The film begins with the boys being nabbed by the cops for some unknown offense. The gang in this film are Mugsy (Leo Gorcy), Danny (Bobby Jordan), Glimpy (Huntz Hall), Scruno (Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison), Peewee (David Gorcy), and Skinny (Donald Haines). They are loaded on to a bus to head for a camp in the country for a little rehabilitation. When the bus stops in a little town just outside the camp, Mugsy and some of the boys discover a sudden thirst when they spot a cute girl working at the local soda fountain. While making goo-goo eyes at the girl, they also hear a local radio broadcast warning citizens that a “monster killer” is on the loose.
Eventually, the boys make it to the camp. After lights out, Mugsy decides to sneak out and meet the soda fountain girl for a date. He’s not too sneaky about it, though, since the rest of the boys end up following him. The boys end up trying to take a shortcut into town through a cemetery, but the caretaker, fearing the killer, ends up taking a shot at them. In the ensuing panic, Peewee ends up hurt, and the boys drag him to the creepy house up on the hill.
In the house is the creepy Nardo (Bela Lugosi…who else?) who himself has just arrived in town with his dwarf assistant, Luigi (Angelo Rossitto). Nardo tends to Peewee, but the boys start to get more and more nervous about spending the night in this strange house. They soon discover secret passages and other strange things around the house as they begin to suspect that Nardo is the dreaded “monster killer.”
The “East Side Kids” are kind of like the middle ground between the kids of Our Gang and the slapstick of The Three Stooges. There are elements of both of these classic teams present. Like the Stooges, they have a leader…Mugsy is the Moe of the group…they slap each other around a bit, and talk in exaggerated New Yaaawk accents (“hey yous muggs” and such). But they also have the camaraderie and some of the innocence of the Our Gang kids. It’s worth noting the Ernie Morrison was one of the original Our Gang kids…the series’ first African-American star, before Farina, Stymie, or Buckwheat.
The interactions of the gang members are really the highlight. Their dialogue has a quick pace and there are some funny word gags that you may miss if you don’t pay close attention. These young actors show a skilled grasp of comedic timing…especially Leo Gorcy and Huntz Hall. There’s also no denying the comic skills of Ernie Morrison, though his performance may disturb some people. He does a lot of the wide-eyed, Jello-legged, scared reactions that many people often point out when discussing early racial stereotypes in film. But it’s hard to tell how much of this is as a result of the racial stereotype and how much is due to the simple fact that this is a haunted house movie.
Then, there’s Lugosi. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that Bela Lugosi is one of my favorite actors. He’s a bit underused in this film, if you ask me, but he does a great job. In many ways, his performance is done with tongue in cheek. He plays the character in a way that indicates that he know the gang is creeped out by him, and that he’s going to have as much fun with that as he can.
In the end, “Spooks Run Wild” could’ve done with a few more spooks, but for those who have never seen them before, it serves as a fun introduction to The East Side Kids.