Director – Jean Yarbrough, Screenplay – Duke Yelton, Producer – Bernard Woolner, Photography – Vaughn Wilkins, Music – Hal Borne, Photographic Effects – Howard A. Anderson Co., Makeup – Lew La Cava. Production Company – Woolner Brothers Pictures, Inc.
Ferlin Husky (Woody Wetherby), Joi Lansing (Boots Malone), Don Bowman (Jeepers), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Maximilian), Basil Rathbone (Gregor), John Carradine (Dr Himmel), Linda Ho (Madame Wong), Richard Webb (Agent Jim Meadows), Merle Haggard (Himself), Molly Bee (Herself), Sonny James (Himself), Jim Kent (Himself), Marcella Wright (Herself), George Barrows (Anatole), Allen Jung (Dr Fu)
County and Western singers Woody Wetherby and Boots Malone, along with their manager Jeepers, are driving to a music jamboree in Nashville. Jeepers’ nerves become jumpy after they witness a police shootout and so they decide they need to stop off in Sleepy Junction so that he can get some rest for the night. Finding that there are no hotels in the town, they are directed to the old rundown Beauregard Mansion. Arriving, they realise that the house is haunted. Hidden in the basement are the scientists Gregor, Dr Himmel and Maximilian, along with the gorilla Anatole, who are trying to steal a formula from a nearby atomic research centre for Madame Wong and her boss Dr Fu. Woody, Boots and Jeepers become caught up in their skulduggery and as the government agency M.O.T.H.E.R. tries to foil the plan.
Hillbillys in a Haunted House is a film of legendarily bad proportions. It was obscure for many years – not even Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-99, 2017- ) managed to find and eviscerate it, although it would have been prime material for them. It was one of the films produced by the Woolner Brothers who were behind a number of B-movies of the period, most notably the other bad movie classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). The Woolners were clearly seeking to exploit the success of tv’s The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71) and before this had just made The Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966) with no less than Jayne Mansfield.
To expectation, Hillbillys in a Haunted House falls into the excruciating within the first five minutes – about the time we are introduced to Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing and Don Bowman driving along behind obviously back-projected footage singing “we’re going to a jamboree.” Added to the bargain is the hayseed idiot character of Jeepers played by Don Bowman with a nasal singsong in a way that becomes excruciating in its moronicism. Or the painfulness of listening to a group that turn up out of the blue (and just as readily disappear again) at the haunted house and sing a song where the chorus line is the infuriatingly upbeat ditty “And the cat came back.” Did I mention anywhere that I really hate country music?
In reality, Hillbillys in a Haunted House is little more than an Old Dark House thriller. This is a genre that was popular on film during the 1920s adapted from various Broadway plays. The genre gained a new lease of life in the early 1940s with the success of the Bob Hope comedy remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) after which most of the popular comics of the era made at least one of these. The Old Dark House comedy had fairly much died away by the time of the 1960s but Hillbillys in a Haunted House feels like one of the numerous Bowery Boys Old Dark House comedies – see Spooks Run Wild (1941), Ghosts on the Loose (1943) – uprooted and conducted in colour where the idiots’ usual clownings around have been substituted for country and western songs.
To clinch itself with horror audiences, the Woolner Brothers have brought together a cast of genre names – Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine and Basil Rathbone. This is a line-up that would have been a star act for the 1940s – indeed, the same three had appeared in The Black Sleep (1956), while Roger Corman could have no doubt slung together one of his Edgar Allan Poe films around them – but the impoverishment of the surroundings and the fact that all three are clearly getting on in years only makes them seem sad and washed up.
The film rarely concerns itself with the haunted house aspect – certainly, Jean Yarbrough, a director famous for his poverty row career, fails to establish any atmosphere. There is the minor appearance of a ghost and a lurking ape, one of the staples of the Old Dark House genre, but mostly the film seems to centre more around spy capers, which were then in fad thanks to the success of the James Bond films.
Mostly, the film seems to have been centred around its Country and Western performances. The production seems to have operated by a maxim where there has to be a song about every five minutes. There is a tv set in the house for the sole reason of having someone turn it on and a performer then appear and sing a song. The end of the film consists of the trio making it to Nashville whereupon we are treated to nearly fifteen minutes of singers performing – no less than five songs in a row. Of the various performers, who were no doubt big names for the day, the only recognisable name today is that of Merle Haggard who performs two songs throughout.
Jean Yarbrough was a director notorious for his low-budget shooting schedule. He made around a hundred films, mostly comedies and Westerns. His other genre films include The Devil Bat (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), The Brute Man (1946), House of Horrors (1946), She-Wolf of London (1946), The Creeper (1948), the Bowery Boys Master Minds (1949) and the Abbott and Costello Jack and the Beanstalk (1952). Hillbillys in a Haunted House would be his last theatrical film and he died in 1975.