Friday, January 8, 2016
HAUNTED RANCH (1943)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I've never had a great fondness for the ultra-cheapie B-western serials, whether featuring well known cowboy-stars like Rogers and Autry or mostly forgotten characters like "the Range Busters," the trio of horse-opera heroes who star in HAUNTED RANCH. Probably the only ones that interest me much are those that have, or seem to have, relevance to my NUM theory, like the ones about masked heroes like the Durango Kid, or stories in which cowpokes encounter weird societies, like RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL.
There's also a handful of "weird westerns" in which owlhoots pretend to be ghosts. Sometimes these fit the uncanny version of the "phantasmal figuration" trope, but HAUNTED RANCH falls into the naturalistic domain for reasons I find more interesting than the movie.
To summarize as quickly as possible, Dusty, one of the trio of do-gooders, impersonates a murdered man, one of two heirs to a ranch-bequest, in order to learn the secret of a hidden treasure that the murderers are seeking. There's one nice comic moment when Dusty meets-- and takes a shine to-- the other heir: Helen, a young woman who's never met the man Dusty impersonates. Dusty likes Helen so much that he's sorry to find out she's "his" cousin. In the film's only moment of wit, she rushes to mention that the two of them are not technically related, since she was adopted, which is a cute way for the script to show that she reciprocates Dusty's interest. As Dusty investigates the murder, he learns that the ranch that he and Helen have inherited seems to be haunted, though the only character who truly believes this is Snowflake, the comic-relief "scared darkie" cook. Eventually Dusty and his partners-- one of whom carries around a ventriloquist's dummy for more comedy relief-- find out that the murdering treasure-hunters are behind the haunting. There's a mildly rousing climactic fight in which the good guys trounce the bad guys, one of whom is the venerable Glenn Strange, best known for playing Universal's Frankenstein Monster and "Sam the Bartender" on GUNSMOKE.
The reason I find the "haunting hoax" to be naturalistic is akin to my verdict on the 1942 British war-comedy KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN: because the hoax is so simple that only a child, or child-like person, would fall for it. The owlhoots' ghostly imposture consists of concealing themselves in the basement of the ranch-house and projecting their voices, or accordion-music, to give Snowflake the heebie-jeebies. True, these effects disconcert a few of the white characters. But their reactions are so mild next to Snowflake's comic conniptions that RANCH's "darkie humor" seems much worse than the average film in this subgenre.
In most cases the audience viewing a film that offers a "phantasmal figuration" trope usually strongly suspects that the phantasm involved-- be it the Baskerville Hound or the Spooky Space Kook-- is not going to be a bonafide supernatural presence. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have to put some effort into coming up with some sort of credible phantom-- not to convince the audience of its reality, but to convince the audience that one or more fictional characters might believe it's a real gh-gh-gh-ghost! Only through the medium of such characters can audience-members experience the feeling of the uncanny, assuming any audience-members are open to it.
But when characters fall for an extraordinarily simple deception-- like Snowflake, or like the hero of KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN-- or, for that matter, when they manage to scare themselves, like Laurel and Hardy in their short THE LIVE GHOST-- I don't think that channels any sort of eerie vibe. The audience remains removed from the spectacle of the goof who puts easy credence in ghosts, magic swords, or similar chimerae, because it's evident he has no discriminatory powers.
I might find the uncanny trope in even the most threadbare "phony ghosts" possible, like the various bedsheet-wearing goons who appear in certain Three Stooges shorts, because at least there's some buildup of an eerie atmosphere. But there's nothing uncanny in this ordinary Monogram oater.