The Invisible Ghost, 1941
In The Invisible Ghost ((Which is apparently Bela Lugosi’s first movie for Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. )), there is nobody and nothing that is invisible, and no ghost, except perhaps in the loosest metaphoric sense.
For a Poverty Row horror flick, it’s pretty darned good, with actual effort from both cast and crew clearly evident in just about every scene. This does not make it an objectively good movie, but it’s watchable and interesting even in its worst moments. And of course, it features the great Bela Lugosi, in a more complicated role than you might expect.
First of all, Lugosi’s character, Charles Kessler, is a decent man. No, honestly — he is a good man who has suffered a betrayal and humiliation he has never fully dealt with, but he is a good man.
The betrayal is that his wife left him, some years before the story begins, for another man, in a very public way. She was killed in a car crash (along with the other man) a few years after that. But Kessler still has dinner with her memory, once a year, sitting at his dining table with two place settings, and carrying on conversation with her alone. He keeps hoping that she’ll come back to him, after all.
His daughter explains the ritual to her fiancé, who finds it odd, but also is impressed with the depth of Kessler’s devotion.
Well, things are not that simple of course. See, the wife didn’t actually die in that car crash. She’s being kept in some sort of out building by one of the servants, afraid to come back or reveal that she survived. But she wanders the grounds at night, and when Kessler chances to see her from his window, he goes into a trance and ends up strangling whoever happens to be nearest, usually one of the servants.
There is some ambiguity here, and it may even be intentional. Kessler seems to know his wife is outside, even when he has no way of knowing it, and is drawn to the window. As he goes into the trance, his wife is saying quietly, but in a way he seems to hear, that “you’d kill anybody”. Could the film be hinting at some sort of psychic control exerted by the wife? It’s ambiguous.
In any event, Kessler has no idea that he is responsible for the string of murders, and the police don’t even begin to suspect him, considering him a victim of circumstance (it’s actually sort of believable, too — Kessler is very clearly the kind of man who, if he had any idea he was responsible, would turn himself in immediately). What happens, though, is that his daughter’s intended is accused, convicted, and executed for one of his crimes. Kessler and his daughter maintain from the outset that the young man could not possibly have done the thing, and it’s no kind of a trick or manipulation.
However, fiancé’s brother turns up not long after. He’s not said to be a twin, but is played by the same actor, and gives everyone a shock since he’s his brother’s exact double. ((Alas, no dog with a fluffy tail distracts anyone. )) Why this piece of lazy writing even occurs in the story, other than to give the leading lady a happy ending after her innocent husband-to-be is gassed, is beyond me. Anyway.
So a few more murders happen, including the hidden wife’s protector, and in the end Kessler is revealed, the wife is caught and dies (for no apparent reason), and everybody but Kessler lives happily ever after. (Lugosi plays Kessler’s realization that he is responsible beautifully.)
One thing I must mention, because it stood out in comparison to another film that is coming up in this marathon: Kessler’s butler (played very well by Clarence Muse) is black, provides comic relief, but is not at all painful to watch. There is no whiff of Stepin Fetchit here, the character is dignified, intelligent, and human. ((OK, there is one joke that would set off a lefty’s racist radar, but it was actually funny and fit the scene. After seeing the dead fiancé’s brother for the first time, the butler goes to the kitchen and asks the cook “Am I pale?” ))
As I indicated above, the movie is well-directed, with interesting camera movements, angles and framings. Director Joseph H. Lewis clearly put some thought into how to shoot this picture, and the effort shows, making this several cuts above standard Poverty Row pictures. Lewis went on to minor immortality, having directed two films noir that remain respected to this day, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, both of which are worth watching.
All in all, Lugosi is in fine form, the rest of the cast and crew put forth genuine effort, which makes this worth watching, if not really good or memorable beyond Lugosi’s work.