The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) takes the “chicken” who, in most horror movies, would be either an early victim or person in distress and puts him in the spotlight…which makes him shake with nerves.
Victims in horror movies scream, faint, bug their eyes out, and have all sorts of extreme reactions to their predicaments, whether warranted or a complete overreaction and waste of time that could be better spent actually running away, strategizing, or defending themselves. Depending on various factors, these reactions can range from frustrating to unintentionally hilarious.
But what if someone is like this in everyday life? A bundle of nerves who reacts the same way talking to a smug bully of a coworker as they do to spending the night in the local “murder house”?
Hold your flashlights and press badges close because it’s time to chicken out as we report live (hopefully…) from the local “murder house” in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken!
When not in the “old Simmons” mansion, the comedy in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken comes from having colorful characters living and working in a small town where everyone knows everyone and has to encounter most everyone on a daily basis.
And yet, despite this familiarity, Luther Heggs (Don Knotts), born and raised in Rachel, Kansas, walks around as if there’s a ghost around every corner.
While he’s far from the town outcast, Luther certainly has his fair share of people who look down on him. Even people who like him can be patronizing at times, like the townspeople in the opening who won’t let Luther hear the end of it after he reports a murder…that turns out to be an accidental bump on the head.
Rather than shrink under the pressure, he inflates his bravado to assert himself…although he still noticeably shakes, stammers and freaks out while doing so.
Luther already goes through life as if he’s in a horror movie, and his attempts to stand his ground, become a star reporter at his small-town newspaper, and make any sort of coherent conversation with Alma Parker (Joan Staley) are hilarious to watch. Even Luther knows he’s messing up every step of the way, but he does his level best to roll with it, no matter how bumpy the road he’s rolling on may be.
After spending a spooky night in the aforementioned “murder and suicide house” and reporting on the inexplicable things he experienced—with some help from his boss, George Beckett (Dick Sargent) and coworker, Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier) translating his traumatized, near-catatonic ramblings—Luther becomes the town hero he would’ve loved to be overnight.
Recognizing his new status gives him a bit more confidence and satisfaction with himself, but he’s still shaking every step of the way. When he has to give a speech at a town luncheon, he’s so terrified that I doubt the town council will ever get his sweat stains off that podium.
But…with lovable Luther bumbling about town and not being a big fan of anything even remotely resembling conflict, how can he encounter anything even remotely resembling horror?
The “ghost” in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken comes in the form of an old local mansion that’s the site of a mysterious alleged murder and suicide that’s coming up on its 20th anniversary, and the mansion’s set to be demolished. 20 years on, the town still whispers about what could’ve transpired that night. As word spreads about the imminent demolition, the whispers become a buzz.
The Simmons mansion already looks austere on the outside. Anyone daring to venture inside is greeted with exactly what you’d expect from a mansion with such a horrific history: cobwebs, strange noises, secret doors, mysterious blood…the whole haunted works. Remove Luther Heggs and insert a scream queen, and you have a scene any haunted house movie would brag about.
It’s no wonder that after just one night in the mansion, Luther would no doubt love to clean the entire experience from his brain. But some memories just can’t be cleaned out.
But with such a clear-cut coward enmeshed in a murder and suicide mystery, how can the horror and comedy mix in a way that’s appealing, rather than irritating?
How They Mix
What adds depth to this “coward meets horror” plotline in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken isn’t just that Luther Heggs (“Mr. Chicken”) has the same nervous demeanor whether he’s watching bloodstained, cobweb-covered organ keys play by themselves or eating chicken noodle soup in one of the most awkward third wheel scenarios ever put to film, but that he doesn’t want to be a coward at all. If Luther were an out-and-out chicken to the point of believing those who put him down or even putting others in danger, he’d be a much different character, and potentially not a very appealing one.
When people put him down, he can come up with a comeback in record time…just don’t expect that comeback to be coherent.
Luther will always do what’s right…even if he has to physically force himself to do so and ends up on the wrong end of a conversation, a lawsuit, or a karate chop he learned by studying karate by mail. Watching his spine try to grow to keep up with the Luther Heggs he wants to be is an interesting story to follow, and, with Don Knotts’ performance, entertaining as all get out. (As in, “get out of that haunted house”!)
Luther’s not a sniveling, selfish coward. He’s just scared. In a small town full of friendly, familiar faces, that’s funny. In a workplace that’s condescending, that’s understandable…and also funny. In a “murder and suicide” mansion that has inanimate objects bleeding before your eyes, that’s completely expected…and also hilarious.
Whether you’re a seasoned ghost hunter or a Luther Heggs when it comes to horror movies, I definitely recommend The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. It has an engaging mystery and story of a man who grows somewhat of a spine by facing his worst nightmares (of which there are many), but if you’re in it for the fun of it, there’s plenty of that to be had. From pratfalls to facial expressions to running gags you’ll never forget, the humor’s so multilayered that anyone of any age can watch it and enjoy it. If you’re already a horror fan, this is a perfect film to show to non-horror fans or kids.
Just be sure you use the facilities before making your visit to Rachel and the old Simmons mansion, or you’ll experience some stains of your own that will never come out…
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