I’m walking a line, visiting houses in motion
I’m walking a line, just barely enough to be living
—Talking Heads, “Houses in Motion”
Buster Keaton’s comedies often run on, and in, elaborate houses. Think of the house under construction in One Week, and how many gags come out of that, or the Rube Goldberg home that occupies the first half of The Scarecrow, or the ship in The Navigator, or the modern home in, um, The Electric House. Jokes get built from interactions with the place, which tends to be less stable and motionless than the frantic people inside and around them. Places pulse with energy. I suppose they do in real life, too; we just forget it. Houses creak and shift. Cracks emerge in the walls. Floors warp over time. Water stains seep into the ceiling. Carpets get frayed. Pipes freeze in January. And then there’s all the things we do to places—new paint jobs, re-tiling the bathroom, punching the drywall when we’re mad instead of punching the person we’re mad at, varnishing the hardwood floors, deciding that that living room wallpaper has got to go, goddamnit, right now. We hang pictures of art, pictures of our lives, pictures of places we’ve never been. An inspector looks at the 70-year-old wiring flares up, and says it’s either replace it all or get really acquainted with our local fire department.
Places do funny, unexpected things. Buster just has a habit of making that literal. In The Haunted House, he goes overboard, though it takes half of the short for us to actually get to the house. It’s not actually haunted, of course, as we know within the movie’s first minute. A counterfeiting operation works out of the house, and the ringleader (Big Joe Roberts) makes sure that everyone in town—but especially the cops—thinks that the house is unapproachably spooky. He spreads the gossip about the house, all while pretending to be an upright bank employee. He boobytraps the house in countless ways, and hires underlings to play house ghosts.
It’s working. No one goes near the place, and fake dollars are slipping into the town supply. Only one lowly bank teller stands in his way…
…and he doesn’t even know what’s going on for most of the movie. And, yes, this is a man who inexplicably keeps a big vat of glue near the cash register. Of course, he gets glue everywhere, and stuck to everyone. This is a well-oiled Keaton device—the idea that one small object, when used incorrectly, can cause absolute chaos—but the gag takes up a fourth of the movie’s screen time, and that’s too long. Amidst the uproar, the ringleader’s henchmen attempt to rob the bank, and Buster inadvertently stops them while also ends up framed as the robber. So, he flees.
In another part of the town, a vaudeville troupe bombs during its performance of Faust. It’s bad enough that the audience pelts it with rotting vegetables and then chases the actors out of the theater. So, they’re on the run, too. Look, I know performances can go awry but the movie never makes it clear why the paying audience would see this as grounds for a riot but that’s basically what happens. Nor is it made clear why the criminal gang would want to hold up the bank to which it’s funneling its counterfeit cash. (Aren’t they just stealing their own product?) And it’s thoroughly predictable, though again not well-explained, why everyone—chasers and chasees alike—would end up converging on the haunted house.
So, narrative form isn’t this short’s strong suit. But The Haunted House takes off once it gets to, um, the haunted house. As with the first half, there’s an over-used gag involving stairs that, well, just look:
That joke’s funny once. Actually, it’s hilarious the first three times, and I admire Keaton’s attempts to find new ways to work that angle. But, by stair joke #8, it’s dull.
Thank goodness nothing else is. “Ghosts” are everywhere, and the henchmen even act as chairs, tables, and statues. There are trap doors. A candle is actually a firecracker, in one of the funniest gags. Much of the action takes place in the dark, with the celluloid tinted blue to indicate night and to lend a mesmerizing feel to the visuals. Nothing makes sense to Buster or to us as viewers, and The Haunted House achieves a genuine surreality that matches Georges Méliès:
Eventually, all is revealed and made right again. For ten minutes, though, we’re in a topsy-turvy world where everything’s in flux, and a house seems as animated and limber as Buster Keaton himself.