The lights are down, all of my candy is unwrapped, and a guy I’ve never met before won’t stop telling me he sang on the Grand Ole Opry, which can only mean one thing: it’s time for Screaming In Harmony, where we shine the spotlight on all manner of monstrous musical mayhem! In keeping with this month’s A Haunting on Film Street theme, tonight’s show is one of the very first horror musicals, Hillbillys In A Haunted House.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: it should be Hillbillies, not Hillbillys. It drives me crazy, too. Hillbillys In A Haunted House is a sequel to the non-horror country music comedy The Las Vegas Hillbillys. Neither of these movies are considered classics, but Haunted House is notable for being one of the first horror musicals. It doesn’t do much to marry the two genres, and there are long stretches of the movie that are “just horror” or “just musical.”
As a disclaimer, I feel I should warn you that this movie isn’t very good. Personally, I love bad movies, but I understand that not everyone sees the appeal. Hillbillys In A Haunted House is mostly notable for its place in horror musical history, not for its groundbreaking special effects or tearjerking performances.
THE SHORT VERSION
The story of Hillbillys In A Haunted House is pretty straightforward. A couple of country singers, as well as their manager, are on their way to a big ol’ jamboree in Music City, USA. For those who don’t know, that’s Nashville, Tennessee. After getting caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the sheriff and some spies, they settle down for the night in a haunted house!
Since it’s Haunting on Film Street month, I’d like to pay some special attention to the hauntings going on in this house. First of all, the same clip of lightning flashing across the night sky plays a bunch. The shudders move on their own accord, basically everything’s covered in a few inches of cobwebs, and sometimes an otherwise unremarkable painting will spin around and reveal a skeleton! There are bats, as well as unexplained creepy noises. Also, there’s a basement filled with torture equipment and a g-g-g-gorilla! I bet you thought I was gonna say ghost! The house is also haunted by spooks of a different nature: a team of spies (including big name actors John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Lon Chaney, Jr.) who think that the country singers might also be spies. They seem to be running all of the hauntings, but sometimes things aren’t what they seem…
GORE AND SCORE
Unlike most other musicals, the music of Hillbillys In A Haunted House is almost entirely played out in realistic ways. That is, instead of just breaking out in song because a character found a new sandwich shop they’re stoked to try out, the songs are performed by musicians in the context of musicians singing. What’s even weirder is that not all of the songs play out like this! A vast majority of the songs are performed either on stage or on a TV program, but the opening song is sung by the main characters while they drive down the road, and Boots Malone, referred to as the “girl singer” of the group, has an extended dream sequence where she sings about all the gowns she would wear if she lived during the Civil War.
There are a few standout tracks in Hillbillys In A Haunted House. Jamboree Time is the song that the main characters sing in the car to start the movie and explain where they’re going. This is accompanied by what could be charitably described as “abysmal lip-syncing.” The Cat Came Back is sung by some local yokels who came to the haunted house because they thought there might be a guitar-playing ghost inside. This song tells the story of one of the ghostly residents of the house. Someone Told My Story by Merle Haggard, is included here because it’s the best song in the movie (and I think this Merle fella might have a career in his future). Wrong House is the big solo moment for Jeepers, who is either heavily intoxicated or just pretending to be for the song. Either way, it’s a novelty song about walking into every house in the neighborhood but your own, sung with some very hiccup-y vocals. Very strange.
While not a song, there’s a little fingerpicked arpeggio that the main character plays to prove (at gunpoint) that he’s a singer, not a spy. This isn’t a song so much as a music cue, but it’s a very confounding situation to be in.
While Hillbillys In A Haunted House isn’t exactly high art, let’s give a round of applause to Carradine, Chaney, and Rathbone for putting on a good show. It’s easy enough to show up in a movie and collect a paycheck, but these legends of the screen commit to their parts and seem to be having fun with it. Also worthy of recognition is Don Bowman as Jeepers, the manager. He might only be one-third of the main characters, but he more than pulls his dramatic and comedic weight. The other two frankly don’t give him much to work with. Finally, I’d like to give a standing ovation to George Barrows as Anatole the Gorilla. Believe me when I say I’ve seen some bad gorilla costumes and performances, and this is a great gorilla performance. It’s not as easy as it looks, and it really elevates the dungeon sequences of Hillbilly In A Haunted House from a D- to a D+.
Most importantly, George Barrows was also Ro-Man from Robot Monster! This movie has everybody!
It might not be very good, and the music certainly won’t be for everyone, but all things considered I liked Hillbillys In A Haunted House. The horror elements feel more like a cheesy 1960s TV show than, say, Hitchcock, but they have their own certain charm. Some of the songs are pretty good, too, and I imagine if you have grandparents that sit on the porch on rocking chairs they’d probably get a kick out of this film. You could watch it together and explain that it’s an early example of the horror musical, then take them to the splatter zone for Evil Dead The Musical!
Are you an international spy, a country music singer, or a ghost? If so, hit us up on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook page! And for more horror (and rhinestone cowboy hats) than you can shake a Cadillac at, stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street.