Released 25 April 1941, Invisible Ghost was the first of Béla Lugosi’s nine films with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Despite Monogram’s lack of financial resources, however, they produced a lot of solid films, managed to lure a lot of stars (both current and former) from other studios, and launched a number of new stars. They also won an Academy for Best Short Subject (Two Reeler) in 1947, and were nominated for a number of other Academy Awards.
Lugosi went to work for them when his career was in the doldrums, a consequence of the restrictive Hays Code coupled with a British ban on horror films.
Charles Kessler (Lugosi) seems for all intents and purposes a very nice, respectable man, except for one big flaw—he went half-mad after his wife left him for his best friend a few years ago. She and her lover are believed to have died in a terrible car accident, and now every year on the Kesslers’ wedding anniversary, Mr. Kessler pretends she’s alive. The butler Evans (Clarence Muse) sets the table for two, and Mr. Kessler talks to this invisible presence.
Mr. Kessler’s daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young, older sister of Loretta Young) is aghast when her serious beau Ralph Dickson (John McGuire) visits on this very evening and witnesses the bizarre spectacle. In embarrassment, she draws him aside and explains what’s going on.
Ralph was also secretly seeing the Kesslers’ maid Cecile Mannix (Terry Walker), but broke it off with her because he fell in love with Virginia. Now Cecile won’t accept the fact that it’s over and that Ralph’s heart is no longer hers. After they quarrel that night, Ralph drives off and Cecile retreats to her room.
We then learn Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) is alive, albeit not very well, and living in the cellar, where the gardener (not her lover) takes care of her. She’s terrified to come home, believing her husband will kill her, and anybody else as well. However, she regularly prowls through the grounds at night to appear below Mr. Kessler’s window.
And when he sees her, he goes into a trance and indeed kills someone.
That night, Mr. Kessler strangles Cecile with his overcoat (to avoid fingerprints). Evans discovers her corpse in the morning, and Ralph is accused of the crime. Though he heartily pleads his innocence, it seems an open and shut case of guilt due to the lovers’ quarrel Evans overheard. Ralph gets the death penalty.
Shortly afterwards, a dead ringer for Ralph visits and becomes a longterm houseguest—his twin brother Paul (also John McGuire). Paul is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened. While he believes Ralph was innocent on account of their being brothers, he also is highly suspicious of how several other servants in the household were murdered before that.
The next victim is the gardener, who’s also found by Evans. This time, Evans is accused of the crime, despite having no motive or suspicious behaviour. Mr. Kessler and Virginia also fully stand behind his innocence and good moral character.
Paul is also still determined to get to the bottom of all these mysterious murders, and some unexpected twists and turns may just expose what’s really been going on.
Invisible Ghost was very positively reviewed by The Los Angeles Times, which called it “head and shoulders above the average horror picture” and praised it for evoking a creepy mood more through psychological and psychopathic situations instead of directly showing the horror. They also loved Lugosi’s acting.
Another wonderful aspect of this film is the character of Evans. Clarence Muse always imbued his characters with such fully-realised humanity, dignity, and intelligence, whether they were servants or leading roles. Evans is a very important secondary character, and is never once cast as a stereotype or used for cheap laughs. This was quite refreshingly unusual for the era.