Stars – Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, Betty Compson, John McGuire, Clarence Muse
Director – Joseph H. Lewis
Released by Kino Studio Classics
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
If you have a taste for Poverty Row films this is a classic with much to recommend about it. The first major draw is Lugosi’s performance. He plays a delightful man whose wife has cheated on him and disappeared. Whether she is dead or gone we do not really know. It has broken his heart. Though she has been gone for three years he still has a fancy dinner on their anniversary. Her plate is set and he engages in imaginary conversation with the empty chair. Later on he is visited by a ghostly image of her. She puts the whammy on him. Director Lewis has a light placed underneath the frame just in front of Lugosi. As he moves closer his face gets brighter. The excessive glare accentuates his features. He extends his hand in a classic chocking posture and affects a limp as he goes after someone to do away with. He seems to settle for anyone who is available in the house. It’s a good thing his daughter and boyfriend came over because Lugosi was running out of people to kill. There is no devious plot behind the killings. We know who done it from the start. The why seems to be just bonkers if you think about it at all. Even though Lugosi is the killer we can see it is not his fault. He is so nice to the butler. At one point he reassures the new cook who is about to quit. It is a tender moment. So while Bela is still the mysterious strangler he gets to play a good guy in a rare sympathetic role.
Early on we see that the gardener has Lugosi’s wife hidden away in a secret room down in the basement. He took her down there after a car accident. She’s not quite herself so rather than trouble anyone upstairs he figures he’ll let her regain her composure before returning her. But it’s been three years! That’s a long time to smuggle turkey legs and scraps from the dinner table downstairs to this lady. She’s got a small bed and a nightstand and that’s about it. This gardener could well be the father of the creepy kidnapping guy in The Vanishing (1988).
With all these murders why do people keep staying in this house? While the plot and mystery are just nuts, director Joseph H. Lewis elevates this film with his considerable talents. His frequent use of interesting shadows enhanes the look of many sequences. He’ll often put something in the foreground with his actors in the middle area to give his shots an amazing amount of depth. When Lugosi sits down at his favorite chair by the fireplace he has the camera shoot from behind the flames looking up at Lugosi. It’s a great shot. He uses the gimmick of having Bela put his hands inside his coat when he strangles his victims. It eliminates fingerprints but also allows for some close ups of Bela’s eyes burning out over the collar of the coat as he holds it up. It is a bit reminiscent of Dracula peering over his cape. There are a few times when the camera trucks slowly toward an actor. It makes a strong impact as the camera doesn’t move around much in this soundstage. Any fan of horror films will appreciate the beauty shot he gives Lugosi’s wife as she peers in from the rain soaked window. When talented directors worked at this level they may have had low budgets but their innovation and creativity had full reign. There were no Darryl F. Zanucks or Harry Warners checking in on them. Lewis went on to make Gun Crazy, The Big Combo and other great films but his style is easily recognized here.
This is an old dark house style mystery-thriller-horror picture. There is Lugosi, his daughter, the boyfriend, the cook, the gardener and the butler. We also get a visits from two detectives. It’s a small cast and one location to keep the budget down. When the boyfriend is killed his twin brother arrives. Now that’s getting two roles out of one actor Poverty Row style. It is worth noting that Clarence Muse’s butler is a very likeable character. There is none of the exaggerated frightened antics that were usually the norm for black actors then. The film runs 64 minutes which was normal for a B film like this. Between Bela’s performance and the style of director Joseph Lewis The Invisible Ghost is one of the better Poverty Row films out there.
Video – 1.33:1
After a bit of a rocky start with the credits the picture looks exceptional for the next twenty five minutes or so. Detail is quite strong. Black levels all behave with no noise chatter. The close ups of Lugosi reveal texture in the skin. Shadows have nice contrast. The shot of the wife through the rain soaked window is a classic horror portrait. However about a half hour in we get a shift in quality as if other elements were then used. There are scratches. Some of the lighter scenes feel a bit too bright with a few facial shots bordering on washing out. But then we’ll see strong detail in the background and people. The enhancing benefits of the transfer seem to hold their own throughout. The varying quality has to be down to condition of the film materials that were available. What is good about this picture remains fabulous. Yes it is not consistent but more than enough of this looks great. Much is good and the rest is always entirely viewable despite the scratches and lines.
Audio – Mono track with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The music has plenty of recognizable cues that fans may have heard in many films before.
Extras – Commentary with Tom Weaver, Gary Rhodes, and Dr. Robert Kiss, Trailers
The inside cover sports a very nice two sided spread of promotional art from the film.
Tom Weaver and his pals bring a Steamer trunk full of information to this fun commentary track. Gary Rhodes gives a nice infatuated tribute to the old Dark House sub genre. Weaver doles out plenty of background on the film and the stars. We learn that Polly Ann Young is Loretta Young’s older sister. Despite admitting that the film’s plotline is Looney Tunes all three bring a real appreciation of the film to the table.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent
Movie – Good / Excellent