Remember back in the late 90’s when the PAX Network started up? It was supposed to be a family values sort of station. Though it always confused me a bit because so many of the programs it showed were things like Matlock and Murder She Wrote…shows where someone gets killed in every episode. That’s real family values there. Still, I enjoy a good clean mystery as much as the next guy. Today’s film is a simple little B movie mystery that also mixes in a healthy bit of comedy…1942’s “The Living Ghost.”
The story is set in motion by the disappearance of wealthy Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire). The family, including Craig’s second wife Helen (Edna Johnson) and uppity adult daughter Tina (Jan Wiley) has gathered at the estate and are going crazy over the situation. Family friend Ed Moline (Paul McVey) has an idea, though. He heads off with Craig’s secretary Billie (Joan Woodbury) to find his old buddy Nick Trayne (James Dunn). Trayne is a former private investigator currently working as a “listening ear.” People pay him 2 bucks and hour to sit and listen to their problems. He has no desire to get back into the detective business, but the possibility of a $25,000 reward quickly changes his mind.
Nicks heads for the Craig home to begin his investigation, but after just one night on the job, Walter Craig suddenly reappears. He seems fine, except that he’s in a zombie-like state. The doctor claims this is due to some sort brain damage which would require special equipment to cause. Even with his return, the investigation continues. Things seem to be pointing toward Tina and her fiancee Arthur (Howard Banks), since she stands to inherit the family fortune when Walter kicks the bucket. But then, there is an incident in the garden one night when it appears the Walter has killed his brother-in-law George (J. Arthur Young). Later, the zombiefied Walter tries to kill Nick as well.
Eventually, Nick manages to track down a piece of equipment that could have been used to cause Craig’s strange condition. He sets out with Billie to investigate the abandoned house he has been led to. There they are shot at by an unseen attacker and also encounter another person who seems to be suffering the same condition as Mr. Craig. But Nick does manage to come up with an idea to get the one’s responsible to expose themselves…but can he do it before he becomes the next victim?
“The Living Ghost” is a short little mystery, coming in at just over an hour in length. It moves very quickly with lots of fast-paced snappy dialogue which the cast does a great job with…especially James Dunn. I guess you could say his performance is a parody of other detective characters, but it’s not just played for laughs. There is a careful balance between the wide-eyed doubletakes and the moments where the character proves to be a skillful detective. It’s a unique approach to this sort of material, and it works to great effect. I also really enjoyed Joan Woodbury’s performance and felt that she and Dunn played off each other well. Jan Wiley is also fun as the chronically indignant Tina, and Minerva Urecal has a fun, if short, role as a wannabe clairvoyant.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the story, I felt there were a few missed opportunities. Primarily that the whole zombie aspect of the story is not played out as well as it could have. It would’ve been a great opportunity to add a horror element into the mystery comedy mix they had going. There are a few hints of it here and there, but it’s certainly underdeveloped.
Still, “The Living Ghost” is a nice little surprise. It’s funny with a fair amount of suspense. I’ll take it over Matlock any day.