The Haunted House (Buster Keaton)

Ring a Ding Ding

The Haunted House (1921)

    If you need a criminal hideout, what better place to set up than a “haunted house”? At least that’s what a gang of baddies think in The Haunted House short silent film. Buster Keaton is a bank teller, and I think we can say right off that this is a bad profession for such a clumsy dope as he. While trying to count money out to a client, the man spills a large jar of glue inexplicably situated without a lid on the counter. The contents land upon his pile of money which is now becoming stuck to just about every part of Buster’s body.

     When a host of bank robbers arrives, Buster struggles to put his hands up as they are adhered to his pockets. The man foils the robbers but others think he has just held up the establishment, so he is chased and ends up at the haunted house. Also driven to this locale are a couple of actors who have been run off the stage for a bad performance. The domicile is not actually phantom-ridden as the criminals see their ruse merely as a way to dissuade police from investigating it. They pull pranks, such as a staircase that becomes a slide, but Buster is ultimately scrappy enough to tackle the obstacle and elude the bank officials and police. Buster meets a whole host of ghouls, including a couple of creepily dressed skeletons who reassemble a man, and he event battles satan.

     When the man realizes the ghosts are merely actors, he borrows one of their outfits and holds up the bank official who is after him. That man, however, knocks our hero out with a blow to the head, and Buster ascends to heaven, then to hell, before awaking.

     I think what made Keaton such a good entertainer is that he acted as writer, director and star. Just as Keaton could not have written or directed another actor into giving the same performance or one that is so effective, so too could no other writer or director have known at this early stage how to write to the man’s strengths to create such a unique outcome. Keaton’s greatest asset was his athleticism and acrobatic skill. No one else could make slipping on a banana peel or sliding down a staircase look so natural despite its exaggeration. Keaton knew what he was capable of and how he could make people laugh, so he wrote his stories and conceived of sets around that. The plot of a Keaton story is much like that of a good Marx Bros. movie: It does not really matter. What will make you laugh are the stunts (and in case of the Marx Bros. the dialogue) that has nothing to do with the plot.

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