The 1941 Bela Lugosi flick The Invisible Ghost had a ton of hype to live up to before today's viewing. I'm talking about all the hype created solely in my head when I read the following on the back of the DVD box:
Bela Lugosi is an otherwise normal man who goes insane when he thinks about his late wife.
I mean, to me, that sounds like an awesome movie- so awesome, in fact, that I was fully prepared to be let down by the actual product. Nothing ever lives up to the hype...ever...except...The Invisible Ghost.
We meet Mr Kessler (Bela Lugosi) as he's sitting down to a little dinner with the Mrs. He asks about her day, he promises that they'll go on a long walk after they've eaten, it's all so sweet and lovely...except for the fact that Mr Kessler is alone at the table. He's talking to an empty chair! Wha-a-a-a-a? Soon his daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) comes home from a date with her boyfriend Ralph (John McGuire). Ralph spots Virginia's dad talking to thin air and assumes, as we the audience do, that Mr Kessler is plain old cuckoo nutso. Virginia explains it all to Ralph: he's only sorta crazy. You see, her mother was cheating on her father- with his best friend! They ran off together several years ago, breaking daddy's heart. Dad is convinced that someday mom will return home, and he spends every wedding anniversary like this, "talking" to mom. Ralph says sure, baby, that's cool.
Cecile the maid, however, is not easily convinced that all is well and quips to Evans, the butler: "I think this is a crazy house! And what about all those murders?"
Excuse me? "All those murders"? Yes, apparently a large number of people have been murdered IN the Kessler house and the police are stymied. Funny thing, that.
Later that evening, the gardener steals some food and brings it to a secret basement underneath his gardening shed. Don't think him a simple thief, though...he's bringing the food...to...Mrs...Kessler! That's right, she's alive and holed up in the secret basement of the gardening shed. She's pretty dazed, quite nappy haired, and has no idea where she is, but she's alive nonetheless. The gardener gives her her dinner, promising that as soon as she's well, he'll take her home to her husband and daughter. We learn from Mrs Kessler's quiet ramblings that she was in a car accident soon after she and her boyfriend left for a new life together; apparently the boyfriend died, but Mrs Kessler lived...the gardener found her on the side of the road and brought her back to his shed!
Folks, if you're anything like me, at this point you're thinking "Why didn't you take her to a doctor, or at least let her family know she's alive and in your fucking shed, o gardener?" Because The Invisible Ghost is an awesome movie, the gardener's wife asks him that very question, to which he replies: "It would break his heart to see her like this. Besides, maybe she has something to do with those murders." Hmm. Makes sense.
And now we get to the goods...the meat in this nonsensical stew, if you will. Mrs Kessler gets a little late-night wanderlust and makes her way out of the shed. She shuffles through the yard and plants herself outside of Mr Kessler's window. He's reading a book by the fire, yet he's drawn to the window for some reason...he looks down at his wife looking back up at him...they stare at each other for a while, and then...Mr Kessler goes INSANE! How can you tell? It's easy! The camera, in a close-up on his face, goes all blurry. When it re-focuses, there's dramatic lighting! He also holds his hand in an insane fashion, like so:
That's right, we don't need no James Brolin in The Amityville Horror-style histrionics here...the madness is conveyed in the lighting, the hand, and Bela Lugosi's furrowed brow. So what's Mr Kessler's first order of business as a crazy dude? Why, verrrrry slowly sneaking into the mouthy maid's room and then killing her, that's what...and so we have what I believe is the very first death by bathrobe on the silver screen.
Eyyaaaagggh! The body is discovered the next morning. Because there's a tiny amount of circumstantial evidence incriminating him, Virginia's boyfriend Ralph is PUT TO DEATH for the murder. These unfortunate circumstances allow the introduction of Ralph's twin brother Paul, who intends to stay with the Kesslers and solve the murders on his own.
There's soon another body to add to the list as Mr and Mrs Kessler once again lock eyes through the window late at night...we fade to crazy face! and Mr Kessler wanders off in search of a victim. This time, the gardener gets the ol' bathrobe treatment, as witnessed in a fantastic silhouetted sequence.
The "Is that my wife? I'm going crazy- I must kill!" routine is played out a few more times, and eventually the murders build to...a painting of Mrs Kessler being slashed! Who would do such a horrible thing? As Paul says, it's "unquestionably the work of a MADMAN!"- never mind the umpteen murders that have taken place in that very house...it's the wanton destruction of a painting that really gets everyone's goat!
A thread from Mr Kessler's bathrobe is found embedded in the torn painting- ha ha! The jig is up, Mr K! No, wait- somehow his bathrobe ended up in the butler's room! No one knows how it got there, but it doesn't matter...in fact, in this town they've sent people to the electric chair for far, far less. Because the painting incident was such a heinous act, clearly perpetrated by a raving lunatic, Paul demands that a "sanity test" be given to the butler in the hope of proving his guilt or innocence. The police agree and a doctor is called in:
COP: All we wanna know is if this fella's crazy.
DOCTOR: Well, that's very easy to determine.
"Very easy", eh? How so? Well, in a time-tested method, the doctor begins to ask questions like "Do you think I'm insane?" to the poor, confused butler.
Meanwhile, with the gardener dead, Mrs Kessler is damn hungry. She shuffles into the kitchen and starts chowing down. She's soon discovered by the police, who bring her before Mr Kessler...who fades to crazy right there in front of everyone! He begins choking a cop...Mrs Kessler inexplicably drops dead, and the spell is broken. Mr Kessler is once again sane...but guilty of a slew of murders he had no idea he'd committed. Isn't it ironic? Don't you think? Mr Kessler thinks so. "Who, me?"
I can't tell you how awesome this movie was. From the frank explanations of the non-sensical plot points to the creeping Lugosi, The Invisible Ghost rocked! Surprisingly, director Joseph H. Lewis utilized some very creative camera angles and lighting to make this a step above your ordinary schlock picture. Also surprising was the treatment of Evans, the African-American butler. For a picture made in the early 1940s, the character was treated seriously and with respect by the filmmaker as well as the other characters in the film; he wasn't a "pappy" stereotype, there simply for comic relief.
All the fat has been trimmed from The Invisible Ghost, and it clocks in at a quick 65 minutes. That's just fine by me, since it's all insane cuckoo crazy nutso action, baby!