Written by: Howard Dimsdale (original story), Joseph Hoffman (screenplay)
Directed by: William Beaudine
Starring: James Dunn, Joan Woodbury and Paul McVey
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“"Why does there always have to be a butler in every murder mystery?"
Indeed, why is there always a butler in one of these things? That this question was already being asked in 1942 speaks to the alarming rate that these type of films were being churned out at the time. Surely a dime a dozen, these flicks often gathered together a large ensemble in one house that was home to a murder; eventually, the cast would be whittled down to a select few, who would figure out the killer has been among them the entire time. The Living Ghost is not a very inventive take on this cycle, but it is an especially jocular one that has no doubt toiled in obscurity for decades.
In this case, a murder isn’t the impetus for the action, but rather, the disappearance of millionaire Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire). Former detective Nick Trayne (James Dunn) is hired by Craig’s family to solve the mystery of is whereabouts. His job is actually done for him when Craig shows up one night in a zombified state, and it seems someone has kidnapped him and brainwashed him into doing their murderous bidding. The culprit surely stalks the hall of the Craig mansion, and Nick has to use all of his wits to get to the bottom of it.
Despite the murder (and there’s only one, which of course happens off screen) and hypnotized zombie men (there’s eventually two of those), The Living Ghost is mostly marked by cornball humor in the form of its fast-talking, wise-cracking protagonist, who deals out as many barbs as he does bullets. Dunn is pretty lively in an irreverent role that never allows you to take the movie seriously, which was likely intentional. At times, his antagonistic relationship with Craig’s secretary, Billie (Joan Woodbury), mirrors the typical rom-com stuff that Hepburn and Grant were popularizing, only it’s not nearly as sharp. Humor was often found in these types of films (in fact, Whale’s Old Dark House is surely one of the earliest horror/comedy hybrids), but it’s especially in steady supply here, as this is mostly a goofball romp whose laughs will likely be dated for most.
Still, it’s sort of fun and silly, and the zaniness often makes up for the creakiness of the limp mystery, which is saddled by an ensemble that’s way too large for such a brisk film. Clocking in at only 64 minutes, there’s obviously not a whole lot of time to draw out the mystery, so the first half of the movie is dedicated to a bunch of “he said, she said” business as the various suspects point their fingers at each other. Both the usual suspects (those who might inherit Craig’s riches) and the unusual ones (we’re told one girl belongs to a demonic cult for whatever reason) abound, and, yes, there is of course a butler who seemingly only exists to irk our hero. All of this wouldn’t be so bad if there were some sense of atmosphere; it’s hard to consider this an “old dark house” film since the mansion is so sleek and so much of the action takes place in broad daylight.
Eventually, a bit of a footing is found in a couple of notable sequences. One is the murder scene, which is where we also discover that Craig has been turned into a zombie. He is of course the vapid, vacant-eyed type instead of the rotting undead, but he’s not voodoo-fuelled; instead, he’s been subjected to some strange experiments that have altered his brain, which takes us to mad scientist territory. And since every mad scientist needs some sort of abode, Nick and Billie’s investigation leads them to a decrepit little haunt, so there is a little bit of old dark house stuff after all. In what is certainly the film’s best sequence, the two find themselves skulking around the dark, abandoned place as a storm rages outside. While it isn’t exactly frightening or suspenseful, it’s a welcome break from the stuffy investigative proceedings, which eventually wrap themselves up with a bit of cleverness.
However, even that lone spooky scene culminates in a gag that actually serves as a decent spoof of cliché romantic moments that often come at the height of terror. That’s pretty much indicative of The Living Ghost itself, which is perhaps somewhat expected considering its title doesn’t even beg to be taken seriously (what, exactly, would a dead ghost look like?). At any rate, MGM is banking on there being an audience for this, which is why they’ve released it as part of their Limited Edition line. While the quality on this one is certainly passable, there’s an appropriate warning at the beginning regarding the image quality, which is a bit rough; detail is lacking, and the black levels are washed out, but it looks fine, all told. The soundtrack is fine--it’s dialogue heavy anyway, and it’s clear enough. Like many of these Limited Edition titles, The Living Ghost is available to stream on Netflix, which is really a much safer bet. If you’re a fan of these quaint murder mysteries, give it a shot. Rent it!
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