Directed By: Phil Rosen
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan
Trivia: East Side Kid Donald Haines' last film. Haines enlisted as an aviation cadet for the United States Army Air Forces during this period. Tragically, he was killed in action in 1943
Much like 1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, Spooks Run Wild is a movie in which the great Lugosi plays second fiddle to a comedy team. While the resulting film is leaps and bounds better than the dismal Brooklyn Gorilla, Spooks Run Wild is a product of its day, featuring humor that doesn’t translate well to modern times.
A gang of teens from the inner city (billed as "The East End Kids") are sent to a camp in the middle of the woods, where they’re to spend two weeks under the watchful eye of law student Jeff Dixon (Dave O’Brien) and his fiancé, nurse Linda Mason (Dorothy Short). Their first night there, the teens sneak out, and while strolling through a dark cemetery one of them is shot by the jumpy groundskeeper, who mistook them for a killer that's been terrorizing the area. Looking for help, they drag their injured pal to a rundown mansion, where they meet Nardo (Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant, Luigi (Angelo Rossitto), who recently moved to the area. Nardo tends to their friend’s wounds, but after a short time there, the remaining teens begin to wonder if their host is actually the murderer everyone's looking for. With nowhere to turn for help, the group bands together to look for a way out.
I can’t say I laughed much watching Spooks Run Wild, though I’m betting a 1940’s audience got a kick out of it. The East Side Kids, headed up by Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan and Huntz Hall, are an interesting mix of characters, and they play off one another fairly well. Some of the scenes that take place in the abandoned mansion work to the group’s advantage, with each one trying not to act as scared as they really are (all except Scruno, who’s frightened in nearly every scene. More on him in a moment). Alas, the one-liners, which feature a lot of ‘40s slang, haven’t aged well at all. Even more unfortunate is the character of Scruno, played by Sunshine Sammy Morrison. An African-American, Scruno is the butt of many jokes that, though seemingly innocent at the time, are today cringe-worthy for their racial insensitivity. The first night at camp, after the lights go out, Scruno says “It’s so dark in here, I can’t even see myself”. Things don’t get much better for him at the mansion, where Scruno is consistently scared out of his wits. While exploring a darkened hallway with Huntz Hall’s Gimpy, Scruno refuses to open a door because he's afraid of what might be on the other side. “Ah, you’re yellow!”, Gimpy shouts out. “If I’m yellow”, Scruno replies, “you’ze color blind!”.
Starting out as members of the Dead End Kids in the 1930’s (playing a key role in the classic 1938 Cagney film Angels with Dirty Faces), Gorcey, Jordan and Hall would form the basis of the East End Kids, making some 22 movies for producer Sam Katzman between 1940 and 1945 (including Spooks Run Wild). By 1946, the troupe had changed their name once again, and appeared in over 40 films as "The Bowery Boys" (Jordan would leave after a few pictures, while Gorcey and Hall remained until the bitter end, which came in 1958 with In the Money). I remember my father watching the Bowery Boys when I was a kid, and even though Spooks Run Wild was a hit-and-miss affair, I’d still like to check out a few more of the group’s movies, if for no other reason than to see how their comedy evolved over the years. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain Spooks Run Wild isn’t the pinnacle of their output.