Review Date: December 6, 2011
Released by: MGM
Release date: October 12, 2011
Full Screen 1.33 | 16x9: No
Film, like economies, goes through cycles of boom and bust and no genre is more susceptible to these cycles than the horror genre. The cinematic horror explosion of the late seventies and early eighties led to a period of stagnation that lasted until the tail end of the nineties. Likewise, the depression-era boom of the Universal monsters was followed by a dry spell during the austerity of the war years. The films got more conventional in concept and more economical (read: cheap-looking) in production. Sets were recycled and reused and blatant elements of horror and fantasy were downplayed in favour of broad comedy. In the depression, Frankenstein
ís monster chilled the spines of moviegoers everywhere; by the end of the war he was comic foil to comedy duo Abbott and Costello.
Such is the case with The Living Ghost
. What on paper sounds like the recipe for a decent chiller is, in fact, a screwball farce which only uses horror tropes as a clothesline on which to hang its slapstick and romantic comedy. Thatís not really bad in and of itself as long as the comedic elements are well handled. In The Living Ghost
, unfortunately, they are not. Despite some occasionally snappy dialogue and a standout performance from the female lead, this lost, war-era Ghost is not worth resurrecting.
Millionaire Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire
) has gone missing from his palatial home and his family is vexed. Despite leaving behind no clues or evidence, Craigís daughter, Tina (Jan Wiley
) is convinced that her step mother, Helen (Edna Johnson
) is somehow involved. With no ransom note or clues to go on, the family lawyer Ed Moline (Paul McVey
) suggests hiring a private investigator that can crack the case that has the law stumped. He visits an old friend, ex-private eye turned ďprofessional listenerĒ Nick Trayne (James Dunn
), in hopes heíd be willing to investigate the high profile disappearance. Ed brings his secretary Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury
) along ostensibly to drive Nick back to the mansion if he agrees, but more importantly to use her as an attractive piece of low-hanging fruit. Nick has given up the investigation racket but appeals to his greed -in the form of a $25,000 reward- and his vanity -in the form of Billieís carefully aimed jabs at his professional skills (and by extension his manhood) are enough to convince him to take on the case. He returns to the Craig mansion, but seems more concerned with ruffling Billieís feathers than actually solving the case.
Just as suddenly as he disappeared, Walter returns home a few nights after his initial disappearance. Heís found by Trayne and Billie sitting in a chair next to the parlour fireplace, his face a zombified mask. Dr. Taggert (Forrest Taylor
) is called in to examine Craig and his inspection suggests that Walter has undergone a process whereby half his brain activity has been chemically blocked. Because of the careful way in which particular chemicals would have to be administered in order to achieve this result, the conclusion is clear: somebody has purposely done this to Craig. The investigation then shifts from Walterís whereabouts to finding out who did this to Walter, why they did it and how to stop them before they do it again.
Nick takes Billie as his sidekick and they banter their way through the investigation. Billie continually rebuffs Nickís oafish come-ons by he persists, undeterred. While looking for clues in the garden, they find Walter standing over a fresh corpse, blood on his hands. Itís almost as if heís being controlled remotely or acting according to a pre-planned set of instructions. When it seems those instructions included killing Nick, the lackadaisical detective kicks the investigation into high gear. Can Nick solve the case and win the heart of his prickly female assistant? Do you really care?
As already alluded to, The Living Ghost
really isnít a horror movie. It barely even qualifies as a mystery, really. Though the story is somewhat structured as a whodunit (or, whytheydunit) the clues and solutions fall into place too easily. Thereís almost no legwork done by the characters on screen, much less being asked of the audience. A potentially interesting dilemma will present itself and just as quickly will be resolved, either through the fortuitous discovery of some physical evidence or a character walking into the room to deliver the precise bit of information needed at that precise moment in time. Itís infuriating how sloppily the mystery elements are handled. Not only is no suspense ever allowed to build up, but the audience is given no time to process the dilemma before the solution is reached. Thereís no suspense or engagement, nor reason to think or care about whatís going on onscreen.
