After spending the better part of the ’60s on The Andy Griffith Show – and winning five Emmys for his sensational supporting work as the bumbling deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts was lured by Universal into an exclusive feature film contract. His first effort for the studio was this lightweight horror comedy centering on nervous typesetter named Luther Heggs and a local legend about the ghosts that haunt the sinister Simmon’s house. Tailored to his specific talents, it was a project perfectly suited for Knotts. After all, no one at the time did physical anxiety the way this mannerism master did. He could make an audience antsy just by saying ‘Hello’. Here, Heggs was even jumpier than Mayberry’s less than finest. With a script created specifically by Griffith scribes James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, and solid direction from small screen journeyman Alan Rafkin (responsible for episodes of everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched) what started out as a standard star vehicle quickly became a family film classic.
At first glance, this all does look like your typical Knotts material – fidgety town joke with a vivid imagination and a reputation for abusing same, gorgeous gal who won’t give our hero the time of day, overbearing bully who finds Luther offensive as a co-worker and a human being, and an ordinary cinematic mystery involving a haunting, an unsolved crime from the past, and the requisite red herrings strewn throughout the sensational supporting cast. While most fans focus on the sensational – and somewhat scary – haunted house set pieces (the blood-riddled pipe organ, the secret stairwell, the portrait with a pair of gardening sheers jammed in its throat) it’s actually the heart that confirms The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s consideration as a masterwork. Knotts is such a well meaning mensch, the kind of instantly likeable sad sack that we hope will eventually succeed, that we can’t help but empathize with his plight. The fetching Alma seems to care for our coward, but with the dishonorable Ollie around to interfere with their budding attraction, we wind up with a sensational subplot of love unrequited to go along with all the macabre-based merriment.
As witty as it is wise, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken boasts another element that many post-modern movies can’t even begin to find, and that’s a combination of slapstick and character-based comedy. Most current films try to milk laughs out of ludicrous situations, standard gross out gags and superficial sexual innuendo. But every member of the town is terrifically realized, from the spooky Mr. Kelsey to the Mayor’s paranormally obsessed wife Halcyon. With dialogue strewn with wonderfully memorable lines (“And they used Bon Ami”…”Let me clarify this”…”Attaboy Luther!”) and a wrap up that makes us appreciate just how much we care for these characters, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a landmark of lovingly crafted cleverness. One should ignore the dismissive tone of the ‘too cool for school’ generation and embrace this movie for the gentle gem it is. Luther may be a variation on the village idiot, but in the end, it’s his courage and conviction that matter. It’s an important message that bolsters what is a mini-masterpiece of a movie.