Twilight of the Gods: HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (Woolner Brothers 1967)

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Let’s face it, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is a lousy excuse for a movie. The acting is atrocious, the script derivative and juvenile, and the direction nearly non-existent. It’s a scare comedy that’s neither scary nor funny, and if you’re not a fan of 60’s style Country & Western music you’ll absolutely hate it. The only reason this Woolner Brothers drive-in dreck is remembered today is the presence of horror icons Basil Rathbone , John Carradine, and Lon Chaney Jr as the villains. But even this trio of terror can’t save the movie.

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The plot (such as it is) concerns country entertainers Woody Weatherby (Ferlin Husky, a classic country singer who can’t act), Boots Malone (blonde bombshell Joi Lansing), and Jeepers (country comic Don Bowman) forced to spend the night in the eerie Beauregard Mansion. There put through the usual fright paces with ghosts (obvious sheets on strings), a “weird-woof” (as Jeepers calls it), and a gorilla (George Barrows, Ro-Man of the immortal ROBOT MONSTER). Of course, it’s all a plot by some nefarious spies led by Madame Wong (Linda Ho, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER) and the horror vets. A secret agent from the Master Organization To Halt Enemy Resistance aka MOTHER (Richard Webb, TV’s CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) rescues the singers, and a “real” ghost (a Confederate general, no less) helps in bringing down the bad guys.

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Then we get about half an hour of Ferlin Husky introducing acts at the Nashville Jamboree. If you’re not into twangy 60’s honky tonk country you might as well turn the film off, but if you are, you’ll get to see the late Merle Haggard perform “Closing Time”, lovely Molly Bee singing “Heartbreak USA”, Husky doing “One Bridge I Haven’t Crossed”, Bowman talk/sing a novelty tune about a drunk who can’t find his house, and the sexy Miss Lansing do the upbeat “Part Time Lover”.  I think I enjoyed this part of the movie more than the actual “story”.

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As for the classic heroes of horror, Chaney comes off best as Maximilian. Despite his ragged appearance and bloated body from years of alcohol abuse, Lon gives the most energetic performance here, clowning around with the gorilla, cruelly locking Joi Lansing in an Iron Maiden, and seemingly enjoying himself. Carradine, once a fine actor in films like STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, had been coasting for years now in Grade-Z trash like this. He hadn’t made a prestigious picture since 1962’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and wouldn’t again until 1976’s THE SHOOTIST with old pal John Wayne.

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The fall from grace was even harder for Basil Rathbone. Once hailed as a Great Screen Villain in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Rathbone hit it big portraying master sleuth Sherlock Holmes in a series of films that remain popular even today. He is widely considered THE filmic Sherlock Holmes, and I certainly won’t debate that! But Rathbone tired of being typecast and fled Hollywood to return to the New York stage, causing resentment among certain studio types. When he returned to movies he was cast in smaller supporting roles, and by the 60’s was reduced to low-budget crap like THE MAGIC SWORD and VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE was Rathbone’s last American film (he did one more in Mexico, AUTOPSY OF A GHOST), a sad ending for one of movies greatest actors. Basil Rathbone died later that year at age 75. (This was also the last feature for director Jean Yarbrough, the man who brought you THE DEVIL BAT !)

So there are a few reasons to watch this turkey: (1) if you’re a classic horror buff and want to see these icons one more time (2) if you’re a Country & Western fan and are willing to sit through the bulk of this nonsense to get to the music (3) if you’re into the pneumatic Monroe/Mansfield/Van Doren wannabe Joi Lansing . If you’re not in any one of those three categories, steer clear.

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Honky Tonk Outlaw: RIP Merle Haggard

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Merle Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday. Even though I’m Massachusetts born and raised, country music has always been a part of my life. My dad was from Anderson, South Carolina, and I learned to appreciate the twangy, “high, lonesome sound” at an early age. Later in life, I spent five years living in Louisiana’s bayou country, and you couldn’t find a jukebox in any honky-tonk joint around that didn’t have at least one Merle Haggard tune.

Many country musicians claim to be “outlaws”, but Merle was the real deal. His father died young (like mine), and as a teen Merle was always in trouble with the law (yep, me too!). He was arrested for burglary and bad checks, fighting and shoplifting, and wound up more than once in juvenile jail. At age 20, he did time in San Quentin for attempted robbery. When he was released, Merle channeled his energy to country music. His first #1 country hit was “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, but it was 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee”, the anthem of the Silent Majority, that catapulted him into America’s consciousness:

Merle’s music wasn’t just for squares, though. Rock musicians like Gram Parsons and the Grateful Dead covered his tunes. He did some films, too, making his debut in the low-budget horror comedy HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, with genre greats Lon Chaney Jr, Basil Rathbone, and John Carradine. He played a sheriff in AIP’s BONNIE & CLYDE rip-off KILLERS THREE, with none other than Dick Clark as one of the three (guess AIP thought if two outlaws were good, three would be better. They were wrong). He was the Balladeer in 1981’s bomb LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, and even sang a duet with Clint Eastwood in BRONCO BILLY:

“Workin’ Man Blues”, “Fightin’ Side of Me”, “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink”, “Misery and Gin”, “Pancho and Lefty” (with Willie Nelson)- Merle Haggard was an American original, and his brand of country sure beats what passes for “country music” today. Raw and authentic, Merle Haggard will be remembered as one of the giants of country and western music. I’d like to leave you with two of my favorites. First, here’s “Mama Tried”:

Lastly, one of Merle’s latter-day songs, one I’m sure many can relate to, “Are the Good Times Really Over”. RIP, Merle. You’ll be missed.