The Headless Ghost (1959)

The Headless Ghost (1959)‘We tried very hard but we kept running into impossible hurdles.’

Three teenage students join an international guided tour to a 14th Century castle in England. Scornful of the owner’s insistence on the existence of family ghosts, the trio stay behind after everyone else has left, intent on proving him wrong. Unfortunately, they get more than they bargained for…

Inconsequential spook comedy collaboration between Anglo-Amalgamated Pictures from the UK and American International Pictures. The latter, through producers James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff and director Roger Corman, had virtually invented the teen movie, flooding the drive-in circuit with an endless succession of cheap and cheerful pictures from the mid-1950s onwards. The story of this one was co-credited to producer Herman Cohen, who had achieved a certain notoriety as the main man behind kitsch classics ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ (1957) and ‘I Was A Teenage Frankenstein’ (1958).

Apart from the project’s genesis, and some probable financial backing, it’s over to England for the actual production of the film. Even our two notional American leads are actually British, and straight man David Rose can do little to hide to it. Comedy relief Richard Lyon is actually the lead here, and does considerably better with the American accent. Probably because his parents were U.S. film stars Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, who had settled in Blighty after the war. The whole family appeared as ‘themselves’ on hit radio show ‘Life with the Lyons’ which ran for six years and was also turned into a television sitcom and two films.

The Headless Ghost (1959)

At least he wasn’t going to be the one with the headache in the morning…

Unfortunately, Lyon gets little chance to show off his comedy chops in this inane mix of comfortable frights and predictable, half-baked gags. The script provides his character with a lightweight version of the cowardly schtick familiar to anyone who’s sat through an Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis picture, although the humour is noticeably less physical.

The plot machinations revolve around the headless ghost of one of the family’s ancestors who needs the parts of his body joined together to put all the castle’s spooks to rest. Among these rather substantial phantoms (they cast shadows!) is a young Clive Revill who, two decades later, appeared as Darth Vader’s boss in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980). The story is never less than totally predictable and, despite running only an hour, the film often feels slow and padded. The spooks hold a medieval banquet, which seems to be solely an excuse to waste time and showcase a dance by Josephine Baker, who later went onto be a star on the London stage.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of the entire project revolves around our female lead, played by Liliane Sottane. She portrays blonde Danish student, and Rose’s nominal love interest, Ingrid. There’s zero biographical information on the actress, but that sounds very much like a thick French accent rather than one from Scandinavia! it begs the obvious question: if they couldn’t find an actress from the right country, why didn’t the filmmakers simply tweak the script and make the character French? Perhaps a deal had already been agreed with a Danish distributor on the understanding that a ‘home’ audience would have a point of identification with the film? if so, I can’t help thinking they would have been less than impressed with Sottane’s voice work!

It’s all makes for a fairly harmless experience, of course, but there’s little here to keep an audience engaged on any level.


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