The Haunted House

Film Review by Dean Duncan Feb 17, 2015

The bank and the haunted house and Joe Roberts’ schemes never really come together, or even make any particular sense. For all of the accomplishments of Keaton’s first film shorts, these are still early days. You think that maybe they’ve taken a small step back, or are still finding their way. On the other hand, so great is the confidence and imagination on display, you also wonder if these incoherencies might not have been intentional, or at least that they may not have worried anyone overly. Because, plausibility aside, by now the comic invention in these films is coming in floods, leaving plot as secondary or even perfunctory. When this happens, here or just generally, the gags come to the fore, leaving us with a kind of abstraction, pure mechanics, pure movement, and pure comedy.

Everything comes really fast in this one. Sometimes the jokes are sequenced or compounded, and sometimes they just burst in the air. The part in the bank with the cash and the glue is agonizingly extended. Laurel and Hardy would develop this to absurd/ist lengths, but these shorts remind us that Buster got there first. He was awfully attuned to how the objects around us can seem to develop a kind of willful malevolence. As maddening as it all is, you have to admire how Keaton and his collaborators escalate things as they move toward this film’s conclusion. Everyone, whether culpable or completely bystanding, gets pulled in; the potential metaphors (a lie, or the love of money, or viral infinities) positively multiply. How many ways can things go wrong?

It is obligatory and eventually quite boring to key on Keaton’s stone-face thing. When you look closely, though, it really is a remarkable strategy. It’s not just the face, but the whole disposition. Is this resignation, stoicism, patience, heroism? Very rich, the more for the lack of straining intentionality. Originators properly take precedence, and longevity adds to our admiration. But when it comes to his core films, or the nature and extent of his contributions, Keaton is as great as Chaplin.

It’s nice to take note of and appreciate the little things in these movies, or in any film that one enjoys. It’s the introduction of the opera elements that really get things going here. They get to the house and while we’re not sure what it all actually means, enormous fun is had with the stairs and the sheets and period costumes and every kind of proliferation and permutation you can imagine. The devil guy is especially well utilized, thought the ghosts and the skeletons and that crazy bat are pretty darn good too. Keaton’s body is an exquisite instrument, but the mind on view here is even more beautiful. We get a great topper gag at the end with the angel dress and the stairway to heaven. No points for guessing what is going to happen, and no need to accuse anyone of being predictable. Sublimely inevitable, more like.