How many different takes on the haunted house movie are there? A few hundred at the very least, as there are at least a few dozen comedic takes on it. In 1966, Don Knotts put his own stamp on the genre with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, the first film of his film deal with Universal. The film was directed by Alan Rafkin, who also directed Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West.
Knotts is, of course, the chicken of the title, and though that’s not his character’s actual name, it’s not far off. Luther Heggs is a lowly typesetter working at a small town newspaper who is driving down the road at night when he thinks he witnesses a murder. He grabs his camera, takes photographs, and reports it to the police… only to have the murder victim walk in, somewhat concussed but otherwise alive and well. Humiliated, he goes back to his job, despairing of ever getting that “big break” to be a real reporter.
Apparently a two-by-four to the head is just a friendly warning around these parts.
His friend Kelsey (Liam Redmond), the janitor at the paper, encourages him to make his own break. When the paper needs a bit of last-minute filler, Luther writes a few fluff paragraphs on the old house he witnessed the not-murder in front of. The house is infamous locally for the town’s only major crime: a murder-suicide twenty years ago. The paper’s main reporter, George (Dick Sargent, the “other Darrin” of Bewitched) has been heckling Luther over his mistaken “murder”, and also laughs at Luther’s wording in the filler piece (“the horribleness and awfulness of that day….”) But George seems to be the only one: the people of the town find it captivating. The piece is timely, as the 20th anniversary is only a few days away, and the current owner of the mansion is planning to bulldoze it soon. Interesting in cashing in on the mystique of the event, the owner of the paper decides to give Luther the break he’s been looking for. He gets to write a full article… about his experiences spending the night alone in the haunted house.
Ghost, nothing, I’d be worried about vermin.
Being a comedy, there aren’t supposed to be any major scares in the picture. But it does have the proper atmosphere for a haunted house story. The manor is in that eccentric gothic style that never seems quite right for a small town in middle America. The house is abandoned, and not just “Hollywood abandoned” where the furniture is covered up but it otherwise looks like a maid was there just yesterday; there’s dust on the floors and enough cobwebs to entangle a person. It has the usual settling house creaks and cracks, but also noises of more mysterious origins… most particularly the organ music that plays, by itself, right at midnight. Without ever coming out and displaying a direct threat to Luther, the film establishes the presence of the ghost of a mad murderer.
Knotts plays off of all of this brilliantly; Luther is as hilarious as he is frightened. There’s a nice balance between the character’s natural susceptibility to fear and flights of imagination and his desire to show how tough he really is in front of his mocking peers. As usual in a Knotts performance, a lot of this comes through in his mannerisms and expressions; after all, for a good stretch of the movie he doesn’t have anybody to deliver dialogue to.
When he is in a scene with other characters, Knotts carries the scene. This isn’t to say that the other actors are bad; far from it, they’re all great character actors, from Joan Staley as girlfriend Alma to Philip Ober as the annoyed mansion owner. It’s just that this is Knott’s film all the way through. Their characters exist solely to give his encouragement or obstruction, and while each has a distinct sense of personality, none of them are in the limelight for more than a small portion of the film. The most notable are Staley, whose spunkiness contrasts “Mr. Chicken” nicely, and Redmond as Kersey the janitor, who has enough personality that he could carry a few scenes himself.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a fine example of a lightly-spooky comic film. It’s one that would be fun for either children or adults. It takes an interesting turn to the non-occult during the middle of the picture, but this doesn’t hurt it at all; instead, it provides a good look at what might happen in other films if the characters were to relate their experiences to somebody else. But whether the proceedings are spooky or mundane, they’re always funny.