by Roderick Towers
Bigfoots. Haunted houses. Loch Ness Monsters. Bermuda Triangles The ghost kid hiding in Three Men and a Little Baby. Oh, hello there. You’ve just caught me making a list of my favorite things. I’m Roderick Towers, paranormal enthusiast. What’s a paranormal enthusiast you ask? Why, that’s someone who is enthusiastic about the paranormal. I would love to be a paranormal investigator but who has that kind of time? My research is mainly divided into two areas, borrowing books from the library and watching movies. The library is an important tool for anyone, especially those in the field of sussing out the unknown and mysterious. Support your local library kids. Some of the ghostly motion pictures that enamor me the most are known as “old dark house” movies. This is a genre where a group of people find themselves in a crumbling estate, usually due to an inheritance, and must make it through the night, often with a killer on the loose. I love visiting these decrepit old dwellings but since there are no haunted houses within driving distance, I must take my trips through the magic of the movies. Allow me to take you on a tour through a few of my favorite eerie travel destinations.
“This is an evil omen. Something terrible will happen here tonight”
By 1927 the spiritualism movement, which had engaged the nation for the better part of a decade, was winding down but a film was about to hit the cinemas which would ensure the public’s interest in spooks and spook houses for years to come. The Cat and the Canary was not the first in the “old dark house” genre but it became one of the most influential. The heirs of the Cyrus West fortune are in for the shock of their lives as they gather in the dilapidated family manor for the reading of the old man’s will. Listen good reader, how would you like to be left waiting for twenty years to find out if you were the inheritor of a vast estate? Twenty years. Why, that would be enough to test the sanity of even the best of us. Maybe even, good reader, lead to thoughts of murder, perhaps? Add to your stress an escaped convict lurking in hidden passageways and it would be hard not to go a little mad. The entire atmosphere is thick with the sinister air of the supernatural, like a half seen ghost gliding through the graveyard. All of this accomplished without sound. These silent movie makers seemed to understand what sadly seems to be forgotten these days, that film is a visual medium. Faces melt in and out of the shadows, hallways go on for miles, the very house seems to be spiraling upward as though to curse the heavens. It’s not all doom and gloom however, there is enough humor throughout that it could almost be classified as a comedy. A reminder that sometimes we need to laugh in the darkness. You’re going to need all the laughter you can get good reader, if you intend to make it through a night at the old West place.
“There are always murmurs. The house is full of murmurs. They tell me things.”
In 1939 The Cat and Canary was remade and like the previous version became an instant classic. Although the location was changed from the banks of the Hudson River to the bayous of Louisiana, much of the plot remains the same. The biggest difference is the addition of Bob Hope to the ensemble. I almost feel like Hope, even at this early stage in his career, is just too big of a personality for this particular story. Whenever he is on screen you just can’t help but fade everyone else out. While his analogue in the silent version was a clumsy oaf, here Hope plays a quick witted, fast talking character not unlike...Bob Hope. As for the ambiance, the whole thing gets an upgrade. Everyone here is hollywood glamourous and, while I do miss the german expressionism from the first film, I’ll tell ya brother, a little of that old hollywood razzle dazzle is alright with me. Even the escaped lunatic is one handsome fella. The highlight of the film is the chemistry between Hope and Hollywood star Paulette Goddard. Although when sparks started to fly between the two I couldn’t help but think, if they’re both heirs to the fortune, doesn’t that make them related? The two paired so well together that the studio was keen to send them both to another haunted house which brings us to our next stop.
“My advice is to keep the castle and sell the ghosts”
The Ghost Breakers (1940) begins during a dark and stormy night, as is fitting for a story such as this. Paulette plays yet another heiress, this time inheriting an entire castle in Cuba. The only catch is the place is, you guessed it, haunted. This go round Bob Hope is a radio personality on the run from the mafia who ends up inadvertently joining Mrs. Goddard on her trip to the haunted abode. This edges out The Cat and the Canary just slightly for me, because it is such a fun romp. Everything really comes together in this one. The repartee is a little quicker, the performances more natural, and the story has more scope. Sure the humor may be a little dated with jokes about unions, Basil Rathbone, and Baby Snooks but that’s part of the charm. The mood is lighter but still atmospheric when it needs to be. The two leads are once again great together with Paulette pulling an earnest performance out of Hope who is funny without being cocky. It almost makes you forget that it takes more than an hour to get to the “haunted” portion of the picture, but I certainly didn’t mind spending the time with these characters. A successful blend of horror and comedy, this is one haunted trip that I will take again and again. I think my feelings on this one are best summed up by the line “I’m still 11 years old when it comes to the 4th of July, circuses, and haunted castles.”
