Friday, April 5, 2019

Redux Reviews :: A Case Study In the Sex Lives of Ghosts! Well, Sort Of, But Not Really in William Castle's The Spirit is Willing (1967)

Seems back in the year 1898, when Ebeneezer Twitchell (Donner) agreed to marry Felicity Pruitt (Daley), the ugly-duckling daughter of a shipping tycoon, he was really more interested in *ahem* ‘dropping his anchor’ with the Pruitt's lusty maid, Jenny Weems (Townsend). Catching them together at half mast -- if you know what I mean, and I think you do, an enraged Felicity took up a handy meat-cleaver and dispatched the both of them rather gruesomely. But while she moved the bodies into the cellar, turns out Ebeneezer Twitchell was still twitching, who took up another piece of cutlery and got his revenge, murdering his wife, too, before expiring.

Now, over the ensuing years since this brutal massacre occurred, 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 incidents and accidents -- some of them fatal. (All recapped in a nifty animated opening credit sequence). Enter the Powell family: father Ben, mother Kate, and their teenage son, Steve (Caesar, Miles, Gordon), who unwittingly rented this haunted house for the summer for some much needed R ‘n’ 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 again and again, Steve is the only witness and, of course, being the only witness in a room that's been reduced to rubble, the boy winds up blamed for all the property damage, including not one, but two, of his Uncle George's (McGiver) 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 their property is haunted by a nymphomaniac, a horny old fart, and his jealous wife. And to exorcise them out of their home and lives, they decide to give them all exactly what they want -- the perfect sex partner...

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 in my old hometown 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 and distress of the current family living there.

But that's all I could really recall aside from a few bits and pieces about an ancestor who looked just like one of the haunting spirits -- in this case, one of those “nuts,” and therefore, often mistaken for being one of the ghosts. However, being the obsessive nut that I am, Yours Truly was determined to not only take those few scattered fragments and figure out what the film was, but then, hopefully, revisit it again -- because that on screen meat-cleaver massacre was so indelibly etched into my young and impressionable brain I just KNOW it went a long way in formatting my morbid taste in movies.

And with the advent of the internet, after some careful massaging, I had myself a title: The Spirit is Willing (1967); and lo and behold, it was the product of legendary schlockmeister, William Castle. (Of COURSE it's a William Castle flick; the axes in the back should have been a dead giveaway!) Alas, this discovery was bittersweet because further digging showed the film was never released on 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 about a decade ago when Sony Pictures announced it would be releasing a William Castle boxset, where my enthusiasm for this development was tempered only by the fact The Spirit is Willing would not be included.

And why would it? As all the films included were from the producer-director-promoter-huckster’s years at Columbia, and Castle had made the jump to Paramount by the time he made The Spirit is Willing. Fortunately, the internet came to my rescue once again as the film finally started popping up on YouTube, a broadcast TV rip, serialized in several sizeable chunks; and then, miracle of miracles, it also wound up streaming on Netflix in its original aspect ratio. And as of 2012, it was available as a MOD-DVD and a bare-bones release from Olive Films, which is currently shelved right next to that Castle boxset and a DVD of House on Haunted Hill (1958) in my basement, which Castle had done for Allied Artists.

"The First Picture to Face the Biggest Problem of Our Time: The Sex-Life of Ghosts," with "Kiss-Hungry Girl Ghosts Looking for a Lover in Haunted House of Mayhem" screamed the promotional materials for The Spirit is Willing -- a rare, latter day non-gimmick picture for Castle. And though the film sets itself up as a nice farce on the mating habits of ectoplasm it really doesn't do anything with this once the premise has been set up. And instead, basically chucks this notion 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, the author also had a hand in another filmed farce with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966), and perhaps the strangest made for TV movie ever produced with Sweet Hostage (1975), where an escaped mental patient kidnaps a girl, who then, while hiding out, eventually fall in love. Benchley’s father was Robert Benchley, a noted syndicated humorist and character actor -- The Major and the Minor (1942), Week-End at the Waldorf (1945). And Benchley’s own son, Peter Benchley, would carve out his own literary niche and movie history when he penned the novel, Jaws.

Circling back to The Visitors, when comparing the adapted film to the source novel, it looks like scriptwriter, Ben Starr, tossed most of the macabre 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 some whoopie), most have run out of gas by the third reel. 

Meantime, the ghostly effects are top-notch for the time of production, and the amiable cast is more than solid -- solid enough to almost make this mess work. I mean, Sid Caesar is always a treat, and Vera Miles shows some fine comedic chops. And John Astin makes a welcome fourth-quarter appearance as a goofy psychiatrist, Dr. Friedman, but even he can't salvage an ending where the film basically does just that: ends, without really resolving anything.

Yeah, as one watches The Spirit is Willing you easily get a sense Castle wasn’t really all that into it. The whole thing seems rushed, the script is a flatline, and the yuks barely perfunctory. To be fair, the man was also knee-deep in the tumultuous pre-production of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) at the time, too, and concurrently engaged in a Holy War with Paramount chief, Robert Evans, over the rights to Ira Levin’s novel -- of which Castle owned, and who wanted to direct the later picture but Evans ultimately wouldn’t let him and gave it to Roman Polanski instead.

And all of this is doubly sad because with a little more fine-tuning and pruning, they could have had something truly hilarious here with all the pieces present. As it is, these pieces just don’t fit together all that well, making The Spirit is Willing nothing but a bunch of people shouting at each other, some mixed-up identity buffoonery, and a copious amount of property damage set to a really kickin' Vic Mizzy score. And that’s about it.

My faulty memory also had the ghosts re-enacting the ghoulish massacre on a nightly basis, and one instance where Barry Gordon’s character got mixed up in the procession of blades, bodies, and revolving doors from the kitchen to the dining room, but it actually was shown just the once, at the very beginning -- but, dammit, that scene always stuck with me and stuck with me good. After that, we're strictly in 13 Ghosts (1960) without the gimmick territory, though it is implicitly implied young Steve and Jenny's ghost knocked-boots, which would’ve really opened up a can of worms if they were brave enough to take it just a step farther. Still, if you dig this kind of corniness, straight off the cob, like I do, and your flesh isn't weak, then The Spirit is Willing is worth at least one spin.

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,

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