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Headless Ghost, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distribution
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Peter Graham Scott
Richard Lyon
Liliane Sottane
David Rose
Clive Revill
Jack Allen
Bottom Line: 
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Lucarelli 508-The American B movie producer Herman Cohen followed up initial success as a maker of innovative teen-orientated US horror pictures in the mid-50s, when he oversaw the shooting of titles such as “I was a Teenage Werewolf” and “How to Make a Monster” for American International Pictures, with a number of films made in England after teaming up with Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated (producers of “Peeping Tom”) on some notoriously campy early colour Brit shockers that were invariably filmed at Wimbledon’s Merton Park Studios  and made as a reaction to the success of Hammer Film Productions’ first run of colour Gothics, just being released at that time in the late 1950s. “Horrors of the Black Museum” and “Konga” are unforgettably lurid examples of sadistic cornball campery, centred upon Michael Gough’s lip-smacking portrayal of demented patrician hubris coloured by blood-lust; but less well remembered is Cohen’s first, early black and white British production, “The Headless Ghost”, directed by the versatile filmmaker (and later producer) Peter Graham Scott.

A prolific TV director in the 1960s (helming numerous episodes of well-regarded film series such as “The Avengers” and “Danger Man” etc.), Scott also did a turn for Hammer with the early-sixties historical Cornish piracy shocker starring Peter Cushing, “Captain Clegg” (aka, “Night Creatures”) and is also now forever enshrined in the annals of TV cult-dom as the producer and director of the fondly recalled children’s TV serials “The Children of the Stones” and “Into the Labyrinth”. His work at Merton Park for the Cohen and Anglo-Amalgamated team turns out to be a minor haunted castle second feature comedy-run-around headed by annoying American leads and a peroxide blonde, hour-glass-figure-shaped European starlet who had a short career in the '50s starring in early Hammer Studio pictures. Running for barely an hour and heralded by a jokey animated titles sequence, this was originally screened in the UK alongside Roger Corman’s “A Bucket of Blood”, and with an often rudimentary script by Cohen himself and his regular writing collaborator Aben Kandle, the film in most respects offers little to write home about, mainly being memorable for borderline bad acting from the three young, little-known leads.  But it certainly looks better than its minuscule budget ever gives it a right to, with a laughably expansive 2.35:1 aspect ratio allowing Scott the room to construct some striking tableaux among the suit-of-armour-and-torch-bearing, sconce-lined stone corridor set depicting the inside the film’s lavishly escutcheoned 14th century-built former citadel turned contemporary tourist attraction. Ambrose Castle – a brooding crenellated fort residence, rich in centuries of English history, abuts a family cemetery plot of crumbling gravestones exuding baronial medieval atmosphere from impeccable English countryside surroundings that come to appear suitably benighted when supplied with creepy Gothic shadow-play in the form of some crisp black and white cinematography courtesy of John Wiles.

Cohen and Kandle build their flimsy scenario around an outsider’s view of English history, and the screenplay is written to play to young '50s American audiences who may be expected largely to be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of six centuries of English kings, queens and their attendant rebellions, all of which have in this case produced catacombs full of exotically costumed ghosts -- the like of which could never exist at home -- to inhabit the medieval dungeons and former banqueting halls of Ambrose Castle. The three leads are at their most unconvincing when reeling off Cohen and Kandle’s clunkily written expository dialogue, that has them clumsily discuss various episodes from British history for the benefit of the young audience this U certificate film was intended to thrill while educating. All the homely English characters belong to the castle or its surrounding village, while the main protagonists are two blithe exchange student Americans, Ronnie (David Rose) and Bill (Richard Lyon), who’ve come to Ambrose Castle on a coach tour with pretty Danish traveller Ingrid (Liliane Sottane – “Up the Creek”, “The Camp on Blood Island”) to be shown around (for a twenty shilling fee!) by the amiable current occupant, the 12th Earl (Jack Allen): a down-at-heel English aristocrat who lives in a small cottage on the grounds with a wife who bemoans the fact that they’ve been forced to open up the family’s ancestral home to the public for reasons of financial impoverishment. While being given a guided tour of the interiors of the castle with other foreign visitors and the occasional British day-tripper, the trio are informed of the long line of Ambroses who’ve been previous occupants of this brooding crenellated tower, living and dying here down the ages. They include medieval crusaders, a 17th century plague victim, Restoration rogues and a black sheep called Malcolm -- who lost his head for plotting a rebellion against Henry VII during the early days of the Elizabethan dynasty. Ronnie and Bill are a pair of brilliantined, gee-wiz, tweed-jacketed teenage grad students who get into an argument with Ingrid - whom they’ve befriended on the tour - over the existence of ghosts: Bill the science graduate, who prefers modern American skyscrapers to this ‘heap of old stone surrounded by a shallow ditch,’ insists they don’t exist, while ‘sensitive’ Ingrid cites the preponderance of ghosts in Shakespeare as evidence that they do. Journalistic grad student Ronnie wants an angle to write about the tour for his college paper back home so hits on the idea of settling the matter for the three of them by lingering behind after the tour has finished and hiding in the castle all night after it’s locked up in order to seek out the headless ghost of Malcolm, mentioned by their guide during the tour. In this way, he and Bill get to spend time with Ingrid, while Ronnie also gets a project to write up for an article upon returning home.