“I’d be awfully silly if I was scared, wouldn’t I?”
“Boy, am I silly.”
Before they met the monsters, Abbott and Costello were busy chasing spooks in one of my favorite movies to feature the word “ghost” in the title, Hold That Ghost (1941). While it doesn't balance the comedy and spookery quite like Ghost Breakers, for me it doesn’t have to. This movie is more of a carnival ride. The feeling you get during autumn, thunderstorms, and the full moon. Through the magic of movie logic, the bumbling duo inherit a crumbling old hotel (perhaps outside of LA?) after witnessing the death of a mob boss. The plot is as thin as a saltine but really, who cares how they get there, the main attraction is Abbott and Costello in a haunted house and, friends, that’s all you need to know. The only thing that left me unsatisfied was the ghost itself. I was happy to see that they went with the classic bedsheet ghost but the sheet is transparent and you can clearly see a guy underneath. Still, I am convinced that there is an actual ghost in the house, how else, dear reader, do you explain the floating candle? Merely the wind? I think not. The secret weapon of the movie, however, is neither Lou, nor Bud, nor the bedsheet ghost but actress extraordinaire Joan Davis. Her comic sensibilities fit right in with the boys and she’s practically a third member of the team. I think everyone should stop what they’re doing and get better acquainted with the life and career of the indomitable Joan Davis. A real gem of a film making this haunted house one I don’t mind visiting again and again.
“You mean there’s a ghost as well as a skeleton in everyone’s cupboard.”
Our next stop deals more with that old adage, “there are no haunted houses, only haunted people” and the characters in Dead of Night (1945) sure are haunted. Mr. Craig is an architect visiting an old home out in the British countryside to discuss renovations. He seems odd and distant, barely speaking as he’s introduced to the other guests of the house. We soon learn that he has, in fact, met everyone before in a recurring dream. There is a sense of unease that begins to percolate during this initial exchange and slowly builds over the course of the movie as each guest begins to recount their own experiences with the supernatural. Even though it’s probably best known for its final segment involving a menacing ventriloquist dummy, nearly every tale adds to the uneasiness of the overall tone. Mr. Craig becomes more and more unhinged after each story as he begins to realize that the dream he is remembering was actually a nightmare. This is a very effective mood piece with an ending that invites repeat viewings.
“So, I am a ghost. And you’re trying to get rid of me”
While on our journey, i would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite ghost stories of recent years, I Am a Ghost (2012). In a twist, this movie focuses not on the living but solely on a restless spirit drifting from room to room in an empty house in San Francisco, trying to make sense of it all. We watch as she appears to be stuck in a loop, mindlessly clinging to the mundanity of a once normal life but deep down knowing that something isn’t right. Then one day, she hears the disembodied voice of the medium reaching out to her from behind the veil of the great divide, asking her to repeat these words, “I am a ghost”. Director H.P. Mendoza does a lot with a little and actress Anna Ishida gives a stellar performance in her intimate portrayal of a lost soul. In lesser hands, the entire thing might have fallen apart since this character is onscreen for virtually all of the movie’s runtime but Ishida shoulders the responsibility beautifully. It’s best to experience the rest of the story for yourself dear reader. So I will leave you with only this advice, seek this one out.
“Are ghosts really the living dead from outer space?”
Finally, why just visit haunted houses when you can travel the entire realm of the paranormal and I mean ALL of it in Amazing World of Ghosts (1978). You know those segments in Ed Wood movies where he’d lay some wild narration over all that stock footage he’d use? Imagine that for over an hour and a half with a non stop stream of consciousness voice-over exclusively about the paranormal and you’ve got this movie. It is as amazing as the title suggests. You are practically bombarded with “facts” about ghosts, aliens, mediums, seances, the loch ness monster, bigfoot, and everything in between. While no actual evidence is given we are constantly assured that it has been verified by “experts”. Throughout it’s runtime I counted the use of the word “ghost” and its derivatives over 120 times. I love it. The narrator also takes several detours to outer space to theorize that ghosts may in fact be aliens and aliens’ ghosts. Well...I can’t say it’s not true. Without a doubt one of the greatest documentaries ever made. So there you have it, good reader, a way to travel the world of the supernatural while being able to really spread out at home. This has been Roderick Towers for Moviejawn, wishing you many happy hauntings.
*Featured in our Summer 2019 “Road Trips” issue available here