Haunted Spooks is perhaps best known as the film that almost cost daredevil silent-film comedy legend Harold Lloyd his life — a not-so-proppish bomb exploded in his hand, costing him a couple of fingers — but it’s also one of the earliest movies to feature the ol’ “spook” stereotype (although at that time, I suppose it might not have been that old).
Lloyd stars as “The Boy,” a brokenhearted gent seeking to commit suicide when he stumbles upon an equally desperate woman, “The Girl” (Lloyd’s real-life soon-to-be-wife Mildred Davis). It seems her grandfather has just left her his mansion in his will, but with the stipulation that she must be married and must stay in the mansion with her husband for a year. So, they up and get hitched and prepare to move in.
Trouble is, The Girl’s uncle wants the house for himself and is determined that she not make it through the whole year. In Scooby Doo-like fashion, he plots to scare the couple out of the house — which, judging from the number of black servants, is more like a plantation — by pretending it’s haunted. He first plants a seed of fear in his butler, played by Blue Washington, saying, “Didn’t you know that every fourth year the ghastly grinning ghosts of the dead creep from their graves and roam these rooms?” The butler of course freaks out and warns the rest of the help in Negro-speak: “An’ de whole graveyard turns upside-down! Gassly, spookey ghosts come heah to room dese roams.” The servants’ knees all start a-shakin’, and when they see a ghostly figure on the staircase (the uncle in a sheet), they skedaddle — just as The Boy and The Girl arrive.
The butler, too scared to run, explains to the couple that spooks have invaded the house. The Boy, being white, says that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but gets jumpy when he sees one of the servants’ kids (played by “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, later of East Side Kids fame) covered in flour. Or cocaine; whichever was most prevalent in 1920.
It’s all mildly offensive by today’s standards (You have to wonder if the titular “Spooks” refer to ghosts or black people — or both, as the script is rife with puns.) but is nothing out of the ordinary for the time, and the butler actually has the last laugh when he discovers that the ghost is really the uncle dressed in a sheet and single-handedly captures him. Book ’em, Negro!