The crossover genre of ‘horror comedy’ (or ‘comedy horror’, if that just happens to be your preference) is a particularly plentiful one. Whether your taste is for homegrown fare like Shaun Of The Dead, quirky entries like Beetlejuice, laugh-filled gorefests like The Evil Dead, or way out releases like Zombeavers or The VelociPastor, there will be something to tickle anyone’s funny bones (let alone the remainder of your skeleton).
The roots of this genre go back a lot further than many may realise. Although some people may think it can be traced to the likes of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s meetings with the likes of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and even Boris Karloff, the origins of mashing up the terrifying with the terrifically funny predate even those flicks. All the way, in fact, to some of the earliest days of the film career of Leslie Townes Hope – better known as ‘Bob’, and emigrant from his home in England as a young boy.
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Having made a name for himself performing in vaudeville and on Broadway, before transferring over to radio with his fast talking patter, the next logical move for Hope was onto the silver screen. After his Hollywood debut in 1938, Hope’s rapid trajectory saw him cast the following year in a semi-revival of the type of ‘old dark house’ films which had been popular in the previous decade: although the classification of ‘horror movie’ had yet to be coined, the features – which had gothic or mystery overtones – tended to use trappings of the supernatural, only to explain everything away at the end as being hoaxes or deceptions.
Although the popularity of these ‘old dark house’ films had dwindled, they were given a new – albeit brief – lease of life at the end of the 1930s, when they were given an injection of humour to help give them some pep and provide something different to what had come before. Hope ended up being in two such motion pictures, on each occasion appearing with Paulette Goddard as his co-star (with Goddard also known at the time as being then-wife of Charlie Chaplin) – the pair of films in question were The Cat And The Canary (1939) & The Ghost Breakers (1940).
Both pictures have been lovingly restored from original film elements, and benefitted from a Blu-ray release by Eureka Entertainment. The Cat And The Canary sees the surviving relatives of an eccentric millionaire gathering at his mansion deep in the Louisiana bayous, with a reading of his will taking place at midnight exactly a decade from his passing. The sole inheritor turns out to be his niece Joyce (Goddard), but there is a caveat that she does not go insane in the next 30 days, as there is a streak of mental illness in the family’s lineage. One of the other relatives, Wally (Hope), steps up to protect Joyce from the machinations of other family members, along with an escaped inmate from a nearby asylum.
In The Ghost Breakers, broadcaster Larry Lawrence (Hope) gets on the wrong side of a crime boss, and he ends up being pursued as a murder suspect. Larry takes refuge in the trunk of Mary Carter (Goddard), who is about to sail to Cuba as she has just been informed that she has inherited a castle there, which is reputedly haunted. Unable to extricate himself from the locked trunk before the ship sets sail to Cuba, Larry ends up travelling along with his valet, whereupon – after finding out about what potentially awaits Mary – he accompanies her to the house, with the aim of protecting her from reports of a ghost, as well as supposed zombies.
Both movies are adapted from theatrical works, with enough having been done to stop them feeling stagey, and providing Hope with plenty of scope for his brand of verbal comedy to come to the fore (although there is also room for slapstick as well, including the glorious moment in The Ghost Breakers when he eventually gets released from the trunk). Hope and Goddard have a real chemistry, and you can see why the duo had been booked for a return engagement so soon after their appearance together in The Cat And The Canary, with sparks flying whenever they share the screen, Goddard being more than able to hold her own against Hope.
While for the most part the level of menace veers toward the kind which you might expect in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, we do get a few chilling moments throughout. However, some of the material has aged poorly, in terms of the depiction of voodoo, as well as some of the racial content around Hope’s sidekick in The Ghost Breakers. Both features do still have plenty to enjoy about them, with the latter particularly as it was cited by Dan Aykroyd as being an influence on him when it came to creating and writing Ghostbusters, a significant example in itself of ‘horror comedy’, and this connection in itself should make this double bill worthy of your attention.
The special features are not particularly lavish, with trailers for both features being present here. Kim Newman always provides great value, speaking with passion and authority on the subject matter being covered, and he gives a fascinating look at the two films. Both movies have a commentary track by the film historians and writers Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, neither of whom shy away here from discussing those problematic elements which crop up, and they also manage to provide cultural and historical context for the films. One nice little addition is a 1949 radio adaptation of The Ghost Breakers, and a limited edition booklet containing an essay on early ‘horror comedy’ is an insightful read.
Both The Cat And The Canary and The Ghost Breakers are fun, spirited (pun partially intended) romps, with plenty to occupy and entertain. The gorgeous cinematography is also a real visual feast, as are the early optical effects used to try and bring to life some of the supernatural aspects included in The Ghost Breakers. Both features have never looked better than they do here, and although it may be rather too late for this Halloween, you should certainly think about picking up this spooky pairing. Who you gonna call? Well, based on the strength of this evidence: Hope and Goddard.
The Cat And The Canary / The Ghost Breakers is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.