The staging is pedestrian as well. While Browningís Dracula
pioneered a mobile camera and pushed technical boundaries, The Living Ghost
is assembled out of long, locked off camera shots. The film is only 61 minutes long but the pace feels downright leaden at times. Watching The Living Ghost
often feels like watching a recorded high school play; all the blocking is centered in the frame and instead of moving the camera or cutting away, actors step into frame to deliver their lines then step out. The Living Ghost
is obviously a war-era quickie cranked out with little to no money allotted for its production, but even with budgetary constraints taken into consideration this film feels half assed. Even at its best, the craft behind The Living Ghost
can best be described as economical. It feels as if everybody involved behind the scenes simply wanted to get the film done and move on to something better, which is ironically how I felt while watching it.
Characters arenít well established and appear and disappear seemingly at random. Thereís an entertaining bit with a fast-talking, gibberish spouting guy at Nickís office, but what itís doing in this picture is inexplicable. Who is this man? Why is he in Nickís office? Why do we never see him again? Sure his shtick is amusing enough it exists in isolation from the film around it. Actually, looking back on it, I wish that guy had been the PI hired to solve the case. Nick Traynor is one of the least likable, most unconvincing romantic leads ever. I guess his swaggering, cocksure attitude is supposed to be endearing, but I just found it obnoxious.
Joan Woodbury is the true highlight of the picture. She brings a slightly harder edge to the film, like she stepped off of the set of a noir and directly on to The Living Ghost
without making an adjustment in attitude. Thereís some marginally clever dialogue but itís made all the better for her dry, quick-witted delivery. Too bad that her character has to do a completely 180 in the waning moments of the movie and profess her love for the obnoxious Nick Dunn. She is a striking, self-assured and intelligent woman, and heís a doughy lout that treats her like a stain on the carpet. I never felt any sense of romantic chemistry between the two, but I could easily see her serving as his long-suffering Girl Friday. A girl like that deserves a better man than Nick Trayne, and an actress like Woodbury deserves a better movie than The Living Ghost
The video quality beats your average public domain release, but not by much. The opening title card is jittery, far more so than should reasonably be expected even from a film this old. The image is soft and lacking in detail and thereís a lot of noise and macroblocking. Some scenes, like the murder in the garden, are so dark itís impossible to tell whoís involved and what exactly is going on. Contrast is off, too, with areas of bright white bleeding and smearing. On the (very minor) plus side, thereís not an extreme amount of print damage on display, with the occasional nick and scratches the expected flaws before and after every new reel. Itís a pretty poor transfer of a pretty mediocre movie.
Audio is about on par with the video. Music sounds tinny and clipped. Sound effects are almost non-existent. Dialogue fares the worst, with some verbal exchanges a completely indiscernible garble of sound. The Living Ghost
was obviously a low budget feature cranked out quickly and it sounds like most of the audio used is location sound. Thatís not entirely unexpected, but the fact that no subtitles or closed captions really kills it. There were relatively large stretches of the movie where I had to divine what was happening through second hand evidence, even though the characters were actually discussing what was going on. Even a trite and dull story like that of The Living Ghost
deserves a better presentation than this.
As per usual, no extras are included with this manufacture on demand title.
Romantic comedy doesnít exactly spring to mind when you hear that title The Living Ghost
, but viewers of this marginal, mediocre film should be prepared for just that. Disingenuous title aside, The Living Ghost
really doesnít succeed on any level it attempts: its horror elements are almost non-existent, its romance forced and awkward and its mystery elements are tepid and uninteresting. Sure, at 61 minutes it doesnít represent a huge time commitment but thatís still 61 minute better spend doing something else - anything else, really.
Movie - C-
Image Quality - C
Sound - C
Supplements - N/A
- Black & White
- Running time - 1 hour and 1 minute
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital Mono