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Invisible Ghost (1941)

Horror icon, Bela Lugosi makes his Monogram Pictures debut in this Sam Katzman production that sees Bela playing a mild mannered Doctor who just might be a serial strangler wreaking havoc upon the countryside. Or at least the Monogram stage where the majority of this chiller has been filmed under the better than average direction from Joseph H. Lewis.

It’s a convoluted plot featuring Bela as a long suffering widower who enjoys sitting down to dinner with his wife though of course she isn’t there in the chair opposite him. His daughter Polly Ann Young lives at home and is engaged to John McGuire who plays dual roles in this 63 minute black and white “B”. There’s a neighbor played by Ernie Adams who astoundingly has Bela’s supposedly dead wife living in his basement. She appears to have lost her sanity or is perhaps an amnesia victim.

The actress playing the long lost wife is actually a former Oscar nominee, Betty Compson. And lastly we have Clarence Muse as Bela’s man servant. A role that might surprise many because it’s nowhere near the stereo typed role we might normally see a black actor assigned during this era of film making. Muse delivers a performance of professionalism and dignity. All the more surprising considering this is a low budget special..

Back to that crazy plot. When Miss Betty wanders about in the night, Bela spots her and is somehow lost in a murderous flashback. Did he think he had killed her years ago? Damned if I know as that’s never really made clear but seeing her sends him off to kill the nearest female who just happens to be the new cook. Her death triggers a murder charge against McGuire who it turns out was her former lover. I could go on and on with this and at 63 minutes, there’s a lot of plot shoehorned in here. So let’s fast forward a might.

McGuire goes to the chair for something he never did and his brother suddenly appears looking for answers after returning from an overseas venture. Sure enough, it’s the same actor with a touch of grey added to his hairline. The distraught Polly Ann might be able to drown her sorrows in the arms of a look a like to the man she intended to marry. Only in Hollywood!

More murders are to follow leaving local police inspector George Pembroke baffled as to the identity of the killer. This despite the fact that all the killings are under the roof of Bela’s home! Paging one of any screen detectives who made good in their own series of mysteries. Charlie? Sherlock? Boston? Anyone? Might Pembroke begin to figure out that “Poor” Bela is a Jekyll and Hyde like character?

“B” film this may be but Bela turns in a very subdued performance this time out in a role that actually elicits some sympathy in his direction. He’s genuinely a kind and loving Father who has absolutely no idea he’s responsible for the ghastly murders going on about him or the fact that he’s the cause of an innocent man going to the gallows. Having said that, true to form he gives us a nasty snarl and clenched fingers as he parades for the camera when turning into his murderous alter ego. Just like we’ve come to expect from the legendary boogieman. This was the first of 9 Lugosi – Monogram duets and one could argue it’s the most polished of the bunch though I’d lean towards something like The Devil Bat for sheer enjoyment.

Director Lewis who was just getting his feet wet by 1941 in the business would go on to direct some premiere Noir efforts including The Big Combo and Gun Crazy before moving into westerns for television. Among them, Gunsmoke and The Rifleman.

While available for years in low budget public domain editions, Invisible Ghost has been given a new life thanks to a blu ray release from Kino Lorber. Included is a fact filled audio commentary monitored by noted horror film historian, Tom Weaver. Makes a nice addition to the library here at Mike’s Take.

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