Bela Lugosi’s “poverty row” period features its fair share of nightmares, as evidenced by 1942’s dreadful Black Dragons. It’s hard to say where Invisible Ghost falls in the catalogue, but it is a Monogram Pictures joint nevertheless. Lugosi signed a nine film deal with Sam Katzman and Monogram Pictures, providing a series of starring roles in a pile of mostly middling features.
Invisible Ghost is directed by B-movie stalwart Joseph H. Lewis. Lewis, along with cinematographers Harvey Gould and Marcel Le Picard, ably captures the more chilling sides of Lugosi. Their use of shadows and windows makes for some cool visuals under budget constrictions, while the movie’s enigmatic portions make for a good guessing game.
Lugosi stars as Dr. Kessler, an all-around good guy living in a pretty big house and missing his wife dearly. She has apparently gone missing and Kessler spends his time hoping for her return. He’s sure she’ll be back. Kessler lives with his daughter, Virginia (Polly Ann Young), and his butler Evans (Clarence Muse). Virginia is dating Ralph (John McGuire), who had previously dated Kessler’s new maid (Terry Walker).
Things get weird when it’s revealed that Kessler’s missing wife (Betty Compson) actually lives on the property and is visited and fed by the gardener (Ernie Adams). Things get weirder when the wife meanders out into the yard and night and somehow sends Kessler into a murderous trance. When the new maid turns up dead, Kessler can’t remember doing anything and Ralph is accused.
The plot careens on from here with the arrival of Ralph’s twin brother and the fuzz. All the while, Kessler keeps blanking out and killing people. Nobody suspects him. Nobody even thinks of questioning him until things really start to pile up. There’s some humour in that and there’s a certain joy in watching Lugosi stumble away from window after window with his arms outstretched and his jacket ready to pounce.
Like other films in the Monogram set, Invisible Ghost runs just a little over an hour. There are the obligatory plot issues and the elaborate fashion in which things develop, but somehow the mistakes aren’t that invasive. Lewis moves the movie in good spirits, keeping up appearances while Lugosi does an estimable job at getting the audience to care about Kessler and to buy him as a sensitive character.
The character of Kessler is really at the core of this flick, after all. His otherworldly voyages through his home, even when interrupted by Ralph’s twin, take on certain strangeness. Lugosi’s ability to check out from the little space behind the eyes makes for compelling, spooky viewing. He offsets this by presenting the daytime version of Kessler brimming with civility and soft charm.
Of special note is Muse’s character. In most roles of this era, the black butler would not only be relegated to few lines but little dignity. In this case, he is a significant character. He has a lot of lines and is a critical character in the plot, coming across as a dignified, intelligent and compassionate character. Evans is a faithful companion and friend to Kessler, a step beyond the non-speaking butlers and servants of the time.
At this point in Lugosi’s career, the good roles and the good films are a little hard to pin down. Invisible Ghost is an okay motion picture, but it does feature an understated and considerate performance from its star and some concrete supporting work from the likes of Muse, Young and McGuire. The final act is as slovenly as one would expect, of course, but this Invisible Ghost comes and goes without much fuss.