Thus it is that the trio almost immediately encounter the ghost of the 4th Earl of Ambrose after emerging from hiding when the last tourist coach has left, and the place has been locked up securely for the night by a couple of unobservant keepers intent on getting home to their evening suppers. The 4th Earl lives inside his own grand portrait in the main hall – along, it turns out, with many of his ancestors who’re also condemned to wander the many halls and corridors of their former home during the long, empty nights. It seems that, for reasons too incoherent to bother trying to explain here, none of them can ever rest until errant Malcolm gets his head back! And this state of affairs can only be brought about by a living person reciting from memory an incantatory rhyme and then throwing a magical pouch at his portrait, whereupon a spell will exorcise the evil that still resides inside Malcolm, left over from when he was first beheaded as a traitor, allowing the head and body which currently haunt the halls separately to at last safely come together again.

After much prevarication (during which the 4th Earl actually threatens to kill the three protagonists if they don’t help him out!) the trio reluctantly agree to go in search of the necessary pouch, which is hidden in a secret dungeon room somewhere in the cobwebby bowels of the castle. Matters are complicated by the fact that one of the other ghosts, Sir Randolph (Alexander Archdale) is a merry Restoration-era trickster who enjoys too much ‘the freedom’ his ghostly reign has given him to agree ‘to retire’ just yet, and who contrives to throw up various obstacles in the way of the hapless foreign students’ mission -- endowing axe-wielding suits of armour with the power to pursue them; creating so much noise during a night time ghost-inhabited banqueting feast in the main hall that it rouses the current Earl and his butler Parker (John Stacy) from their beds and results in the intervention of two traditional English ‘Bobbies’ who think the students are attempting to rob the place; and sending various rats and snakes into remote corners of the castle to be uncovered by a screaming, fainting Ingrid during the search.

This scenario also provides the context for sundry examples of negligible slapstick humour and many a frivolous one-liner, but the two young male leads are equally both unsympathetic and Liliane Sottane seems to get more wooden as the film progresses. By far the liveliest things in this otherwise throwaway second feature are the two ghosts and their competing attempts to manipulate the situation, each for their own ends. Despite originating in very different periods of English history, both speak in then-standard ‘50s era Received Pronunciation, using expressions such as ‘blithering idiots’, and are portrayed by feisty character actors Clive Revill and Alexander Archdale with some amount of energetic theatrical flourish. In fact, the quality of the script seems to improve so drastically during many of their scenes, in comparison to the often woeful attempts at humour and romance exhibited by the three youngsters, that one wonders if either Revill or Archdale were sometimes allowed to augment the screenplay with a little thespian polish of their own every now and then?

There’s only one episode here that comes anywhere near hinting at any of the sadistic undercurrents which were later to enliven Cohen’s other lurid British-made features: this comes when Ronnie attempts to use his search of the draperied master bedroom of the former Lady Winifred (an unfaithful 12th century bride who was murdered by her returning crusader husband for her unfaithfulness) as a pretext for getting fresh with Ingrid. The scene in question starts out much like any other conventional teen-romance flavoured piece of hokum, except that Ronnie seems to get a bit more forceful when in the proximity of the chamber’s expansive double bed, than is customary for the usual initial declarations of young love. But whenever the two prospective lovers thereafter touch the resting place of the late Lady Winifred, their romantic escapades are stopped dead in their tracks by the echoing sound of the woman’s murder and subsequent death throes being re-enacted. This was a deathbed as well as a place of passion! ‘I guess he slapped her about a bit, eh?’ says Bill, after the ghost of the 4th Earl earlier relates the reasons for poor Winifred’s demise. ‘Slapped her about … he strangled her to death!’ replies the spirit. In fact, Ronnie’s amorous intentions are completely derailed from here on after he inadvertently reveals his belief that Lady Winifred got what she deserved for her behaviour all those centuries ago, immediately shattering the spell he’d previously worked so hard to cast over Ingrid, who now realises he must be a bit of a chauvinist cad on the quiet, and cools towards him significantly. Of course, this being the flimsy piece of nonsense it is, she’s forgotten all about this telling incident five minutes later, but the dark glimpse behind the veil of syrupy teen romance it seems to open up -- in which standard cinematic romantic platitudes conceal breezily dismissive attitudes towards casual domestic violence -- seems potentially subversive for the times, even if not followed through. Otherwise, despite barely lasting an hour, this piece of comic light relief still feels padded; there’s even a lengthy exotic dance sequence during Sir Randolph’s banqueting scene, courtesy of British dancer Josephine Blake, which seems to have no relevance at all except as the means it offers to fill up some time. The headless ghost himself makes only scant appearance (‘He cannot show his face,’ quips the 4th Earl; ‘he doesn’t know where it is!’) and, being minus a head in the first place -- which we don’t get to see until near the end -- he doesn’t exactly have that much of a personality to contribute to the proceedings. “The Headless Ghosts” is strictly for British horror completest and, considering the fact that Hammer was already well into its glory years by this point -- releasing its version of “The Mummy” that same year -- it plays as an especially old-fashioned and meagre offering even for its own times, when horror was at last becoming a modern and alluring box office prospect once again.

No one will be able to complain about the quality of the transfer offered on the new Network disc, though: the 2.35:1 re-mastered widescreen print and digital transfer is almost immaculate, with a fine amount of detail and excellent black and grey levels showing off the film’s uncommonly excellent art direction and production design to good effect. The only extra included with the disc is a short animated photo gallery of poster images and production stills.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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