance” (which also featured a small part for Walter Long who would become a perennial foil for Laurel & Hardy).
All things considered, the film is much better than one would expect given that disparity of styles… and to Keaton’s credit it soon picks up as he figures out ways to make the horror-comedy trappings work despite his deadpan style. It was the first of only a small handful of “horror-comedies” Buster would make, the others being talkie efforts (none I’m sure coming close to the entertainment value of seeing Buster play in a 1940 charity baseball game alongside Boris Karloff – in full Frankenstein monster makeup! – as previously mentioned here). I recommend “The Haunted House” as your best chance to see Keaton tackle the standard trappings of the genre in the medium where Keaton excelled, the silent film. In that regard, feel free to add an extra star to my rating if you are a big Keaton fan.
BEST DIALOGUE: The aforementioned title card, “After searching everywhere else the police found him where he was.”
BEST GAGS: All the best gags are already mentioned in the body of this review, but I will elaborate on Buster’s successful beaning of the criminal in the film’s finale: Instead of hitting a man directly over the head with a vase, Buster throws it up over the man’s head and it hits its target on the way down. This is an extremely Keaton-esque trifle – expertly planned and timed for maximum effect, sort of a small scale version of the elaborate and famous scene in the classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” which followed seven years after “The Haunted House,” where the façade of a house falls directly over Buster but does not harm him as he’s standing dead-center where the open doorway lands.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: The big talent in the cast besides Keaton is of course Edward F. Kline, aka Eddie Cline, who also co-directed and co-wrote this short with Keaton. Cline gets but a bit part as a bank customer in “The Haunted House,” but of course he is more well-known for his behind-the-camera work. He directed and/or wrote/co-wrote such comedy classics as W.C. Field’s “Million Dollar Legs” “The Bank Dick” and others; several Wheeler & Woolsey movies including the notorious “So This is Africa” and one with horror-comedy overtones, “Hook, Line & Sinker;” a few Olsen & Johnson features including the wild “Crazy House” and their classic horror-comedy, “Ghost Catchers;” the Ritz Brothers’ “Behind the Eight Ball,” programmers including entries in the comic strip-based Snuffy Smith and Maggie & Jiggs series; and the silent horror-comedy “The Ghost of Folly” with Andy Clyde. Cline also directed a pair of “Cracked Nuts” – both the Wheeler & Woolsey vehicle co-starring Boris Karloff and the pseudo-horror-comedy of the same title but with a different plot that featured Shemp Howard and Mantan Moreland. And that’s just scratching the surface!
BUY THE FILM: This one shows up in various DVD collections, but the best print is probably the one offered by Kino in their extensive “Art of Buster Keaton” collection which you can order here:
FURTHER READING: The seminal work on silent comedies in my opinion is Walter Kerr’s “The Silent Clowns.” You’ll find much about Keaton as well as his contemporaries Chaplin, Langdon, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and others in this essential volume. Order it when you click on the title here: The Silent Clowns
Books solely about Keaton abound. Two that come highly recommended to me by a film historian friend are "Keaton" by Rudi Blesh and "The Complete Films of Buster Keaton" by Jim Kline, part of that ever-reliable collection of "Films of" books originally published by Citadel Press. There is an additional book I’ve never read it, so I can't vouch for it beyond the fact that it includes coverage of "The Haunted House," and that is Gabriella Oldham’s Book “Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter” which takes a look at Keaton’s shorts from 1920 to 1923. You can order these books here (for the Blesh book click on the title):
UPDATE: After this post went up I decided to surf the net to see if any other blogs had reviewed this film. Wouldn't you know that the Pretty Clever Film Gal reviewed it at the Pretty Clever Film blog just a few weeks prior to my review being posted? You can read that review when you click here.
WATCH THE FILM: This film is thought to be in the public domain so you can find it on various websites including the Internet Archive. Here is a brief excerpt from this short, the finale of the film which is chock full of horror-comedy gags – ENJOY!