We all know how it goes in a Haunted House movie.
We, the audience, can clearly see the house will be Trouble at the beginning of the film, but all signs of it are lost on the characters.
“Don’t go in there!” we say, but the characters, blithely unaware that the house is Out to Get Them, think they’re going to have so much Fun, poor slobs.
Personally, we (yours truly) can’t watch these movies because we find them Too Stressful with levels of angst and fear. We’re exhausted by the end of it.
But we like a good haunted house spoof, which is why we adore the Buster Keaton short, The Haunted House (1921). Keaton stars as a bank teller who unknowingly works for a bank that launders counterfeit money. (A bank involved in fraudulent schemes? Say it ain’t so!)
Keaton’s friend and frequent co-star, Joe Roberts, plays the bank president – and counterfeit kingpin – a clever criminal who’s set up his headquarters in an old house. But, in order to throw police off the Scent (so to speak), his gang disguise themselves as ghosts, skeletons, etc., to make everyone think the house is Haunted.
Mwahaha! The police will be too scared to investigate!
Haunted house movies were Nothing New in Keaton’s day, which already made the genre ripe for satire. You’d probably guess this film is a two-reeler because of the run time (21 minutes), and its two-part structure: (1) Keaton as bank teller; and (2) Keaton as haunted house visitor.
The Haunted House is like an amusement park because you never know what’s around the corner. Even so, some critics say the film is too simple for modern audiences.
We disagree. This film has a wealth of visual treasures, like this one:
Or this one:
By 1921, Keaton had his own production unit, working with indie producer Joseph M. Schenck, and here he would create some of his greatest films, including Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Sherlock Jr. (1924), and The General (1926), before he signed with MGM in 1928.
The Haunted House is Keaton developing his Craft, especially when it comes to building a gag. Let’s look at the sliding staircase as an example:
The sliding staircase appears to be a regular set of stairs, but when you get to the fifth stair from the top, that tricky staircase turns into a slide.
This is amusing in itself, but Keaton doesn’t leave this as a one-time gag. His character uses ingenious methods to avoid the staircase, and we the audience can’t wait to see what he (and the police) will Do Next.
The gag is continued in a dream sequence, where Keaton climbs the Stairway to Heaven, with predictable – and unpredictable – results.
We encourage you to see The Haunted House. It’s not one of Buster Keaton’s most famous shorts, and that is a shame because it’s a charming film with lots of visual treats.
This post is a part of The 8th Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silent-ology.
The Haunted House: starring Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts. Directed and written by Edward F. Cline & Buster Keaton. Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 1921, B&W, 21 mins.