Spooks Run Wild (1941) poster

Spooks Run Wild (1941)


USA. 1941.


Director – Phil Rosen, Screenplay – Carl Foreman & Charles R. Marion, Additional Dialogue – Jack Henley, Producer – Sam Katzman, Photography (b&w) – Marcel Le Picard, Musical Directors – Lange & Porter. Production Company – Monogram Pictures Corporation/Banner Pictures Corp


Leo Gorcey (Muggs), Bela Lugosi (Nardo), Sunshine Sammy Morrison (Scruno), Bobby Jordan (Danny), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), David O’Brien (Jeff Dixon), Dorothy Short (Linda Mason), Angelo Rossitto (Luigi), Donald Haines (Skinny), David Gorcey (Peewee), P.J. Moore (Lem Harvey), Dennis Moore (Dr Von Grosch)


After their latest bout of trouble with the police, the East Side Kids are handed over into the care of law student Jeff Dixon. Jeff takes them on an outing into the country. There are police reports of an escaped ‘monster killer’ being in the area. Muggs sneaks away in the middle of the night to see a local girl and the others follow. Trying to take a shortcut through the graveyard, they are shot at by the cemetery keeper and Peewee wounded. They take refuge at the nearby Billings Mansion, which has just been taken over by the sinister Nardo and his dwarf assistant Luigi. Nardo insists they stay the night while he offers medical attention to Peewee. The others soon encounter spooky happenings and believe that Nardo might be a monster who drinks blood and has turned Peewee into a zombie.

The East Side Kids, also known as The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys, were a comedy team who enjoyed some populist appeal throughout the 1940s and well into the 1950s. The complement of the gang changed considerably through their various incarnations, although the most famous of the famous of the faces were Huntz Hall and the gang’s leader Leo Gorcey. Although they are most famous as comic characters, the East Side Kids started out as a serious attempt to portray juvenile delinquency in Sidney Kingsley’s play Dead End (1935). The play proved successful and was filmed in 1937, after which various of the actors who had appeared both on stage and in the film went on to play similar delinquents in various dramas, most notably alongside James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and Humphrey Bogart in Crime School (1938), and even in their own serials Junior G-Men (1940), Sea Raiders (1941) and Junior G-Men of the Air (1942).

Producer Sam Katzman then relaunched them under the name The East End Kids in twentty-two no-budgeters at the poverty row studio Monogram, beginning with East Side Kids (1940), where their adventures were played strictly for lowbrow comedy. Lead player Leo Gorcey took control of the series in 1946 and rechristened them The Bowery Boys for a further 48 pictures at Allied Artists where the general quality of the films deteriorated even further.

The Old Dark House Thriller was popular in the 1920s and 30s, with plots centring around creaky old mansions and hooded killers stalking young heiresses. In these elements of the supernatural would be raised but always dismissed with a mundane explanation. The Bob Hope remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) revived the Old Dark House thriller with a specifically comedic spin and enjoyed a good deal of popularity. This was quickly imitated by a number of other comics of the era who churned out their own Old Dark House comedies, including The Ritz Brothers in a remake of The Gorilla (1939), Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers (1940), big band leader Kay Kyser in You’ll Find Out (1940), Abbott and Costello in Hold That Ghost (1941), Laurel and Hardy in A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in Scared Stiff (1953). The East Side Kids jumped aboard the bandwagon with Spooks Run Wild here. They subsequently reteamed with Bela Lugosi for Ghosts on the Loose (1943) and without him for several other almost identically-titled minings of the vein in Spook Busters (1946), Ghost Chasers (1951) and Spook Chasers (1957).

Though they were given different character names in each of the films, the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys essentially played themselves each time. The same could be said of Bela Lugosi. He had made a name for himself with his classic interpretation of the title role in Dracula (1931) and then become typecast in menacing villainy and/or mad scientists roles for the next two decades. By the 1940s, he was making ends meet at the poverty row studios – Monogram were one of his major bread-and-butter employers during this decade. By this point, he had become a caricature of himself. The role he plays here is unimportant, it is simply Lugosi playing the part of Bela Lugosi. He is outfitted in black hat, tuxedo and white cape and is accompanied by Angelo Rossitto as a dwarf retainer and a trailer filled with coffins, while there are constant suggestions throughout that he is a vampire (even if the word itself is never used) and has turned David Gorcey into a zombie.

Bela Lugosi, Sunshine Sammy Morrison, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Donald Haines, Angelo Rossitto and Huntz Hall in Spooks Run Wild (1941)
(l to r) (top) Bela Lugosi cowers from the East Side Kids – Sunshine Sammy Morrison, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Donald Haines; (bottom) Angelo Rossitto strangles Huntz Hall

The East Side Kid are not particularly good actors but at least have a certain moronic energy in their knockabout antics. The shows were always dominated by Leo Gorcey, the most charismatic of the troupe with his woodchipper Noo Yoik accent and hard-headed imperturbability. There is the odd line that raises a mild smile – “How can you read in the dark?” “I went to night school.”

The less palatable aspect of the East Side Kids films was their frequent racial humour in the person of Black troupe member Sunshine Sammy Morrison. Morrison’s only acting mode is to either acted stupefied with his bottom lip hanging open or knee-knocking scared. He is the frequent butt of racial lines like: “Next time you come out of the dark, put a whitewash on” or “I’m so scared I’m turning white now.” This unfortunately is something you just have to shrug and take as what was considered acceptable for the era the film was made.

All of the East Side Kids’ films were cheaply made. Spooks Run Wild emerges somewhat better than the others. The main problem with Spooks Run Wild is that nothing much happens. Well that’s not strictly correct – quite a few things happen but the plot is shapeless and aimless, mostly based around a series of comic routines. Certainly, in terms of an Old Dark House thriller, it shuffles around various creaky tropes – the suspicion that Bela Lugosi is a vampire, wall panels that cause people to vanish, ambulatory suits of armour, David Gorcey seemingly being turned into a zombie after Lugosi offers medical treatment, dangling spiders, Leo Gorcey seeing a skeleton after he opens a jar, Sunshine Sammy Morrison being spooked by a cigarette case moving around on a table. Director Phil Rosen fails to generate atmosphere out of any of the material. It all eventually arrives at a mundane twist ending that reveals that there were no ghosts and that [PLOT SPOILERS] Bela Lugosi is not a villain but a stage magician.

Phil Rosen (1888-1951) was a director who had been working since the silent era and is best known for several of the Charlie Chan films. In genre material, Rosen also made the resurrection film The Man with Two Lives (1942), the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942), Black Magic (1944) featuring Charlie Chan against spiritualists, the Bela Lugosi mad scientist film Return of the Ape Man (1944) and The Shadow Returns (1946), one of the films based on the mystical radio superhero The Shadow.

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