The Ghost Breakers (1940) is arguably the first zombie-comedy (zom-com).
Zombie comedies may have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since ‘Shaun of the Dead‘, but Ghost Breakers is pretty much the granddad of the genre.
The film itself has it genesis in theater, and the screenplay was adapted from the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard.
Horror-comedy was gaining in popularity in Hollywood during the 1940s, and The Ghost Breakers is played for laughs and raw-horror in equal measure. Bob Hope is used as the conduit for the gags, while the scares are provided in a classical horror style, by a zombie played by Noble Johnson.
In many ways, The Ghost Breakers pretty much set the blueprint for the many horror-comedies that followed in the 1940s, and Bob Hope was one of the first movie characters in this genre that spends their time quipping one-liners, while simultaneously being gripped by terror in the movie.
The formula is basically as follows: old-school horror creaks and noises provide the tension and the build-up, then something emerges from the darkness, the girl screams, Bob Hope cracks jokes, they both fight or flee their way to the next scene.
We have simplified it horribly, but it works and there are some genuinely unnerving scenes in The Ghost Breakers that we wouldn’t want you to dismiss and miss out on just because of the ‘comedy’ label.
BackgroundBob Hope and Paulette Goddard are the main stars in The Ghost Breakers, and Paramount released the film as a kind of follow-up to “The Cat and the Canary” (1939) which was released in the previous year and also starred Hope and Goddard.
“The Cat and the Canary” (1939) was a successful horror-comedy in its own right, so Paramount didn’t stray too far from the initial formula that brought them success – they just dialed everything up to 11 for The Ghost Breakers which featured more gags and more scares. With less jokes, in some ways it is the “The Cat and the Canary” that remains the more creepy of the two films when stacked back-to-back, however, The Ghost Breakers does have many moments of horror that have mostly stood the test of time…..mostly.
The PlotBob Hope plays Larry Lawrence, a radio broadcaster that reveals a bit too much about the workings of a local gang and becomes a target of their revenge. The film opens on a stormy night, when Bob Hope’s character oversteps the mark during his broadcast and is summoned to a hotel to meet the local crime boss who wants to teach him a lesson.
It is a this point that Larry Lawrence meets Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard). Mary is staying in the same hotel and learns that she has just inherited an island called ‘Black Island’ which is a small, swamp-filled island off Cuba.
Mary decides to check out her inheritance and sets off to Cuba, but finds Larry stashed in the trunk of her car after he flees the hotel believing that he has just killed a mob gunman.
When they both reach ‘Black Island’ the action really kicks up a gear. Mary receives death threats and is warned off from taking over the castle that is the focal point of the island, and this acts as the catalyst for Larry and Mary fall into a sequence of death threats, tight situations and scares, as they try to unravel what is supernatural and what is actually real.
ConclusionThe plot is secondary to the gags and scares in The Ghost Breakers – in fact the plot seems to swerve around wildly to create situations for specific Bob Hope jokes, but it doesn’t really detract from the pacing and rhythm of the film. Don;t forget, you are signing up for a comedy here.
The zombie in the film is genuinely creepy and is acted out without any humor at all – this is a zombie that exists to provide the horror, and the make up and and sinister way it appears in shots is convincing enough for us. This is a film that was definitely made to scare the audience, but it is wrapped in warmth and doesn’t want to leave viewers cold, so every genuine scare is quickly chased down by a laugh
The Ghost Breakers influence and popularity ensured that it had longevity – it was subsequently made into a radio show (that also featured Bob Hope reprising his role as Larry Lawrence), and in 1953 the film was remade as Scared Stiff (1953) and starred Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (probably the bar tab was the scariest thing from that remake). Walt Disney even drew inspiration from The Ghost Breakers, he stated that the film (along with ‘The Cat and the Canary’) provided him with inspiration, atmosphere, and aesthetics that he used to create his Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney Land.
This film has mostly aged well….we say that, but you’ll still wince at many of the jokes and at much of the outdated attitudes of the time – Bob Hope utters lines like “You look like a black out in a blackout,” to his black butler during a power-cut; but anyone interested in ticking off all zombie-films on their ‘zombie bucket list’ will still find much to like here, plus any completist will need to say that they have at least seen the first ever ‘zom-com’.
Watch ‘The Ghost Breakers’ below:
|Buy the film at Amazon.com|
|Buy the film at Amazon.co.uk|