SPOOKS RUN WILD rides on a formula that was popular from the 30s to the 50s: popular comedy teams matched with popular horror stars or famous Hollywood monsters. For the first time, The East Side Kids starred with Bela Lugosi, as they also made the similar GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE with him in 1943. Lugosi performed with various Hollywood comic teams over the decades (Brown and Carney, Abbott and Costello, Petrillo and Mitchell) and his chemistry with the contrasting, almost improvised antics of The East Side Kids left us with a couple of entertaining B-movie efforts that will never be forgotten.
Running a little over an hour, the plot is very simple. The familiar crew of "teenage" boys includes the leader Muggsy (Leo Gorcey), Danny (Bobby Jordan) Glimpy (Huntz Hall), PeeWee (Leo's younger brother David Gorcey), Skinny (Donald Haines) and last but not least, Scruno ("Sunshine" Sammy (Ernest) Morrison). The boys get sent to a mountain camp in a rural town after committing some minor JD offense. One night while trying to catch up with a local blonde dish woiking at the soda shop, the boys take a shortcut through a dark graveyard, only to encounter the trigger-happy attendant. PeeWee is injured during the gunplay, and is now in need of shelter and treatment. The film's hero is played by Dave O'Brien (Lugosi's co-star in THE DEVIL BAT and BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT), and he comes looking for the lost boys.
The boys arrive at an old house occupied by the suspicious-looking Nardo (Lugosi) and his mute dwarf assistant Luigi (Angelo Rossitto, who also starred with Lugosi in THE CORPSE VANISHES and SCARED TO DEATH). Since reports of an escaped serial murderer are heard on the radio, the boys instantly suspect Nardo of being a wanted criminal. Of course, Lugosi's character is a red herring (actually a magician), and his attempts to treat PeeWee are mistaken for turning the lad into a zombie! What follows is a number of fun, poverty row-type haunted house activity with lots of spooky black & white atmosphere.
By this time, The East Side Kids were increasingly becoming more comical (they originated as the serious "Dead End Kids") and the "haunted house" theme would be a constant and winning theme in their films. When they became "The Bowery Boys" in 1946--their most famous incarnation--supernatural and fantastic scenarios became a popular mainstay of the series, and Gorcey and Hall were starring in such films as MASTER MINDS, SPOOK BUSTERS, GHOST CHASERS and THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTER, which was their biggest box office success.
SPOOKS RUN WILD was one of nine films that Lugosi made for legendary producer Sam Katzman, all released by Monogram. Critics often site these films as a downward slide for the actor, but these nine titles remain gems in the eyes of his many fans and Lugosi's performances never fail to entertain with his unrivaled mastery and screen charisma. Here, Lugosi is perfectly suited to take a back seat to the comic youngsters' shenanigans, but he is as imposing, distinguished and sinister as ever in his long black cape and vampire-esque tux. He even gets to ham it up in a priceless bit where the boys try to frighten him, but overall, it appears he had lots of fun making the film.
A public domain staple for many years, SPOOKS RUN WILD has finally been released on DVD by the barebones budget label, Alpha Video. The good news is that the cover and packaging are beautiful, utilizing the original poster art from 1941. The bad news is that the transfer is a mess, not the absolute worst, but a mess nonetheless. The black & white image is not washed out but rather dark, with some scenes having no definition whatsoever. The blacks are not well defined and take on a brownish, rusty tone. There are also lines and lots of jump cuts in the print that remove dialog. The sound is scratchy but ok. At least most of Lugosi's scenes are clear on Alpha's disc, but GoodTimes Home Video had a much better print out on VHS in the 80s--unfortunately, later versions of this release were badly-tracked in the LP mode and it's now rare and out-of-print.
With a low retail price (well under $10), great cover art, and a shoddy but watchable transfer, Alpha's DVD of SPOOKS RUN WILD is a worthwhile purchase until something better turns up on this title. Let's hope The Roan Group or Retromedia get their hands on this baby someday, maybe with a far superior film source and some nice extras! (George R. Reis)
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