The king of the gimmick shocker, B-movie mogul William Castle, once again tried his hand at macabre comedy, as he did several years earlier for Hammer with THE OLD DARK HOUSE. The first of a string of films he did for Paramount Pictures, THE SPIRIT IS WILLING is yet another haunted house farce, this time centering on a trio of naughty ghosts, with mixed results (Castle himself described the end product as “disappointing” in his autobiography). Olive Films now rescues yet another Paramount title from obscurity with this welcomed Blu-Ray release (with the same Hi-Def transfer also being made available on standard DVD).
In 1898 New England, a wealthy sea lover (Nestor Paiva, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) propositions ambitious captain Ebenezer (Robert Donner) to wed his rather homely spinster daughter Felicity (Cass Daley) in exchange for the inheritance of his collection of vessels. Instead, Ebenezer chases the mansion's lovely young maid Priscilla (Jill Townsend, SITTING TARGET) causing haggy Felicity to carve a meat cleaver in his back and also do in his young lover (Felicity too is murdered by her dying male victim). The trio immediately linger on in the afterlife as ghosts; Ebenezer and Priscilla as lovers and the third wheel Felicity still desperate for a husband.
Decades later, struggling magazine editor Ben Powell (Sid Caesar), his wife Kate (Vera Miles, PSYCHO) and their 15-year-old-boy Steve (Barry Gordon) drive from New York to stay in the same mansion where the murders occurred (sight unseen, the Powells were able to rent the place at a bargain rate). The ghostly Ebenezer, Priscilla and Felicity are immediately unleashed from the basement as the family arrives to the house, and with all the havoc and wreckage they cause, poor Steve receives the blame, himself knowing that the apparitions are totally responsible. Ben and Kate view their son as a rebellious prankster, while he really just wants to be a kid, get a job, have a car and convince his parents that ghosts do exist. Kate’s Uncle George (John McGiver), a bathroom toilet tycoon, tries to appease the boy by taking him on his yachy, but he even gets blamed for sinking the ship (again, the fault of those pesty ghosts). Steve asks his folks to throw him a masquerade party for his 16th birthday, which will helpfully let him prove to them the existence of the trouble-making Felicity and the other apparitions he's had numerous encounters with.
A satirical take on Nathaniel Benchley book, The Visitors, THE SPIRIT IS WILLING is a typically 1960s madcap movie affair, sort of a mix between a silly AIP comedy and a live-action Disney film. But the difference here is that Castle’s outwardly innocent-looking slap-happy endeavor has more of an edge to it, surprisingly embodying the adolescent Steve bedding an “older” woman (Townsend, playing one of three roles) on his 16th birthday, his ordering of a beer at neighborhood bar, and a bit of homophobia for comic effect — Steve’s uncle George fears his nephew’s behavior (the buying of women’s products and his daisy tossing), so he flies in a shrink (a great bit part by John Astin) to examine him. As a film which boasted its facing of “the sex life of ghosts”, it’s made all the all more light by Vic Mizzy’s (composer of “The Addams Family” TV theme) overbearing score, which accents everything light, fluffy and jovial throughout, despite whatever's happening on up on the screen.
When put into consideration the time period when it was made, as well as being able to appreciate the familiar cast, THE SPIRIT IS WILLING can be quite enjoyable, especially with the comic gem, Sid Caesar, as the star. His Ben Powell is a worry wart with a chronic bad back, trying to raise his son as best he can while keeping his marriage fresh (there’s a subplot where his wife falsely believes he’s having an affair with a sexy librarian, the third character played by Jill Townsend). Caesar also has some good comic chemistry with Gordon (a talented child star/recording artist from an early age who is still a very busy TV actor), and their scenes together instigate some of the film’s best laughs (Caesar’s delayed anger at his son’s almost falling out of a window is bound to induce a few chuckles). The supporting cast includes such veteran names as “Eric Von Zipper” himself Harvey Lembeck (rather wasted as Uncle George’s first mate on his yacht), Mary Wickes, Doodles Weaver and Jesse White. William Castle himself (in a sort of Hitchcock moment) has a silent cameo, that of a thumb-sucking patient in therapist John Astin’s office.
Never before on home video until now, Olive Films presents THE SPIRIT IS WILLING on Blu-Ray in yet another great rendering of a rare Paramount vault title. In full 1080p resolution, the film has been remastered in High Definition, carrying a 1.78:1 widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio. The original Technicolor is significantly vibrant here, and detail is sharp throughout, despite a number of special optical effects which cause film dirt and debris to be more prominent on screen. Otherwise, the original materials are in excellent shape and the image is clean overall, with grain never being excessive. The mono English track is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio Mono 1.0, and sounds perfectly acceptable. There are no extras on the disc, but eight chapter stops are provided. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS