Marcel Varnel, 1941
Starring: Will Hay, Claude Hulbert, Felix Aylmer, Charles Hawtrey
William Lamb, a bumbling teacher, is assigned to an English school for boys that has recently transferred to an isolated Scottish castle thanks to the destruction caused by the war. Forced to become a science lecturer, Lamb is out of his element and is tormented by his precocious class. There also seems to be a ghost at work in the castle — the headmaster complains of noises that keep him awake at night and later bagpipes mysteriously sound just before someone is found dead. Lamb soon realizes that he is next on the list of intended victims and must get to the bottom of the ghostly mystery in order to live out the school term.
The Ghost of St. Michael’s might not be the greatest British film made during WWII, but this Ealing Studios comic thriller is a solid example of genre filmmaking made during the war years. Make no mistake — this isn’t strictly a horror film — but is a mashup of comedy, mystery, and horror with plenty of pleasant genre tropes thrown into the mix. The spooky old castle is allegedly home to a bagpipe-playing ghost, which is announced by the solemn, superstitious Scottish caretaker. This small but memorable was played by John Laurie, sort of the like a British version of John Carradine who pops up in many genre films throughout the period.
Lamb mentions that thirteen is his lucky number and he is (in an ominous but also hilarious scene) almost killed by a schoolboy prank. The housekeeper mentions that she needs rat poison, which Lamb is required to mix up, as he is allegedly a scientist — something that is destined to go horribly wrong. There are plenty of mysterious noises in the castle at night and Lamb finds the students celebrating the “feast of Halloween” which they describe as an old Scottish custom. Not being supernatural themselves, they’re basically using this as an excuse to steal food and drink (including whiskey) from the kitchens, in order to party in their large dormitory room.
In terms of the film’s horror themes, the Scottish setting is particularly notable, as it seems to be an unconscious source of folk horror and supernatural for British audiences and filmmakers alike. The Isle of Skye introduced here is a fictional Scotland similar to the one found in I Know Where I’m Going (1945) — Powell and Pressburger’s classic yet quirky romance that revolves around a Scottish curse — and even films like Devil Girl from Mars (1954) and the recent Under the Skin (2013) are set in the Scottish moors, a locale that all the characters seem to know is inherently creepy (particularly in British films of the ‘40s and ‘50s).
These supernatural undertones — as opposed to overt elements — were the general rule in the ‘40s. With the exception of The Uninvited (1944), a lone American horror film that focused on a real ghost, most genre films from this period were a mix of mystery and comedy, with simply a dash of supernatural horror (or science fiction): for example old dark house movies like The Cat and the Canary (1939) always had human perpetrators, though they generally relied on the suggestion of the the supernatural for the first half of the film. Unstable characters, particularly vulnerable, hysteria women, were especially susceptible to hints of otherworldly evil.
There are also numerous mystery tropes in The Ghost of St. Michael’s. One of the students — Charles Hawtrey, whose character becomes something of a sidekick for Lamb and is of course the most annoying person in the film — reads crime fiction and the name of the book he’s currently reading, My Aunt Lies Bleeding, is both the running gag through the film and the source of his theories about the headmaster’s death. But most of the dark themes are played for comic results, such as an effective concluding moment when Lamb and two associates are almost crushed to death in a secret chamber with collapsing walls.
The real reason to see the film is comedian Will Hay, who is delightful as a clueless, bumbling teacher whose students wind up liking him because he’s such a buffoon. In a film that’s just over 60 minutes he wind up getting drunk with them — instead of breaking up their Halloween party, he joins in and requisitions their stolen whiskey — and getting high on laughing gas, because he’s confused about the nature of some of the chemicals in the science lab. He worked regularly with director Marcel Varnel (Chandu the Magician, The Loves of Madame Dubarry, King Arthur Was a Gentleman) and the famed director Basil Dearden served as their associate producer. In Robert Shall’s British Film Directors: A Critical Guide, he writes, “The most memorable of all Varnel’s work was done with Will Hay. His cynical, bumbling persona, usually in the form of some disreputable authority figure (teacher, policeman, stationmaster), has survived changes in audience tastes better than the other comics Varnel worked with” (207).
This boys’ only party is interrupted by one female character — SPOILERS ahead — the housekeeper who winds up being a Nazi agent in disguise and who is responsible for all the murders and misdeeds. This was a relentlessly popular trope during the war, even in genre films like a sequel to The Invisible Man, Invisible Agent (1942), and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942). Will Hay himself even appeared in another anti-Nazi film alongside actor Charles Hawtrey, The Goose Steps Out (1942), where Hay’s character happens to be identical to a captured Nazi spy.
The Ghost of St. Michael’s isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but if you enjoy comedy-horror-mystery mashups, or enjoy humor that revolves around bumbling comic character, then this fast-paced romp is well worth watching. There aren’t really any great prints available, but you can find some cheap US DVD options or the UK DVD from Optimum.