Wayback Wednesday: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

“It’s a MURDER HOUSE!”

One of the absolute best things about movies is how wonderfully silly they can be. Tear-jerking dramas and moving true stories are great in their own right, but there’s nothing quite like a movie that is 100 per cent unapologetically wacky. After all, movies are made for our enjoyment and what’s more enjoyable than a story that slaps a big ‘ol smile on your face? Of all the movies I remember being introduced to by my parents and then watching over and over again, none were more wacky than The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). Well, except maybe for The Great Race (1965). Or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Evidently my parents loved showing my brother and I wacky comedies from the 60s. And I love them for it.

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 7.34.11 PM
Credit: imdb.com / Universal Pictures

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken follows Luther Heggs, a bullied and belittled typesetter living in the small town of Rachel City, Kansas. Desperately wanting to become a real reporter (and impress Alma, the girl of his dreams) Luther agrees to spend a night in the Simmons Mansion on the 20th anniversary of the murders that occurred there. Inside the supposedly haunted house, Luther experiences thrills and chills that get the whole town believing in ghosts.

This movie is so much freakin’ fun. I’m using the child-friendly version of the F word because The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is just too pure to be associated with a swear word of any kind. Which isn’t to say that the movie is childish or overly conservative in any way, I’d just hate to tarnish something so lovably wholesome with my foul language. When I use the word “wholesome” to describe The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, I do so in the sense that this is a movie with no grand message, shocking twist, or commitment to being cool. It’s a simple, straightforward, lovely, cute little story that is largely comical and only mildly frightening. The best way I can describe the unique and charming tone of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is like this: it’s basically a live-action, slightly more grown-up version of any given episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969 – 1978). Like the classic cartoon, this movie walks the fine, and always entertaining line between slapstick and spooky. One minute you have chills running down your spine and the next you have tears running down your face.

At the centre of the hilarity and horror is Don Knotts, who in the 1960s, was riding a huge wave of success. As if starring on the wildly popular The Andy Griffith Show (1960 – 1968) weren’t enough, Knotts also had a steady stream of hit comedies released during the decade. And it isn’t difficult to see why he was such an in-demand star during that time. A true master of comedy, Knotts fully commits himself to playing Luther, doing whatever it takes to get a laugh out of the audience. Although with a talent like Knotts’, it doesn’t take much to get me laughing. Still, Knotts goes all out and whether it’s delivering nonsensical speeches, goofily creeping around a haunted house, or simply issuing his trademark surprised face, Knotts’ characterization of the bumbling Luther will leave you in stitches. Seriously though, no one has a surprised face quite like Knotts. Even when Luther is feeling shy, or cowardly or romantic, Knotts is expressive as always. Knotts isn’t simply a great comedian, he’s a great actor as well.

Speaking of romance, growing up I always loved the budding relationship between Luther and Alma. That’s right. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken isn’t just a comedy-horror. It’s also a romantic-comedy, a supernatural thriller and towards the end, even a courtroom drama! We love versatility. Anyway, Luther and Alma. Honestly, I used to think that they had little chemistry together. But as I grew older I realized that the pair were actually just shy and awkward around each other not because of a lack of emotion, but an abundance. The movie captures what it’s like when a couple are first discovering their feelings for each other and how sweet and precious those early stages of a relationship can be. It’s extremely tender and heartwarming to witness and makes a good movie even better. Plus, Alma is fearless, kind, and her being with the dorky and lovable Luther is just poetic. Oh! And she’s the catalyst for the movie’s most famous line: “I’m having chicken soup with Alma!” Why is this line so famous? No idea. But ask anyone who has seen the movie and they’ll agree it’s the most memorable.

I believe that a good comedy is able to find humour in almost every scene and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken accomplishes this in spades. No scene is dry or boring, and there isn’t a single character you wish would just disappear. Even the ones who are total meanies (again, keeping things pure) to Luther, are important because they only reinforce how much we’re on Luther’s side and rooting for him to succeed. The characters in this movie, meanies or otherwise, are all great ghost story archetypes: the superstitious grannies, the mysterious janitor, the creepy relative, the fanatic believers…all fun in their own way. Sidenote, I love that in this rural, straight-laced Kansas town in 1966 there’s a thriving Psychic Occult Society. You can bet your bottom I’d be the president or at least, treasurer.

As much fun as you’re having though, the movie still builds up your sense of terror and suspense. I think it takes a star as animated and talented as Knotts to juggle cutting the tension with comedy, with still acting scared enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. Seriously, there are multiple little frights he endures while exploring the house that if I were spending the night there, would have me saying, “NOPE!” Even upon this, what has to my 30th viewing, I still found myself getting creeped out and uneasy! I blame the music. Like the movie itself, the astounding music courtesy of Vic Mizzy is an enchanting blend of delightfully goofy and genuinely menacing. Speaking of menacing, did you know that the house used as the Simmons Mansion is also used as the Bates house in Psycho (1960)? Menacing!

A funny fright that is sure to scare and delight, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a one of a kind movie. Please Hollywood, never even attempt to remake it. Although, I’d totally be down for a stage show as long as Steve Carell plays Luther because YES. If you’re a fan of Scooby-Doo, The Addams Family (1991) or the comically spooky, consider The Ghost and Mr. Chicken for your next family movie night or even date night! Trust me: By the end of the movie anyone you watch it with will be saying, “atta boy Luther!”

Have you seen The Ghost and Mr. Chicken? What are your favourite horror comedies?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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