THE HEADLESS GHOST (1959) Reviews and overview of comedy horror

 

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‘Head-hunting teenagers lost in the haunted castle!’

The Headless Ghost is a 1959 comedy horror film about three young student thrillseekers investigating a supposedly English haunted castle.

Directed by Peter Graham Scott (producer of The Canterville Ghost 1986; director of Night Creatures aka Captain Clegg; Panic at Madame Tussaud’s) from a screenplay by Kenneth Langry and executive producer Herman Cohen (Craze; Trog; Berserk; Black Zoo; Konga; How to Make a Monster; Blood of Dracula; I Was a Teenage Frankenstein; I Was a Teenage Werewolf).

The movie stars Richard Lyon, Liliane Sottane, David Rose, Jack Allen, Clive Revill (Dracula: Dead and Loving It; C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud; The Legend of Hell House), Alexander Archdale and John Stacy.

American producer Herman Cohen was making Horrors of the Black Museum in England for Anglo-Amalgamated Films, with the film slated to be distributed in the US by American International Pictures (AIP). James H. Nicholson, one of the founders of AIP, asked Cohen ‘to supply a suitable supporting feature in black-and-white ‘Scope’ to accompany Black Museum’ because a ‘large Texas circuit would book the double bill and others would follow suit.

Consequently, The Headless Ghost was written in two weeks and filmed in a further three for approximately £35,000 between early December 1958 and mid-January 1959. The film was shot in Dyaliscope, a French widescreen process with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The film was shot on the same sets as Horror of the Black Museum with some additional outdoor location shots at an actual castle. This may not have been the original intent, however. ‘According to The Hollywood Reporter production charts and Daily Variety news items, the film was to have been shot entirely on location in London.

Herman Cohen commented: that “We knocked out that picture very, very fast; that’s why the running time is so short, like sixty-five minutes … In fact, we started Headless Ghost as I was still finishing Black Museum, editing and cutting it. But I honestly don’t recall too much else about this picture, it was so bad.” Cohen has also admitted that the film is unfunny and that he “never liked” it.

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Reviews:

The Headless Ghost is the bad horror-comedy at its most painful, being equally lacking in laughs, chills, and entertainment value generally […] By the end of the film, we are fully in sympathy with the ghosts of Ambrose Castle: sixty-two minutes of film have rarely felt so much like being trapped for eternity.” And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

“Peter Graham Scott can make nothing of the inanities of The Headless Ghost … Like Scott’s other films, this one moves along quite smartly, but this time there is virtually nothing worth moving. Clive Revill provides a touch of campy style as the ghost of the fourth Earl who steps down from his portrait, the special effects are simple but adequate, but the overall impression is one of meagre inventiveness ….” Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, The British ‘B’ Film, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

” …an undemanding, harmless horror-comedy (sort of a British version of Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow) shot in Scope and at least creating some gothic atmosphere by talking place almost entirely in a haunted castle. It’s played mostly as a comedy, with decent performances (it’s amusing to hear the British leads overdoing the American accents of their characters), especially by the always great RevillDVD Drive-In

The Headless Ghost is a hard sort of film to get worked up about either way. In a sense, it’s the perfect B film – not good enough to detract away from the main feature (even if that main feature is something like Horrors of the Black Museum), but just diverting enough to keep patrons warmed up until the main attraction starts. There are some amusing lines…” The EOFFTV Review

“There’s something amiable and unpretentious about this movie; I didn’t really expect much, but I was willing to go along for the ride. Nonetheless, it was a very slight affair as far as these movies go; for one thing, it takes forever to get started, and once it does, it never really builds up much momentum.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“The whole thing is over in an hour, yet you won’t remember much past the cartoon credits and a hot bit o’ belly dancin’. Harmless but hopeless, it’s one of those things that sets out to “wacky” and makes corny jokes.” Flick Attack

“Unfortunately, Lyon gets little chance to show off his comedy chops in this inane mix of comfortable frights and predictable, half-baked gags […] The story is never less than totally predictable and, despite running only an hour, the film often feels slow and padded.” Mark David Welsh

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” …a pale and protracted bit of whimsy.” The New York Times, 30th April 1959

“The scares are fairly low-thrill and offer a rather stereotypical view of castle life. The comedy is about as weak as the horror element but the film is reasonably entertaining. At times it resembles a medieval reenactment with overly keen amateurs and that does add an element of (probably) unintentional fun.” Quota Quickie

” …with barely an hour’s running time there isn’t much room for anything too challenging. But the real problem with The Headless Ghost is that it fails to function as either a horror or a comedy. Sottane manages three decent screams: one at a cat, one at a rat and finally a proper one at an inexplicable snake. It’s considerably less frightening than the average episode of Scooby-Doo and, dear lord, if only it was half as funny.” Starburst

“There’s a bit of horror atmosphere, the film is pleasant enough, but it’s too amiable to ever amount to much […] The main flaw is the three listless leads. With some more compelling performers or well-written characters, this could have been a minor cult classic. There’s a quality belly dance towards the end.” Teenage Frankenstein

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Plot:

Three university students – Ingrid from Denmark (Liliane Sottane) and Americans Bill (Richard Lyon) and Ronnie (David Rose) – take a tour of Ambrose Castle in England. After learning that the castle is haunted, they decide to secretly spend the night inside in the hopes of seeing a ghost.

