By Craig Leask
What better way to celebrate Halloween than to sit back and watch a good old haunted house movie and, as soon as I hear composer Vic Mizzy’s scarily comical organ score, I know I’m in for a seasonally haunting treat. The fact that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is more comedy than fright fest, starring Don Knotts demonstrating his best “bravest coward” schtick, is beside the point.
Fresh from five seasons playing the bumbling sheriff’s deputy Barny Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), winning five Prime Time Emmy awards for supporting actor in the process, and having successfully starred in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), Knotts was signed to a multiple-movie deal with Universal, with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken being the first project.
Don Knotts character’s name may be Luther Heggs in the film, but it is classic Barney Fife on the screen, the film providing the perfect platform for Knotts to bring out his entire catalog of tics, shudders, stutters, double-takes, eye bulging, whining, and blustery false bravado, which he developed and honed on The Andy Griffith Show. In fact it was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, appropriately titled “Haunted House” which aired in October 1963 as a nod to Halloween, which formed the original idea for the film. In the episode Barney, Gomer (Jim Nabors), and Andy enter the old deserted Rimshaw house to retrieve Opie’s lost baseball. Knotts was in fine form with his nervous shaking and twitching demonstrating the perfect platform for his comic genius, and his cast members couldn’t help but take notice. In fact it was Griffith’s idea to expand on the episode, even acting as uncredited co-writer for the film, eventually including the series’ writers and many of its cast members to work on and in the film.
The back story of the murders in the film is a bit on the simple side, as is the film’s very quick and clean resolution. The “hauntings” are not scary per today’s standards, but then the film was clearly designed to be an entertaining family picture, and as such, it truly works. The story follows Luther Heggs who agrees to spend the night in an allegedly haunted house known as the Simmons Mansion, where 20 years earlier the property’s owner had reportedly killed his wife and then committed suicide by leaping from the houses tall tower. The beauty of the film is found in the small town simplicity represented by the local residents who come out in support of Luther and his eyewitness accounts of the haunted home’s anomalies. All of which spur the attention of the Ladies Paranormal Society.
The movie was a box office success and was followed by the equally successful The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971), all of which were based upon Knotts trademark nerdy-coward-turns-hero-and-gets-the-girl persona leading to a very successful franchise. Atta boy, Luther!
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.