November 14, 2007
The Ghost Walks (1934)
One of the genres that flourished during the decade of the 30s was the variation of crime fiction known as "the murder mystery", as the addition of sound to films helped to make a more faithful translation to film of what the audiences experienced in the original plays. And since horror films were very popular in those years, by enhancing the horror elements of the plots the murder mystery films experienced a popularity almost equal to what it enjoyed in the previous decade (in which the first movies of the genre were produced). Aspiring playwright Charles Belden saw in this renewed interest in murder mysteries a chance to make a name for himself, after Warner Bros. picked his three-act play, "The Wax Works", to create the 1933 horror film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum". Belden joined independent filmmaker Frank R. Strayer to keep making films, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of his best.
In "The Ghost Walks", John Miljan plays Prescott Ames, a young playwright who wants to impress a famous Broadway producer named Herman Wood (Richard Carle) with his new play. Ames takes Wood and his assistant Homer (Johnny Arthur) to his country house for a reading of his play, but his car ends up stuck in the mud during a terrible storm. The three men ask for refugee in an old Mansion which happens to be property of one of Ames' old acquaintances. Inside the house, Wood and Homer witnesses the strange relationship between Ames and the house owners, however, this is all a plan conceived to impress Wood: everyone in the house is an actor playing a role in his murder mystery. Unfortunately, the murder committed is done for real, and while Wood and Homer think it's all fake (after discovering Ames' original plan), the cast knows that someone inside the house is a real murderer.
As expected, Charles Belden's screenplay for "The Ghost Walks" features the classic elements of the murder mystery stories of its time, as we have the stormy night at an old dark house as setting, the obligatory group of suspects, and the touch of comedy. However, what's interesting here is how Belden makes the film a real spoof on the genre with the many twists he puts in his story to play with the clichés of murder mystery plays. The dialogs are excellent, full of wit and lighthearted charm, and while the plot certainly loses a lot of steam by the end (it follows the murder mystery routine anyways), it never fails to be interesting and entertaining thanks to its smart twists and specially its quirky characters. Interestingly, there's an obvious gay subtext that while stereotypical, it's never denigrating and it's genuinely funny at times.
By 1934 director Frank R. Strayer was already an experienced craftsman in the Poverty row side of the film industry, but his partnership with writer Charles Belden would give him a couple of his most interesting movies, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of them. While obviously done on a shoestring budget and the typical production values of independent films of its time, Strayer manages to take advantage of his set and makes an atmospheric movie that fits nicely the mood and tone of the story. The pacing is a little too slow at times, but Strayer knew that the power of his film was on Belden's script and makes the most of it, letting his cast to make the most of their characters with excellent results. Certainly the execution is a bit typical and unoriginal, but Strayer makes an effective albeit restrained work in this film.
As written above, the screenplay is filled with great lines that make the quirky characters shine, and fortunately, most of the cast play with this to their advantage. Veteran character actor Richard Carle is remarkably funny as cranky producer Herman Wood, adding a lot of charm to his character, specially in his scenes with Johnny Arthur, who plays the flamboyant secretary Homer. Arthur is the one who gets the most best scenes, and he gives and hilarious performance as the cowardly yet witty assistant. John Miljan is just effective as Presocott Ames, nothing amazing, but nothing really bad, and the same could be said about June Collyer as Gloria Shaw (the obligatory love interest), whom is just fine. However, Donald Kirke is really enjoyable as the malicious Terry Shaw, and it's a shame he didn't get more screen time.
As usual with Frank R. Strayer films, the low budget hurts the film badly, as while Strayer makes the best he can, the film still feels kind of plain at times. However, the main problem is problem the very slow pace it has, as even when the film is filled with sparkly moments of witty dialogs, it moves at a pace so slow that can become boring and tedious for moments. It also must be said that while effective in their roles, Miljan and Collyer are pretty dull and average when compared to Arthur and Carle, and one wishes the movie had been more focused on the comedic pair they make than on the main couple. Finally, as written above the ending is kind of weak and not up to the high standard of the first and middle parts, although credit must go to Belden for keeping creative plot twists appearing until the very end.
One could say that Charles Belden is an unsung hero of the murder mystery genre, as among the many horror and mystery films that came out the B movie studios nicknamed as "the Poverty Row", "The Ghost Walks" is easily among the best (alongisde Strayer's previous film, "The Vampire Bat") despite its shortcomings. And even when it's definitely not a masterpiece of the genre, it's a nice way to spend a night enjoying the way it pokes fun at its own origin as a murder mystery play. A very recommended film if you like the genre.
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