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Wednesday, 12 October 2016

THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921)

(Edited web-only version)

Buster Keaton produced a stunning body of films across the Twenties including features such as Sherlock Jr (1924), Seven Chances in 1925 and his masterpiece The General (1926). Before he expanded into these ambitious full-length films he had first perfected the two-reel short comedy for producer Jo Schenck (introduced to him via Roscoe Arbuckle).  From zero screen experience he soon learned to became an invaluable movie gag man, actor and director to Arbuckle before Schenck allowed him autonomy with the division Buster Keaton Comedies. He was only a little older than the decade and soon gained confidence with gems such as the insane police chase Cops and the crossed wires of The Electric House (both in 1922). Before either of these in 1921 he released his only comedy-horror hybrid called The Haunted House.
Co-written and directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, our hero is a lowly bank clerk who like the aged manager doesn’t realise that their company is being fleeced by one of its staff. The other employee is the ring-leader of a criminal gang who dissuade police from entering their safe-house by making it appear as a haunted house by various gadgets such as a stair-case that turns into a smooth slide upon being stepped on.
We meet Buster as the good-natured klutz saying goodbye at the start of the day to his girlfriend Virginia Fox. Her beguiling looks as a student in real life caused Mack Sennett to instantly sign her up as one of his Bathing Beauties. She went on to co-star numerous times with Buster and later married famous Fox studio producer Darryl F. Zanuck.  Setting to work, Buster then attempts to dish out money to his customers (including actor Cline) whilst struggling with a spilt pot of glue. Consequently he causes mayhem by sticking everyone to the notes like a litter-spike. When the staff member’s cohorts turn up to rob the bank, he prat-falls backwards marvellously in trying to raise his glued hands from his pockets. Buster glues himself to the vault’s time locked door, forcing him to sleep standing up. When the police turn up, he flees the scene to avoid reprisals.
Meanwhile across town, the local theatre troupe are having trials of their own with a haphazard show. Keaton and Cline as writers set their accident-prone scene with the waggish screen card: ‘That night the Daredevil Opera Company are executing Faust – and he deserved it’. The scenery collapses upon Fox, one of their cast. The theatre audience decide to show their appreciation with vegetables and abuse which sets up the actor playing the Devil along Miss Fox to high-tail it away with the locals in hot pursuit. They certainly take their arts seriously in this town. The timing of the fleeing players links them up with Buster and the chase leads them all toward the alleged haunted house.
The house becomes a comedy play-room for Buster to mine physical gags and at least one genuinely unnerving sequence. He demonstrates his superb athletic prowess by unsuccessfully negotiating the stair-case-cum-slide and stumbling upon the robbers’ bids to frighten all trespassers. (There are so many criminals wafting about under white sheets that at one point he pulls out a whistle and co-ordinates two of them in the hall-way like a traffic cop). Amongst the gang’s staged fear tactics there is a scene which makes no logical sense yet delivers a surreal little chill. While Buster looks on, two of them in full-body skeleton suits are shown assembling a man from component parts from the ground up, torso to head, with glue. Once connected, the living man proffers a hand to Buster who understandably skedaddles. Spooky indeed.
The contrivance of having the actor made up as the Devil pays off toward the climax. After he stands too close to the fire, he rushes out smouldering to be confronted by the cops who in turn flee the grounds, their worst supernatural fears confirmed. There is a neat further link with the after-life lavishly realised at the end. In trying to stop the thieves, Buster is conked on the head which transports him, seemingly dead, on a stairway to Heaven. As he walks up the steps, he doffs his hat amiably to pairs of angels on both sides; in Buster’s world and out of it, there is always room for manners. On arrival at the Pearly Gates he offers his credentials to the bearded St Peter who refuses his entry, and to compound the rejection pulls a lever that turns the stair-way into a grander version of the stair-case slide back on earth. Buster is sent plummeting - to an even worse disgrace, - down a spiral stair-way to Hell, where Lucifer has been expecting him. Fortunately for Buster, his awful fate is a concussion dream exacerbated by catching fire from a fallen stove.

The Haunted House is good fast-paced knockabout fun, though like Lloyd’s Haunted Spooks it marginalises a horror-comedy premise to just the latter part of the film. It would take almost a decade before Laurel and Hardy would show how to sustain laughs and chills through almost an entire short film…

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