Ask horror fans about their favorite childhood films and I bet
no one would include the Don Knotts comedy, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as part of their list.But I assume most horror kids growing
up in the 60s probably saw this one and I would suggest checking it out again,
as the film works rather well when it stays in the “haunted” house.And, I suspect, the Saturday morning
cartoons you watched back in the 70s got a small bit of inspiration from this
dark old house comedy.
The story follows Luther Heggs (Knotts), a typesetter for
the small newspaper in Rachel, Kansas.Luther has dreams of being a reporter and patrols the town at night in
search of his big scoop.He also
wants to date the quite fetching Alma (Joan Staley), who’s dating the town’s
main reporter, Ollie (Skip Homeier).
Atta boy, Luther!
Luther takes a major step in realizing his dream when he
inserts his own story about the town’s infamous murder house as filler on the
paper’s front page.Dictated by
Mr. Kelsey, the papers janitor, Luther writes about the murder/suicide twenty
years ago, and the mysterious activity that occurs within the abandoned house
The story is a hit and George Beckett (Dick Sargent), the
paper’s editor, decides that Luther should stay in the house during the 20th
anniversary of the deaths and report on the strange events.Luther is hesitant, but agrees and
enters the house just before midnight.
Once the clock strikes twelve, Luther hears strange noises
and finds a hidden passageway leading to a room where an organ is playing by
itself.Before racing out of the
house, he comes across a painting of Mrs. Simmons, stabbed by a pair of garden
shears and dripping blood.
Yep, that's a spooky old house, alright.
Luther returns to the pressroom in a state of hysteria, but
is able to give Ollie and George enough details to allow them to write a
story.Luther gets his break and
soon, he’s dating Alma and bathing in the fame bestowed upon him by the
town.At least until he and the
paper are sued for libel by the remaining member of the Simmons family, whose
plans to bulldoze the house are thwarted by the coverage.
At the trial, Luther is humiliated, and things unravel
further once the court reconvenes at the Simmons house later that night.As no ghostly apparitions appear after
midnight, Luther is discredited and ostracized by his supporters.But once the crowd leaves the scene, Alma
finds the mysterious passageway, while Luther hears the organ playing once
again and races upstairs to solve the mystery.
Only he doesn’t solve the mystery, or really do anything in
the film.Luther may be the
protagonist of this tale, but he’s not the hero.He is given credit for stories written by others and the
mystery of the Simmons house is reveled by another character.Of course, Luther is in the foreground,
strutting about as if he knew everything, which is no surprise, as the movie
seems designed for Knotts to bring his Barney Fife character to the big screen
(Knotts left The Andy Griffith Show a year before the release of this
film).And the bloated second act,
as Knott trying to act the heroic figure and justify everyone’s admiration,
re-enforces that the film is centered on Knotts's shtick.
Who needs MMA training when you have mail order Karate classes?
So why am I writing this review, you might ask.Well, I have a long history with this
film, having seen it for the first time at a Florida drive-in when I was five
years old.My parents weren’t fans
of horror films, and this was the first spooky movie I remember seeing on the
big screen.And, as my parents
wouldn’t let me watch scary movies on television when I was a kid, I think it’s
safe to say this was my first Universal “horror” movie.
When my family moved to Portland in the mid 70s, this film
was on a yearly rotation schedule on KPTV.So, on rainy Northwest days, I take the chance to watch
anything remotely scary once my parents allowed me to have a small black and
white television in my bedroom.Okay, it wasn’t because they thought I was old enough, but more likely
to keep my younger brothers and I from fighting over what to watch during
football season.Either way, the
situation worked for me.
Still, like the magic dragon Puff, Mr. Chicken eventually
faded from my memory with the advent of VHS and cable.At least until a few weeks ago, when I
spied a used DVD at a local Videorama and decided, in a fit of nostalgia, to
purchase it so I could relieve a bit of my childhood.
And I’m glad I did, because once you get past the middle
act, the film is a fun little chiller.The moments in the Simmons house work rather well.The house looks creepy enough, but the
lighting is bright enough, and overly colorful at times, to keep from being too
scary.And the script, for being
little more than a Don Knotts family comedy, is pretty smart.Screenwriters James Fritzell and
Everett Greenbaum set everything up in the opening act, delivering clues like a
mystery movie that allows the final revel to make sense.One could watch the opening act after
viewing the movie just to see how a few well-placed moments in easily overlooked
scenes set up the climax.
The cast is solid, playing the film straight without winking
at the camera at any time.Though
Knotts tends to overact at times, the other players are content to play his
straight man.Though a few might
seem like extras from Mayberry (little surprise, as Andy Griffith considered
extending a haunted house episode from his series into a feature length film
prior to Knotts’ departure), they all make the town of Rachel seem real and
keep Luther’s antics grounded in the community, rather than outlandish or out
Enough of the Don Knotts acting scared pictures. Here's another shot of Alma.
Composer Vic Mizzy (who also wrote the themes to The Addams Family and Green Acres, as well as a few other Knotts
films) delivers a terrific score for the film that helps sell the spooky
happenings.While the main theme
is light and bouncy, Mizzy takes a few bars and play them back during the
haunted organ scene to great effect.Once you hear the score, like Mizzy’s other works, it’s hard to forget
Some have suggested through online comments that Mizzy
“used” the melody to the song Mr. Ghost
goes to Town for the film’s main theme.And, though a few bars sound similar, I could find no citations
supporting such statements.I
suspect Mizzy heard this song at some point, as he and the writers of Mr. Ghost
(Will Hudson, Irving Mills and Mitchell Parish) were working in the New York
City at the same time.But to
claim it was anything more than an inspiration seems a stretch, as the basic rhythm
and feel of his score for The Ghost and
Mr. Chicken is in keeping with his later works.
But what struck me most about the movie is how it’s a prolonged
Scooby Doo mystery.A haunting is
investigated and a series of scary events happen, all of which are reveled as a
hoax after the villain is captured.Though, in the movie, the “haunting” is to expose a crime, not cover one
up.Still, once the villain is
tied to a chair in front of the authorities, you can imagine him shouting how
he would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for that darned reporter.
According to several Internet sites, the inspirations for Scooby Doo, Where Are You? are The Many Loves of Doby Gillis (an
interview with the cartoon’s creators and writer support this claim) and I Love a Mystery, a 40s radio drama
about three globe-trotting detectives.And while it’s possible someone involved with CBS or Hanna Barbara
remembered that radio show, I suspect The
Ghost and Mr. Chicken was more of an inspiration to the creative team at
I cannot support this claim, but it makes sense.The film opened three years before the
cartoon premiered, so it’s possible someone on the Hanna-Barbara team saw the
film.And, as I mentioned above,
when striped of the second act, the film is almost a template for the
cartoon.Park the Mystery Machine
in front of the Simmons house, add in a projected ghost and you have a Scooby
Yea, tell me you couldn't see Shaggy and Scooby running through the halls of this house.
It might be hard for this film to connect with a modern
audience, and not only because of the pace.Rachel is a bit like Mayberry, with boarding houses,
eccentric characters, typewriters and no cell phones.So if you plan to show this to your kids, be prepared to
explain how things were back in the 60s, at least when it comes to “wholesome
But for older horror fans, this is a nice bit of nostalgia
and a reminder that horror comedies can work without dropping to the level of
the Scary Movie franchise.Compared to many horror comedies today,
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is almost