An exemplary “Poverty Row” horror production early on called MURDER BY THE STARS, 1941’s INVISIBLE GHOST was the first collaboration between genre icon Bela Lugosi and ace B movie producer Sam Katzman for his Banner Pictures Corporation and Monogram Pictures. After production ended, it was announced that this was to be the first of three pictures that Lugosi and Katzman would make together, but that total was upped significantly, resulting in what film fans now christen “The Monogram 9” and many consider this one the best (but that’s certainly up to debate, as there are a handful of other gems in the batch). Out of the nine, INVISIBLE GHOST is now only the second to legitimately make it to the Blu-ray format, courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
The kindly retired physician Dr. Kessler (Bela Lugosi, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE) becomes somber every year on his wedding anniversary. On this night, his butler Evans (Clarence Muse, WHITE ZOMBIE, SOUL OF A MONSTER) serves Kessler a romantic celebratory dinner as if his wife is still present, even though she had left him years earlier for another lover. But unbeknownst to Kessler, his wife (Betty Compson, HARD BOILED MAHONEY)—who had been in a serious auto wreck—is now living in a small space underneath the house’s shed, still in a state of childlike mental illness. Not wanting to reveal this hidden secret until Mrs. Kessler gets better, Kessler’s faithful but somewhat misguided gardener Jules (Ernie Adams, RETURN OF THE APE MAN) tends to her by bringing her meals in private and offering comfort, but what he doesn’t know is that she gets out at night and makes ghostly appearances in front of Kessler’s bedroom window. The traumatic sight of his long-lost love sets Kessler off in a trance-like state, and he lurks around the house seeking to murder (strangulation with his robe) any innocent bystander that happens to be having a midnight snack. After each killing, Dr. Kessler returns to normal but remains unaware that it is he who is responsible for the latest corpse that turns up the next morning.
One such victim is Kessler’s pretty blonde maid Cecile (Terry Walker, VOODOO MAN) who is seen arguing outside the house with young Ralph Dixon (John McGuire, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS), as the two were once romantically tied but he no longer wants any part of it, being engaged to Kessler’s daughter, Virginia (Polly Ann Young, the Universal version of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE). During the night, Kessler suffocates Cecile and of course has no recollection of this the next morning. Evans honestly admits he saw Cecile arguing with Ralph, and since he can’t confirm his whereabouts the night of the murder, Ralph is sentenced to death. Then, Ralph’s slightly greyer twin brother (also McGuire) conveniently shows up at the Kessler household (he was in South America!), arriving too late to save his look-alike sibling but now attempting to clear his name and discover the true killer. As the household killings continue, there’s a cranky, cigar-chomping police lieutenant (George Pembroke, BLACK DRAGONS) on the case, with suspicions falling on everyone except Kessler. That is until…
By the early 1940s, Bela Lugosi was no longer getting starring roles at the studio that made him famous: Universal. Although he still had some terrific supporting parts there (not to mention appearing as the Frankenstein monster and Igor), he would never be top billed at Universal again. Shoestring companies like PRC cast him in leading roles in films like THE DEVIL BAT, banking on his “horror man” persona, and “Jungle Sam” Katzman and Monogram took full advantage of this, starting with INVISIBLE GHOST. Critics and fans often look upon Lugosi’s tenure with Monogram as a downward slide in the actor’s career. Their horror films never had gothic castles or exotic locales, but rather rundown hideouts and living rooms furnished California gothic style. But the these films, with their familiar casts of character actors (reused over and over), minimal studio sets and perennial library music had a certain low rent charm to them, and the addition of Lugosi in some of his strangest parts ever (or even as “straight man” rivalry for the mischievous East Side Kids) makes these nine 60+ minute programmers of great interest to fans and scholars who can overlook the usual film-snob criticisms.
