I'm so glad I saw this. I've said some harsh things in the past about Abbott and Costello, but this film is damn good.
I'd love to be able to discuss this without mentioning any of the plot developments at all, but unfortunately it's going to be impossible not to bring up the big one. Admittedly it comes pretty early on and I don't know if even the film's contemporary pre-publicity tried to keep it secret, but this isn't 1946 any more. You can just buy the DVD and watch it blind. Thus if there's any chance you might chase this down, stop reading now. Take my word for it. It's a good 'un. You can bookmark this review for after you've watched it, but for now just trust me.
I'm not kidding. Here be spoilers. It's nothing you can't see even on the DVD sleeve, but I'm doing this for your own good.
Okay, that'll do. Now it's just you, me and some folks who presumably have no intention of ever seeing the film. Weirdos. Anyway, the key to it is the story. It's strong, it has plenty of twists and more than once it surprised me.
We begin in 1780 during the American War of Independence. Abbott is a butler who's in love with a serving maid, but she's not interested in him because she's planning to run away with Costello. That's good already. Abbott hates Costello and before long will have done something fairly evil to him, even if it only works because he's an idiot. Moreover all this takes place against a historical backdrop of eye-popping 18th century costumes and traitors hoping to sell out America to the British. It's still a comedy and a good one, yes, but things still get ugly.
Big twist coming. Last chance to stop reading.
Okay. Costello and another major character get shot in the back, thrown down a well and left there to rot as traitors, with the leader of the soldiers who killed them going so far as to curse them to haunt the estate until the crack of doom. No, this isn't a dream. They're really dead. In fact they're ghosts, cursed like the man said unless and until they can lay their hands on proof that they were patriots after all. They can't even walk out beyond the gate.
Flash forward 166 years and it's the present day, with these two ghosts still haunting the estate. Suddenly some new folks turn up, one of whom is the great great great great grandson of the original Abbott. Guess who he's played by? Guess how Costello reacts to this?
At this point we're only a third of the way into the film, by the way. What's more, the plot doesn't let up. That much would have been more than enough for most Abbott and Costello films, but here each plot development is just a stepping stone towards the next one. It never drifts off into mere routines. All the characters have clear goals and keep moving towards them. You have culture clash comedy with the ghosts not being used to modern technology, which admittedly isn't exactly a surprise but was still lively enough to keep me laughing anyway. The gag with the radio is predictable and furthermore requires the ghosts to forget that they're ghosts, but I loved the sign saying "DANGER: HIGH VOLTAGE."
Abbott and Costello are both great, incidentally. I don't always say that, do I? Even before his death, Costello is always in strong situations that bring alive his character. For example, I'd never seen him with a girlfriend before. That was surprisingly amusing. Their problem is that she's only a servant and he's a penniless tinker, so they can't elope as he'd been promising. However this girl isn't the one with whom he gets killed and ghostified, which is another good and slightly surprising thing. Because of all this, Costello's funny rather than annoying. In fact, I'd go further than that. He's genuinely good in the role, putting all his energy and personality to work in the service of the movie. He even gets away with that unconvincing hand gesture of his on "odds bodkins."
Meanwhile Abbott is playing what he'd later describe as his favourite film role, since for once it's his character taking the lumps. I liked him too.
Ironically though in 1946 the pair weren't talking to each other, so uniquely in neither of that year's films do they go around as a double act. The other's Little Giant. In fact because of the supernatural plot element, in only one scene here are they alive and talking to each other. It sounds as if Costello was a nightmare to work with here, forcing reshoots by taking home the props and at one point walking off the film for two weeks because he wanted to swap roles with Abbott. One day he just came back and returned to work. He never apologised for or even explained this behaviour.
Production-wise, it's well up to the team's usual standards. It's their first film with Charles Barton, who's apparently regarded as their best director. It was also their most expensive up to that time, thanks to all the ghostly special effects. Those are still impressive today, although some of the matting isn't as clean as it might be. Some of it's similar to what you'll have seen in Universal's Invisible Man films, but other visual gags are entirely new. One or two are even surprising for a modern audience.
I thought it was clever to make Abbott a psychiatrist, which justified the usual "I'm going mad" denial. Realistically incredulous characters can get tiresome in films like this, but that side of things is handled deftly.
There's nothing I don't like about this film, except maybe the title. It's funny. It looks great, it's clever and it has a kick-arse story. Unlike quite a few of their other films it never violates its own internal reality, although admittedly you'd have to go a long way to go too far for a story of havoc-wreaking ghosts. This is easily the duo's best film I've seen, beating even Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. I don't have plans for buying more of their DVDs, but I'm delighted I bought this one.