Haunted Spooks (1920) – Short Film

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The Girl, played by Mildred Davis, discovers that she will inherit her grandfather’s estate if she can live in his mansion for one year with her husband. There are two problems with this. First, she doesn’t have a husband, and second, her uncle (Wallace Howe) wants the estate for himself and will inherit it if she cannot meet the conditions. Her lawyer sets off to find a suitor the moment he finds out that she is not married. He inevitably ends up running into Lloyd’s “glasses” character, The Boy.

The Boy’s story begins with him trying to woo a young lady. Him and another suitor butt heads trying to win her favor and end up going to her father for permission to marry. The Boy comes out on top with her father, but finds the other suitor and the young lady kissing shortly there after.

The Boy is distressed by his failure, apparently it is not the first, and sets off to kill himself. He makes several attempts to kill himself and each one fails in comedic fashion. He attempts to shoot himself with a gun he finds on the ground, only to find out it is a water gun. Next, he tries to jump in the lake with a rock around his neck, but the water is ankle deep. The Boy jumps on the tracks as a rushing streetcar is coming towards him, only to have it veer onto another track right before it gets to him. His final attempt is to jump in front of a moving car. The car turns out to be driven by the young lady’s lawyer. He quickly picks up The Boy and takes him to the young lady to be wed.

They embark to the mansion where they find her Uncle has spread rumors of ghosts among the staff and begun haunting the house like a Scooby-Doo episode. The Boy and Girl spend some time running from the “ghosts”, or Haunted Spooks, until they uncover the plot. Once the “ghosts” are unmasked, they are able to live happily ever after.

Standing Out

Haunted Spooks is a uniquely funny film that is saddled with the unnecessary racist jabs of the era. The estate’s staff is all African-American and depicted as childish, uneducated, and frantic. Their characters spend most of the screen time staring wide-eyed at the camera, literally shaking in their boots, and running amok at the sight of each “ghost”. It would have been just as easy to make the staff interracial and not demean them. It adds nothing to the story and instead takes away from an otherwise funny film.

The aspects of this film that I enjoyed the most primarily took place in the first reel of the film. These are the intertitles, the way Lloyd portrays attempted suicide, and the fact that Lloyd started the film with a fully intact right hand and missing fingers at the end.

The intertitles at the beginning of the film have a unique silliness to them. They are not the typical intertitles that simply state the facts in a straightforward manner, instead they are gags in and of themselves.

After the introductory intertitles we get the character introductions. The Girl, Davis’ character, is presented as pure innocence and naivete. The Uncle, played by Wallace Howe, is conveyed as the sinister character, “not exactly crooked, but he’s beginning to curve.” The Boy, Lloyd, has an amazing and unexpected introduction when his character is revealed to be sitting underneath a young lady surrounded by suitors.

Suicidal Tendencies

Lloyd’s charming and unrelenting character battles with another suitor in order to win the favor of a young lady. He loses the battle with the other suitor and sets off to commit suicide. The tone is obviously more comical than serious, but it still caught me off guard that Harold Lloyd filmed sequences where his character is trying to commit suicide. It seems like that would be a taboo subject matter to put on film.

In terms of how it relates to the plot and overall tone of the film in makes sense. The over the top and overly dramatic descriptions and plot line allows his response to fit right in. Much in the same way that the intertitles over dramatize the characters intentions, he too over dramatizes his response to failure.

John Saddington addressed the relationship and portrayal of suicide in film in his book, The Representation of Suicide in Cinema. He marks the late Gothic period as when suicide in art began to be seen as taboo. Suicide was thereafter imbued with negative connotations. The death not just viewed as a “bad death”, but the individual as a “bad person”. 1

Before the American Revolutionary War, the rule of law was based on English Common Law. When the war was over, English Common Law remained. However, suicide and attempted suicide were not inherited into the American legal system. Even though suicide was not illegal, it was still taboo. This was especially the case for religious groups.

In most Western nations, political and legal decrees regarding suicide have softened over the years; for instance in France, attempted suicides were tried in court and ‘executed’, the last of these occurring in 1732. Often possessions wuld be forfeited as well. Suicide cadavers in England used to be dragged through the streets, hanged upside down, burned and then buried under crossroads with a stake through the chest in an effort to secure the soul by confusing it as to which way to go… Such barrbaric practices were phased out in the seventeenth century, though during the first half of the 1800’s, corpses of suicides were still sentenced to (albeit less severe) punishment and attempted suicides were punished up to the First World War (Minois, 1999:297).

Saddington, 2010:20

With all of that said, it must not have been too off putting as Haunted Spooks, and other Lloyd films, were wildly successful at the time. Another item that might have helped draw attention to this film was the fact that Lloyd had injured his hand while making this film. The injury delayed the release of Haunted Spooks, but other films had come out since the injury.

It is difficult to see the difference, since he wore a deceptive glove, but he did indeed film half the movie with two fingers missing. The documentary series, The Third Genius, examines the before and after footage of the incident within Haunted Spooks.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Alf J. Goulding & Hal Roach

Cinematography: Walter Lundin

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, William Howe, William Gillespie, & Blue Washington.

Runtime: 25m

Genre: Short, Comedy, Horror

Distributed by: Pathé 


Link to Video Below:


References

1 – Saddington, John. The Representation of Suicide in the Cinema. University of York, 2010.

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