Compared to some of the astounding Buster Keaton films that come before and after it, the gags in The Haunted House sometimes seem mechanical and strained. That said, Keaton could take no more than a bottle of glue (as he does here) and milk more jokes and “reciprocal effects” out of it than any ordinary comedian could.
It’s a good thing, too, because the movie’s titular theme is as quaint and dated as a Sunday parlor game. In the 1920’s and ’30s, the haunted house was a fertile setting for comedians’ imaginations (Laurel and Hardy used it at least twice). But the idea of running around as a ghost or skeleton for laughs or scares is long gone – sadly, it takes a lot more graphic violence to get people’s attention these days.
Seen in this light, The Haunted House still manages to offer some fun. The premise is that a gang of bank robbers is hiding out in an old mansion which the locals think is haunted, and when strangers happen into the house, the robbers pull out all the stops to scare off the trespassers. Guess what happens when Buster enters the house.
Since the Halloweenie scares are a tad less scary than they were 95 years ago, this unfortunately gives the viewer a little more time to reflect on the creakiness of the premise. At one point, it seems as though every robber in the house is donning a white sheet in order to scare off Buster; if they have to go through this routine with every new stranger in the house, how on Earth do they ever get their counterfeiting done? And is there any halfway plausible reason that a touring company of Faust would happen to be wandering through the same house, other than to make Buster think that he’s shaking hands with the Devil himself?
This is definitely a movie where Keaton’s amazing physicality carries most of the story. (There’s a [literally] running gag where Buster battles a flight of stairs which seem to have a mind of their own.) And near the end comes a heaven-and-hell dream sequence that’s a total non sequitor that’s thoroughly charming nonetheless. It is such small pleasures that make even a middling Keaton comedy such as The Haunted House worth watching.