During the night, the ghost of the 4th Earl of Ambrose (Clive Revill) appears and tells them that he and the other ghosts are being bothered by Malcolm, who was beheaded 600 years earlier and condemned to wander about the castle until his body and head are re-joined.

The ghostly 4th Earl asks Ingrid, Bill and Ronnie for their help. He says the task of reuniting Malcolm’s head and body can only be accomplished by finding a secret chamber, which contains a pouch filled with ashes, and throwing the ashes against Malcolm’s portrait while reciting an incantation. Ingrid memorises the incantation when the 4th Earl says that he will tell it to them only once:

The wing of a bird whose song was never heard/The snout of a toad that perished in our road/The scales of a fish all burned in a dish/Gathered in a pouch of leather/Hurled in stormy weather/To set him free/To set him free.

The three students go in search of the secret chamber, but once they hear the ghostly screams of Lady Wingfield being murdered by her husband Charles, who returned from the Crusades to discover that she had borne a child by another man, they change their minds.

Ingrid tells the 4th Earl that they are facing ‘impossible hurdles’ and must leave. But then the voice of Malcolm booms out, declaring that he is holding them prisoner until they find his head, without which he cannot rest in peace.

As they search for the chamber, they come across a room of ghosts enjoying a banquet. A ghostly ‘heathen’ dancing girl-slave (Josephine Blake) performs, but before she can be ordered to ‘see to’ Bill and Ronnie, Ingrid demands that they leave the banquet. They do, quickly finding the secret chamber and the pouch.

Meanwhile, Parker (John Stacy), the manservant of the current, living 16th Earl of Ambrose (Jack Allen), informs him that something strange is going on inside the castle. The 16th Earl telephones the police. Sgt Grayson (Carl Berhard) and his Constable (Patrick Connor) quickly arrive and they, the 16th Earl and Parker enter the castle to investigate. They discover Ingrid, Bill and Ronnie and, of course, don’t believe their story. The police threaten them with arrest.

As the officers chase Ingrid, Bill and Ronnie through the castle, Ingrid breaks away, recites the incantation and tosses the ashes on Malcolm’s portrait. To everyone’s amazement, the headless ghost of Malcolm then walks downstairs as his head floats in through a doorway. Malcolm catches his head and sticks it on, smiling in satisfaction when it is firmly attached.

The 16th Earl says that he doesn’t intend to press charges against Ingrid, Bill and Ronnie, but Grayson insists that everyone accompany him to the police station so that they can explain to the Inspector exactly what has happened. They all walk out into the foggy English night, smiling and chatting amiably.

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Cast and characters:

Richard Lyon … Bill
Liliane Sottane … Ingrid Joervets
David Rose … Ronnie
Jack Allen … The Live Earl of Ambrose
Clive Revill … The Ghost of the Fourth Earl of Ambrose
Alexander Archdale … The Ghost of Sir Randolph
John Stacy … Parker
Carl Bernard … Sergeant Grayson
Trevor Barnett … Strongman
Donald Bisset … Guide
Josephine Blake … Kooch Dancer Ghost
Mary Barclay … Lady Ambrose
Patrick Connor … Constable
Janina Faye … Veronica (uncredited)
Smokey … The cat that frightens Ingrid. The pet of Mr & Mrs Cousens, he was ‘talent spotted’ in their off-licence in Kingston Road SW19.

Filming locations:

Merton Park Studios, Merton Park, South London

Release:

The Headless Ghost premiered in New York City on 29th April 1959. It opened in the UK in June 1959. The film was given a U-certificate by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), allowing its exhibition to people of all ages. However, ‘To obtain this category cuts were required but the details are not available.’

Fun facts:

In June 1959, American International Records released a 45 rpm single by The Nightmares. The A-side song was titled ‘(Oooh I’m Scared Of The) Horrors of the Black Museum’ and the B-side song was ‘The Headless Ghost’. Each song ran a few seconds short of two minutes.

Related:

HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959) Reviews and overview

Trailer:

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