The Spirit Is Willing (1967)

William Castle; famous for his shock gimmicks and bizarre plots, is a director I always liked even if I didn’t revere him, his films were always accessible and fun. As of late however, he’s starting to become a favorite of mine. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a truly bad film from him, even though he usually gets lumped in with Ed Wood & Coleman Francis. His films were meant to be fun, with their crazy promotional gimmicks and animated opening credits, he clearly intended his films to not be taken seriously, but in a good way. Most say the element of humor was unintentional because he was a lousy director whose films came off as camp, and that he would fail at comedy as much as horror if he had tried. Well, I just saw this film on it’s entirety on Youtube, and not only is it an overt comedy, but it’s a hoot from start to finish.

In the distant past in New England, a greedy but handsome sailor decided to get rich quick by marrying Felicity; the lonely horse-faced daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate, but fell in love instead with the pretty maid, Jenny. Felicity killed the maid, and then the sailor with a meat cleaver before the sailor finished her off with a knife right before bleeding to death, now the trio’s ghosts haunt the local mansion.

In (then)present times the Powell family moves in to the manor for a vacation. Led by paranoid, chronic-back pain suffering father Ben(Sid Caesar), whining son Steve(Barry Gordon) and nagging mother Kate(Vera Miles). This bickering, dysfunctional clan is a hoot to watch, with everyone showing off reasons both to like and dislike them, so that we don’t come to find them all annoying and hope they get killed off. The dialog exchanges are great and laugh-out-loud funny rather than dated. The characters are so well-developed that this feels like a Halloween special for a long-running sitcom in it’s prime, and that’s always a plus. You can just imagine all the crazy adventures this family has had before and after this film.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize the house is going to be haunted, and thankfully rather than setting up some Scooby Doo fake-ghost subplot, the film makes the Ghost’s presence clear from the beginning. It admittedly falls into formula; you know how it goes, Outsider sees ghosts, gets blamed for their mischief and nobody believes him. It’s an old formula, but it’s delivered with a nice hint of freshness considering that the ghosts are given personality without speaking, the ghosts of the Sailor & the Maid keep making out, and Felicity keeps throwing things at them which leads to furniture getting smashed. And apparently the ghost couple isn’t getting along too well either, as they fight amongst themselves even when Felicity is gone. Poor Steve gets blamed for all this, and it’s hilarious how his parents seem to explain it all way as typical teenage behavior even though if he really was doing all this stuff he would have to be dangerously psychotic, but they just keep threatening to deduct from his allowance. One of the best parts comes when the ghosts sink his rich(he’s a toilet bowl baron…yeah), paranoid Uncle George’s yacht and Steve’s only reaction is to say ‘You can take it from my allowance’.

The film has several highlights thereafter, from a diving expedition gone wrong, a male bartender named Mother, a bizarre series of circumstances that leads Kate to believe Ben is cheating on her, a great cameo from John Astin(Gomez from the ‘Addams Family’)as a psychologist hired by Uncle George to find out if Steve is gay(after he sees him buying lots of perfume and makeup for Felicity to appease her evil spirit) who quickly comes to wonder if he’s going mad himself. Not all of the jokes work, but they all manage to keep a (pardon the pun) spirit of fun.

Risqué fun too. For a film from the ’60’s, there’s a good deal of swearing, underage drinking, sex, adultery and homophobia. Yet it’s all done with a sense of innocence, only the murders in the prologue would cause the film to get more than a PG today.

The performances are all good, too. Sid Caesar is the most experienced of the lot, and gives a typically fine performance. Barry Gordon manages to make Steve believably obnoxious and brash but still likable. Vera Miles shows great range in the role of Kate, compare her role here to her role in ‘Psycho’. But it’s Jill Townsend in a triple role as Jenny the Maid/Steve’s psychic girlfriend Priscilla/her librarian sister Carol who steals the show. John McGiver is also great as the boisterous, Archie Bunker-like Uncle George. A fun twist-ending is also in store. The music is good too.

A great little gem that I can already tell is going to be one of my new favorites, I highly recommend this obscure film. I also wonder if this was an influence on Burton’s ‘Beetlejuice’. The plots are very similar; Seaside New England manor is haunted by two lovers, dysfunctional family arrives and havoc ensues. If the film was remade, I can totally see the supernatural-obsessed Priscilla portrayed as a goth like Lydia from ‘Beetlejuice’. I also notice that the ‘Topper’ film series from the 40’s influenced both films greatly, yet, I enjoyed ‘Spirit’ more than either of them. Y’ Know, sometimes I get the feeling that “A’ cinema isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

For lovers of humorous horror films and screwball comedies, I can’t recommend this enough.~