“Invisible Ghost” (1941)
by A.J. Hakari
Boris Karloff played many a misunderstood monster in his time. Sadsacks were Lon Chaney Jr.’s specialty. But out of all the classic horror icons, Bela Lugosi was the one whose roles were the least likely to be sympathetic. Nine times out of ten, poor Bela would be typecast as a predatory madman, his signature accent used to give said parts a touch of exoticism but not an abundance of dimension. But on the rare occasion when he was called upon to portray a character meant to invoke our compassion, the guy made a meal out of it, even in what were otherwise unassuming Poverty Row productions like 1941’s Invisible Ghost. Thanks to the unconventional order in which the pieces of its plot are unveiled, this flick already has a leg up on many of the other cheapie chillers of its era, so the addition of Lugosi as a truly tragic figure only sweetens the pot. Unfortunately, Invisible Ghost encounters a frustrating amount of difficulty as it tries keeping its own twists in check, as some cool and creepy developments lose their luster once you start wondering what in the world is really going on.
The Kessler estate would give the House on Haunted Hill a run for its spooky money. In addition to being the site of a string of unsolved murders, it’s also the home of Charles Kessler (Lugosi), a man still rattled from the disappearance of his wife (Betty Compson). Every night, he hopes and prays for the moment she’ll return to him…until the one time she actually does. As it turns out, Mrs. Kessler has been for some time a guest of the family groundskeeper (Ernie Adams), having sequestered her in the wake of a terrible car accident. But on the odd instance when she wanders back to her old home in a daze, her sight causes Charles to black out and plunge into a homicidal spell. He’s not aware of it in the slightest, but Kessler is the very killer who’s plagued his mansion for months, the unknowing mastermind of a string of gruesome deaths…the latest of which might result in a horrible fate for the innocent man (John McGuire) accused of engineering it.
Whereas several of its dirt-poor contemporaries would run themselves ragged trying to pad their stories out to the sixty-minute mark, Invisible Ghost is shockingly dense with goings-on. Subplots and suspicious characters abound from the word go, so when the picture makes the bold choice of announcing quite early on that Lugosi is the maniac, one initially can’t help but sit there beguiled and ponder what possible directions in which the narrative might take this revelation and others like it. Invisible Ghost has stacked its deck with a number of intriguing cards, but throughout its running time, it deals them out in a bizarrely erratic fashion, leaving a four-lane freeway’s worth of plot holes in its wake. What did happen the night Mrs. Kessler abandoned her husband? Did Charles experience his murderous urges before she took off? Where was she prior to the accident, and why was the groundskeeper so adamant on keeping her locked up afterwards? The answers to these questions — which could very well have boosted the moody tinge of the proceedings — are all addressed the most lackadaisical manner fathomable. Nothing about the screenplay’s explanations are even close to being serviceable (let alone wholly satisfying), creating a directionless atmosphere in which the twists shed their luster as expediently as the audience’s interest in the story plummets.
Scatterbrained and replete with chasms though its script might be, Invisible Ghost‘s cast manages to put on a dignified show nevertheless. While there’s no denying how silly he looks while stumbling about with arms outstretched in “killer mode,” Lugosi takes to Kessler’s more charming aspects very nicely. He does a commendable job of selling the man’s friendly disposition, coming across as genuinely amiable and helping make it easier to accept that none of the other characters would even remotely suspect him of murder once corpses start piling up around the place. The supporting cast also carries on with relatively few hiccups, with fine performances from Polly Ann Young as Kessler’s inquisitive daughter and, as the family butler, Clarence Muse, who’s fortunately spared the cringing comic relief the likes of which Mantan Moreland and Willie Best were saddled with in similar servant parts at the time. Though the majority of the action is confined to inside the Kessler house, director Joseph H. Lewis (The Mad Doctor of Market Street) still sneaks in an effective shot here and there, particularly whenever Compson plants her mug in the living room window. The eerie ambience holds up well for the most part, although the ridiculously bombastic score does a doozy of a job of bringing what tension it can to a screeching halt.
Because of its novel set-up, Invisible Ghost has achieved a certain prominence amongst Poverty Row’s throngs of murder mysteries and drawing-room thrillers. There are those who even gladly forgive its lapses in storytelling logic, much in the same way narrative flaws in countless vintage puzzlers made on the quick are largely ignored. The old-fashioned appeal of Invisible Ghost isn’t lost on yours truly, but it falls asleep at the wheel far too often for the bumps incurred during its journey into suspense to be easily looked past.