Memory can be a tricky thing; and the earlier the memory, the more it tends to play tricks on you by tweaking, embellishing or being annoyingly selective when you try to massage that certain patch of neurons to paint a picture for your mind's eye. As I've stated before, a lot of my earliest movie memories consist of being dumped off at the old Strand or Rivoli theaters for weekend blocks of films while the folks took a break from my rowdy brood. And one such fleeting memory was a film where a trio of love-triangle'd ghosts, victims of a self-inflicted meat-cleaver massacre, continue to haunt the site of their demise, much to the chagrin of the current family living there.
That's all I could really recall aside from a few bits and pieces about an ancestor who looked just like one of the ghosts, and therefore, often mistaken for being one; but I, being the obsessive nut that I am, was determined to take those fragments and figure out what it was and then revisit it again someday -- because that on screen meat-cleaver massacre was so indelibly etched into my four-year old brain I just KNOW it went a long way in formatting my bent taste in movies. And with the advent of the internet, after some careful massaging, I had myself a title, and, lo and behold, it was the product of legendary schlock-meister, William Castle. (Of COURSE it's a William Castle flick; the axe's in the back should have been a dead giveaway!) Alas, the discovery was bittersweet because the film was never released for home video in any format, and, after years of gray market searches proved fruitless, the film was once more tucked back into memory -- until we fast forward to Sony Pictures announced it would be releasing a William Castle box-set, where my enthusiasm was tempered only by the fact that The Spirit is Willing would not be included. But, the internet has come to my rescue once again as the film is available, serialized, on many YouTube channels, and, best of all, currently streaming on Netflix.
Seems back in 1898, when Ebeneezer Twitchell agreed to marry Felicity Pruitt, the ugly-duckling daughter of a shipping tycoon, he was really more interested in dropping his anchor with the Pruitt's lusty maid, Jenny Weems. Catching them in the act, an enraged Felicity took up a handy cleaver and dispatched the both of them. But while moving the bodies into the cellar, turns out Ebeneezer was till twitching, who took up another piece of cutlery and murdered his wife, in kind, before expiring.
Over the ensuing years, several families have tried to move into the old Twitchell place, but every last one of them has vacated in less than a few days, the victims of eerie nocturnal visits and other strange accidents -- some of them fatal. Enter the Powell family: Ben, Kate and their teenage son, Steve, (Caesar, Miles, Gordon) who rent the house for the summer for some much needed R&R for the over-stressed Ben. Unfortunately, the majority of Ben's stress comes from dealing with his recalcitrant son. And when the unruly and destructive spirits make themselves known and start trashing the place, Steve is the only witness, and of course, being the only witness in a room that's been reduced to rubble, Steve is blamed for all the property damage, including not one, but two, of his Uncle George's prized yachts.
Eventually, with the help of some locals, including several of Jenny's descendants (-- all played by Townsend), the Powells come around to the fact that their property is haunted by a nymphomaniac, a horny old fart and his jealous wife. And to exorcise them out of the house, they decide to give them all exactly what they want -- the perfect partner.
"The First Picture to Face the Biggest Problem of Our Time: The Sex-Life of Ghosts and Kiss-Hungry Girl Ghosts Looking for Lover in Haunted House of Mayhem" screamed the promotional materials for The Spirit is Willing, and though the film sets itself up as a nice farce on the mating habits of ectoplasm it really doesn't do anything with it once the premise is set up, and, instead, basically chucks it for a more conventional take on the generational gap -- in this case, a chasm -- between the Powells and their son.
Based on the Nathaniel Benchley novel, The Visitors, which was kookily illustrated by the king kook himself, Charles Addams, Benchley also had a hand in another filmed farce with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming, and perhaps the strangest made for TV movie ever produced with Sweet Hostage, where an escaped mental patient kidnaps a girl, who, while hiding out, eventually fall in love. However, when comparing the film to the source novel, it looks like scriptwriter Ben Starr tossed most of the plot for a series of repeating gags that repeat and repeat and repeat. And then repeat, and repeat and repeat some more. And though some of those repeating gags work (-- like Caesar and Miles being constantly interrupted while trying to make out), most have run out of gas by the third reel.
The ghostly effects are top-notch for the time, and the amiable cast is more than solid -- solid enough to almost make this mess work. John Astin makes a welcome fourth-quarter appearance as a goofy psychiatrist, but even he can't salvage an ending where the film basically does just that: ends, without really resolving anything. And all of this is doubly sad because with a little more fine-tuning and pruning, they really could have had something truly hilarious, here. As it is, it's a bunch of people shouting, some mixed-up identity buffoonery, and a copious amount of property damage set to a really kickin' Vic Mizzy score.
My faulty memory also had the ghosts re-enacting the massacre on a nightly basis, and one instance where Gordon got mixed up in the procession of blades and revolving doors from the kitchen, but it actually was shown just once, at the beginning -- but that scene always stuck with me and stuck with me good. After that, we're strictly in 13 Ghosts territory, though it is implicitly implied that Steve and Jenny's ghost knocked-boots, which would really open up a can of worms if they were brave enough to take it just a step farther ... Still, if you like this kind of corn straight of the cobb, like I do, and your flesh isn't weak, then The Spirit is Willing is well worth your time.
Other Points of Interest:
Poster campaign at the Archive.
Poster campaign at the Archive.
The Spirit is Willing (1967) William Castle Productions :: Paramount Pictures / P: William Castle / AP: Dona Holloway / D: William Castle / W: Ben Starr, Nathaniel Benchley (Novel) / C: Harold E. Stine / E: Edwin H. Bryant / M: Vic Mizzy / S: Sid Caesar, Vera Miles, Barry Gordon, Jill Townsend, John McGiver, John Astin, Robert Donner, Cass Daley