Haunted Spooks is an American two-reeler short film from the Hal Roach studio, starring Harold Lloyd, which began shooting in 1919 and was completed the following year. It also stars his future wife, Mildred Davis.
It is notable for its horror-themed story and also being the film during which Lloyd’s hand was permanently deformed by an incident with a prop bomb.
A money-hungry uncle receives a telegram which informs him that his niece will inherit a large mansion and a plantation if she survives living in the haunted dwelling for a year with her husband. Currently unmarried, the uncle’s lawyer offers to assist; meanwhile, an unknowing Harold and another suitor vie for a girl’s affections.
Upon failing to woo her, Harold makes several suicide attempts, inadvertently dodging a tram, tying a rock around his neck and plunging into a lake only inches deep and attempting to shoot himself in the head with a water pistol. His final attempt sees him trying to get run over by an oncoming car, the car being driven, as fate would have it, by the lawyer. Introducing the pair, who fall for each other, they head off to live on the plantation.
Once there, we are introduced to, let’s be forgiving, a stereotypical group of black workers, all of whom are very superstitious. Cue, many fake ghost stunts and tricks as the uncle attempts to scare the couple out of the house and claim the money for himself.
With the title playing on a well-used, if now extremely derogatory term to describe black people at the time, this is prime Harold Lloyd, an often blank expression suggesting a million possibilities with subtle nuances and an almost elastic body. It was said body which nearly didn’t make it to the end of the film; posing for a publicity shot with a fake bomb, the device exploded, blowing off much of Lloyd’s hand and fingers and leaving him to wear a prosthetic hand for the rest of his life. Interestingly, you can see the real hand and the fake hand alternate throughout the film, revealing some of the fractured filming, which was inevitably delayed because of the accident.
The outside scenes were filmed at what is now MacArthur Park and the interiors at Hal Roaches’ studio, most famous for their work with Laurel and Hardy. Many regular Roach character actors are on show here, including the ‘large’ frame of Dee Lampton and the often-seen diminutive actor Sammy Brooks. The small black boy, who wanders around at the end of the film in a huge pair of seemingly haunted trousers (making Harold’s hair stand on end, a trick achieved by repeatedly brushing it and placing a magnetic field above him, out of shot), is played by Ernest Morrison, who can also be seen in the Bela Lugosi films, The Ape Man and Spooks Run Wild.
Although layered in some eyebrow-raising wide-eyed shots of black people running around with typical Southern commentary for the masses to lap up in racist fashion, it is one of the very earliest examples of a haunted house movie; the many trappings are there for all to see, from wind-blown curtains to white-gowned ghouls and all Scooby-Doo points in between. What’s remarkable is that this predates even the earliest incarnation of The Cat and the Canary by some years and even Murnau’s Nosferatu by three years.