By Doug Gibson
Recently, I spared a paragraph on "Invisible Ghost," Bela Lugosi's first Monogram film. Ironically, it was the first Lugosi Monogram I ever saw and years ago I was rather dismissive of the film, particularly Lugosi's insane murder moments. Watching it again, as recent as last night, and comparing it to other Lugosi Monograms, I re-evaluate it as technically, the best looking Lugosi poverty-row offering of the 1940s, if not the most campy or cultish. That notice still remains with "Devil Bat," "Bowery at Midnight," and "The Ape Man."
Here's what I wrote recently on this blog: "THE INVISIBLE GHOST, 1941:
"Lugosi's first Monogram has a convoluted plot but benefits from above-average direction from Joseph H. Lewis. Lugosi plays a kindly man whose wife deserted him. Unbelievably, she still lives on the grounds and he goes quite mad when he catches glimpses of her. The deaths lead to the execution of one innocent man whose brother (same actor) comes to the house to seek justice. Lugosi's hypnotic walk when under the murder spell of his wife is campy but the actor also brings pathos to it. Former silent star Betty Compson plays Lugosi's estranged, insane wife."
Lewis' direction is superb, and he throws in touches that other, run of the mill cheapie directors do not do, including interesting shots from a fire place, with the flames dancing in front of the actors, and excellent forward shots of a horrified Lugosi seeing his wife Compson through the window in a storm. The acting is better, particularly black actor Clarence Muse as Evans the butler who acts with dignity, and not a Stephen Fetchit portrayal. And the film's love interest is the talented Polly Ann Young, the least successful of the sisters in Hollywood trio that included Loretta Young and Sally Blane. Also, the sets seem of better quality than an average Monogram film.
One the minus side, the script is weak and convoluted, and mildly confusing. I think quality of scripts are the biggest difference between Universal B films and poverty row offerings in the 1940s. The other distinction is depth of acting talent in the films. Also, although Lugosi is excellent in his role -- even now I see the restraint in his insane moments that I missed on my first viewing, his playing of Mr. Kessler is not a role that demands any particular expertise or trait that made Lugosi unique. For example, the role could easily have been played -- at 90 percent of Lugosi's strength -- by George Zucco.
One more thing to add: Compson does a very good job as Lugosi's insane wife, who wanders around the Kessler estate. The poor script offers very little in how she could manage this so consistently, but as mentioned, scripts were not a priority on poverty row.
I highly endorse "Invisible Ghost" as a strong Lugosi poverty row offering. It appropriately belongs in the top tier of the Monogram cheapies and comes the closest to looking like a Universal B offering.