INVISIBLE GHOST shows Lugosi as a sympathetic, lovestruck character, something audiences didn’t see much of from the actor prior. His silent homicidal trance bit (a “Jekyll and Hyde” sans monster make) may not be as memorable, but Lugosi still makes for great sinister imagery when he’s lurking about and charging the camera’s point of view as if it was a victim with his weapon of choice (in this case a black bathrobe). It’s also a hoot to hear him read (with his heavy Hungarian accent) such domesticated lines as, “Apple pie? My, that would be a treat!” Although the story tends to be incoherent at times, director Joseph H. Lewis (who also helmed several East Side Kids entries and 1950’s GUN CRAZY during a very productive career in movies and television) executes things with a dreamlike, imaginative quality and some memorable camera set-ups (especially when murder victims are discovered or Mrs. Kessler is spooking about outside a window). It’s been mentioned many times before in regards to this movie, but it’s quite fascinating to see talented black actor Muse as a dignified and authoritative character (in this case the loyal butler), as he's quite unlike the stereotype common to this period (we all love seeing Mantan Moreland easily scared out of his wits when a car door slams or when he’s tapped on the shoulder, but it’s sure nice to see the opposite side of the coin here).
INVISIBLE GHOST is one of those Monogram titles that has become a darling of budget DVD companies (and before that, VHS and countless local TV airings), as it was assumed to be in the public domain (the best of the previous DVDs being from The Roan Group and Marengo). Now that the Monogram titles are owned by a number of major studios (such as Warner and MGM), they are now getting some better quality love on home video. Like with VOODOO MAN (which was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films), INVISIBLE GHOST has ended up in the NTA library, now owned by Paramount, the company in which Kino Lorber has officially licensed it from for this Blu-ray, newly remastered in HD.
Starting off with an Astor Picture Corporation logo (they re-released the film starting in 1949), the first 20 minutes of this 1080p HD transfer (in a full screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio) is a sight to behold and a revelation. The gray scale looks excellent with strong contrast, and a solid, regulated amount of film grain. Textures in facial close-ups also impress and the image is clean and free of excessive blemishes. Then, at the 19:37 mark, the image is different than what was seen before (let’s say it doesn’t look as “remastered”). Detail and textures are not bad, but somewhat softer and the grain (though still tight) is thicker while blacks are now extremely deep and inky. The image is also not as clean as it was in the first 20 minutes, showcasing some vertical emulsion lines. It’s a bit of a contrast in appearance, as though the transfer used two entirely different elements, and this should be taken as an observation rather than a criticism since the quality is still good overall (of note, the image reverts back to the earlier quality—briefly—from the 47:12 mark to the 50:22 mark). The Blu-ray’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio has extremely clear dialogue in the first 20 minutes, and some minor scratchiness for the rest of the show: all in all a perfectly good track for a Monogram oldie. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Tom Weaver is the perfect choice to do the commentary here, as he starts things off by addressing the senseless ridiculousness of the Monogram Lugosi films, and that although SON OF FRANKENSTEIN rejuvenated his career, he was reduced to supporting roles of the ”sub-Dwight Frye level” until these PRC and Monogram parts came along in the early 1940s. Weaver keeps things busy, humorous and entertaining while talking about this “fun” movie, sharing facts about the cast, production stories, and he says that not much is known about the original music of Monogram (some of it here was recycled from other films, and Weaver easily points this out). Although Weaver dominates the talk, he has a few guests on hand. Larry Blamire, director of 2009’s DARK AND STORMY NIGHT comes on briefly to discuss the elements that constitute an “Old Dark House” movie, touching upon Lugosi in INVISIBLE GHOST a bit. Robert Tinnell, director of 1996’s FRANKENSTEIN AND ME is also heard briefly talking about how INVISIBLE GHOST (“it’s like comfort food") inspired him and inducted him into the cult of Bela Lugosi. Writer Gary Rhodes reflects upon his meeting with director Lewis back in the 1990s and his brief discussion on Lugosi (Rhodes rightly points out that INVISIBLE GHOST offered Lugosi something very unique in his career). Lastly, Dr. Robert J. Kiss talks about the theatrical release of INVISIBLE GHOST and the other films it was paired with (THE APE, 1941’s THE BLACK CAT, THE DEVIL COMMANDS and Monogram’s own KING OF THE ZOMBIES), that it played on a number of “Spook Show” programs , and he finishes with its early television history. This is a great commentary that goes by way too fast (the short running time doesn’t help). Trailers for WHITE ZOMBIE, THE BLACK SLEEP, THE UNDYING MONSTER and DONOVAN’S BRAIN are included, and on the reverse cover are alternate posters as well as lobby cards for the film. (George R. Reis)
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