Synopsis: A timid typesetter hasn’t a ghost of a chance of becoming a reporter – until he decides to solve a murder mystery and ends up spending a fright-filled night in a haunted house.
Stars: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Skip Homeier, Dick Sargent, Reta Shaw, Lurene Tuttle, Philip Ober
Director: Alan Rafkin
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Growing up, from an early age, I can remember The Andy Griffith Show being on constantly in the background. Both my parents had been kids when it originally aired, and it brought them the warm nostalgia that led their generation to create Nick at Nite, beaming reruns out to the early adopters of cable television. As a second-generation consumer of the show, the homespun lessons and charm didn’t go unappreciated. Still, at the time, it was a roadblock to cartoons or more “serious” shows like The Incredible Hulk and The Six-Million Dollar Man. I do know that I learned to whistle by way of its famous theme song.
The absolute breakout star of that lauded series was Don Knotts, and after winning five Primetime Emmy Awards for his role as lovable Deputy Barney Fife, he left the series for greener pastures in 1966. By greener, I meant a higher-paying career in the movies. After the success of 1964’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Knotts was encouraged to try on the role of leading man, and his first project after departing the safety of his long-tenured job was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. This film, drafted by two writers from The Andy Griffith Show by request of Knotts himself, was tailor-made for the actor, playing to his strengths and expanding on the charisma that had so endeared him to audiences until that point.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is one movie that sticks out like a beacon in my brain, as it was frequently rebroadcasted during my childhood. Revisiting it recently reminded me how effortlessly watchable it is, maintaining a light-hearted spring in its step throughout. It may suggest scares in its title, and true, there is a mystery to uncover, but it’s of the Scooby-Doo variety and akin to a big-screen adventure of Barney Fife had he moved out of Mayberry and set up shop in a new town.
Knotts plays Luther Heggs from Rachel, Kansas, who dreams of becoming a reporter for the Rachel Courier Express. Toiling away as a typesetter, he’s ignored by editor George Beckett (Dick Sargent, aka Darren #2 on Bewitched) and teased by star reporter Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier). Ollie also happens to be dating Alma Parker (Joan Staley), a beauty that the nervous Luther has long pined for. Luther gets an opportunity to pen a big-time story when a puff piece he writes on an infamous mansion, the site of a murder-suicide years before, becomes the talk of the town.
When his editor assigns him to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house on the anniversary of the tragic event and then report back on his spooky stay, Luther takes it as a sign that he might finally get the job of his dreams…and perhaps the girl (Alma) of them too. When the night arrives, the creepy house reveals several secrets that send the town into a tizzy, making Luther a local hero but the target of its owner, who is now unable to sell the house because of its possessed state. Can Luther stop his knees shaking long enough to prove in a court of law that the house is haunted? And is it haunted, or is something else mysterious at play?
There is something soothing about watching movies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Filmed on the backlot of Universal Studios in Hollywood, you’ll be able to spot several locations that have shown up in many movies over the years. You’ll also pick out the faces of familiar supporting players from film and TV, and I liked knowing that they all drove in every morning, parked their cars, ate lunch together, and made this spirited film. It’s nothing mind-blowing in terms of story, effects, acting, or directing (though I will say the oft-repeated music cues burrow into your brain), but what shows is professionalism at its most efficient. Knotts is a riot and could have likely acted in the film alone, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken would have been nearly as entertaining. The ensemble, especially a host of old ladies playing members of Luther’s boarding house or busybodies, is often a hoot.
I’ve offered several films so far this season that might be too much to handle for those who don’t find horror their bag. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is that horror-lite selection you can choose if you want to say you watched a horror movie this year without giving yourself a nightmare while you do it. I think you’ll find this one as entertaining as I did.