Friday, August 18, 2017

Ghosts and Laughs: Comedians as Ghostbreakers [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The idea of a 'funny ghostbreaker' begins not in a movie, but on the stage. Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard's The Ghost Breaker: A Melodramatic Farce in Four Acts (1909) (listen to the novel version) came at a time when the occult detective was no longer cutting edge horror. Names such as Martin Hesselius, Dr. Abraham van Helsing, Flaxman Low, and Dr John Silence had become familiar articles in the weird mystery genre. Not until World War I was over would interest in all things beyond the veil revive and the ghostbreakers would catch their second wind. But in 1909, people wanted to laugh at the shadows, not fight them.

It wasn't long before Cecile B DeMille made the first silent version of the play in 1914. It was first remade in 1922 with Wallace Reid and Lila Lee, then again in 1940 and 1953 (but more of that later). What is important to grasp here is that the Dickey and Goddard play set in motion a common plot that would be recycled over and over. A young woman would inherit a haunted house and invite her new boyfriend to go along with her to see the property. While in the house, mysterious things would occur, probably some running, screaming, and carrying on. (In fact the 12th film in the Carry On series was called Carry On Screaming! (1966). This scenario is overly familiar to all of us from dozens of TV episodes and endless Scooby-Doo cartoons. In the worst Ann Radcliffe style, the monsters will be explained away, the young lovers will triumph, and the true ghostbreaker fan will be disappointed.

Walt Disney would play three ghostbreakers (Mickey, Donald, and Goofy) for laughs in “Lonesome Ghosts” (December 24, 1937). Other cartoons featured ghosts and haunted houses: Popeye’s “Shiver Me Timbers (1934) and a proto-Bugs Bunny in “Prest-O-Chango” (1939), for example. But only “Lonesome Ghosts” has dedicated ghostbusters who hire out to rid buildings of ghosts. These cartoons are all done for laughs, not serious ghostbreaking.

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard made the next version of Dickey and Goddard with The Ghost Breakers (1940) and scored a hit. Hope is snide and Goddard fun and beautiful. And the island with the zombies is creepy enough. Like all other versions, no real monsters show up. All the films mentioned on this page are in black and white, adding to their horror feel; Hope's film most of all. It would be much harder to send funny chills down spines in vivid Wizard of Oz color.

Abbott and Costello worked pretty hard to get us to giggle in Hold That Ghost (1941), a film that tried to capitalize on Bob Hope's success, but fails for the most part because of the lack of any real ghosts. The boys did a better job of saving Universal and its 1930s monsters in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

The first and best of the franchise, it has our witless duo as baggage clerks who get the job of unloading real monsters at a wax museum. Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi, hypnotizes Bud and together they resurrection the Frankenstein's monster, all the while Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot goes about changing into the Wolf Man. Boris Karloff turned down the chance to be Frankenstein's monster, but made up for it a year later in a film that bore his name.

This film spawned five sequels: Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), a short for the Colgate Comedy Hour had "Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1953) and finally, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Each of these recycled the same basic idea and got less and less funny, though they all made money.

The last official remake of The Ghost Breaker came in 1953 when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis filmed Scared Stiff. There are more night clubs and singing in it, but in all important ways it is not all that different than Hope's venture back in 1940.

Television and Saturday morning cartoons claimed the province of the funny spooks in shows like Bewitched (1964-1972), The Addams Family (1964-1966), The Munsters (1964-1966), and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). It would take Richard O'Brien's burlesque sex comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) to make fans sit up and take notice again. First in a stage play (how appropriate) and then a cult film in 1975 starring Tim Curry, we see the same story again: Brad and Janet, boyfriend and girlfriend, end up in a haunted house full of weirdos, dancing and singing, and exploring their sexuality, all while an intergalactic power struggle plays out.

What all of these films lack is a true investigator of the supernatural. They are simply ordinary folk who fall into unusual circumstances (and are supposed to make us chuckle). Films such as Young Frankenstein (1974) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) have proven you can make a successful horror parody (much as Dickey and Goddard were trying to do with the ghostbreaker genre), but this requires that the audience have a collection of shared tropes to play off of. It took Dan Ackroyd (an actual believer in the paranormal) and Harold Ramis (not so much) to write and perform in Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989) to see if real occult detectives could be funny. The results fortunately were -- yes, they can.

Before we leave our funny ghostchasers, there is one other that needs mention. In comics, ghostbreaker spoofs were less common, though the Kolchak the Night Stalker television show did receive one lambasting from the Marvel Comics group in July 1975.

Marvel experimented with monster spoof comics with a title called Arrgh!. It ran five issues from December 1974 to September 1975. The series was edited by Roy Thomas. The majority of the strips used were based on the classic Universal monsters. In the fourth issue a parody of The Night Stalker TV show lead off with a 10-pager written by Jack Younger (aka Russ Jones). The artwork was penciled by Gerry Grandenetti (better known in the Warren magazines and undergrounds) and inked by Marvel staffer Frank Springer.

The level of humor is typical of a MAD Magazine parody with Kolchak becoming Karl Coalshaft. His boss Tony Vincenzo is Tony Vinagretto. The plot follows a pretty typical episode with Coalshaft's trying to get the big supernatural scoop and failing each time: first with a vampire, then a werewolf. In both cases, the police show up, riddle the monster with bullets, and it is up to Coalshaft to use his special weapon (that he always carries) to put them down. His camera captures pictures, but is always destroyed. The strip ends with him returning to his office and not noticing his boss is actually a vampire. Tony tries to kill him, but falls out the window. Coalshaft walks away, giving up on monsters forever.

What makes this parody so apt is that the writer had only to repeat what he had seen on the show to make it ridiculous. The juvenile name jokes and sight gags are typical, but what is actually funny is that the Kolchak show was this predictable and silly. That sounds like I'm not a fan, which isn't true. Like Chris Carter, who created The X-Files, I watched these shows as a kid and loved them. They inspired much of what followed in the occult detective line. Still... the show's faults are laid bare in this 10-pager. I suppose it's no surprise that it was cancelled after 20 episodes. "Monster-of-the-week" is a criticism that has been given the series, but you can apply that just as easily to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Charmed series, both of which ran for many years and have huge followings. I suspect what ultimately ruined Kolchak's success was the lack of a larger cast of characters and becoming formulaic almost instantly. (You have to remember the two successful TV movies that spawned it.) It was prominent enough to warrant this single parody... "The Night Gawker”.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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