Invisible Ghost

US (1941) Dir. Joseph H. Lewis

People affected by grief can undergo extreme personality changes that take a while to subside – or worse, they may never recover from it and are stuck in a horrific limbo of self-pity and emotional malaise. The worst-case scenario of how this manifests itself is the one that is provides the greatest threat.

Charles Kessler (Bela Lugosi) is still upset from his wife leaving him for another man a few years ago. He remains so infatuated with the idea she will return that on the night of their wedding anniversary, he has a place set for her and a meal prepared for dinner. Kessler’s daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) is worried about this and a series of murders that have happened at the house, mostly of the staff.

One night, Virginia’s boyfriend Ralph Dickson (John McGuire) is caught arguing with the new housemaid Cecile (Terry Walker), and the next morning she is found dead. Dickson is convicted of the murder and executed, after which his identical twin brother Paul (McGuire) arrives, keen to discover who the real culprit is. That night, the gardener Mason (Ernie Adams) is attacked but survives, though is unable to share a pertinent secret he has been keeping.

The producers of Invisible Ghost should have been used under the false advertising act as there are no ghosts in this film and nobody is invisible. The only rationale I can think of is they wanted to capitalise on the reputation of its star, Bela Lugosi, as a stalwart of the horror genre and using a spooky title would suffice in attracting fans to this low rent B-movie mystery thriller.

Something of a pyrrhic victory really as this film was made in 1941 when Lugosi’s star was already starting to fade just a decade after his seminal breakthrough role in Dracula, yet his name is arguably the only reason people will watch it. That said I doubt anyone else could have handled the role of Kessler with the same panache as Lugosi for reasons that require me to spoil the plot twist, despite the fact it is not a spoiler in the film.

You see, Mrs. Kessler is not actually dead – she (Betty Compson) was involved in a car crash and suffered minor brain damage. For reasons unexplained, she is hiding in an underground cubby in the shed, secretly tended to by Mason. Occasionally though, she sneaks out at night and peers through the windows, and if Kessler sees her, he goes into a strange trance which – you guessed it – turns him into a murderer!

Rather than keep this mystery hidden until the end, it is revealed right away, meaning the endgame is not so much a whodunit but when will the others find out who the real murderer is. With a perfunctory 62-minute run time, the answer is “very soon”, whilst giving away the big secret robs us of any real drama, mystery, or prolonged tension. Sure, we know Kessler will strike again though not against whom, but now, it is expected and somewhat subject to contrivance.

But with so much left unexplained it falls to this flimsy mystery to keep the audience hooked, implying to a more cynical perspective that the brisk run time may have been intentional to get the most out of the flimsy script. The most crucial question to ask is why Mrs. Kessler returned to the home of the man she was leaving and resume living there, albeit in secret? Did she suffer short-term memory loss or was she assumed dead due to the accident?

How did Mason end up the only one to know she was there, and what hold did Mrs. Kessler have on him that he would agree to keep her secret? Then there are the frequent visits to the man house – is Mrs. Kessler’s motive to spook her estranged husband or is she simply rambling by dint of her mental limitations? As to why Kessler would turn from polite philanthropist to catatonic serial killer, we assume seeing his wife again is a trigger to reignite whatever drove her away in the first place.

As ever the police need to be involved and Lieutenant Williams (George Pembroke) is our caricature investigator for this story, complete with the ubiquitous cigar, trench coat, and gruff demeanour. He’s also pretty hopeless without Paul to do most of the thinking for him, missing clues that are under his nose, and jumping to the wrong conclusions. He comes across a comedic half the time and his dialogue is clumsy, in what I assume was a distraction from the ham-fisted inclusion of the twin brother subplot.

Now, this may not have been the intention in 1941, but Williams tends to suspect the black butler Evans (Clarence Muse) and grills him without evidence in a move that today would have an ominous cloud of racist overtones hanging over it. However, Evans is the anchor of the film and the one true voice of reason and logic in the whole story, which is something, whilst Muse gives debatably the strongest performance of the film.

I say “debatably” as one cannot discount Lugosi so easily, as the dualistic role of Kessler is within his main repertoire. Lugosi is able to present Kessler as a melancholic man lost in nostalgia and subtly transform him into a sinister, unwitting murderer without make up, just minor distortions of his face and those gloriously hypnotic eyes. The stiff Frankenstein monster walk is unnecessary but the shadowy lighting on his face and the use of soft focus more than compensate for this.

Falsehoods with the title, an unconvincing script, and sieve-like story aside, you could do a lot worse than give Invisible Ghost a look for a quick cinematic fix, whether you are a Lugosi fan or not (though it helps). Its potential is squandered but since aspirations were never high to begin with, it’s hard to complain about this meagre but earnest offering.


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