Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on October 11, 2012
One of the strangest spy spoofs to emerge from the sixties has got to be HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. This oddball musical comedy arrived in drive-ins in 1967 accompanied by the tagline, “If you’re a chicken come with plenty of feathers and a 0-0-0h-7 get-away car!” HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is part espionage farce, part sitcom style comedy and a full-blown musical featuring performances from the movie’s three stars (Joi Lansing, Ferlin Husky and Don Bowman) along with appearances by popular country & western performers such as Merle Haggard, Molly Bee and Sonny James.
Today it might be hard for modern audiences to understand how a movie like this ever got made but in James Bond’s heyday country & western music was gaining a growing audience thanks to increased radio play and popular programs like THE PORTER WAGONER SHOW. At the same time rural television comedies including THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, PETTICOAT JUNCTION and GOMER PYLE competed with spy themed shows such as I SPY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, THE PRISONER, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and GET SMART for ratings. B-movie producing brothers Bernard, Larry and David Woolner were eager to cash-in on this strange hodgepodge of pop culture trends and they must have thought they had a surefire moneymaker on their hands with HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. To seal the deal they gave their movie some extra drive-in appeal by setting the story in a haunted mansion and hiring three horror film legends (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Basil Rathbone) to co-star.
I stumbled on this unusual movie while doing some background research on director Jean Yarbrough a few weeks ago. Yarbrough was an interesting character who began his career in Hollywood as a chauffeur for producer Hal Roach. He managed to convince Roach to find him a job as a prop man and a few years later he was directing short films for RKO. In the late 1930s Yarbrough’s name became synonymous with Hollywood’s Poverty Row when he started directing assembly line low-budget movies for companies such as Monogram Pictures and the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Yarbrough was known for his ability to finish movies on time and under budget but this came with a price. He often only shot one take so if an actor flubbed their lines or some prop was out of place it went uncorrected. Things like plot continuity apparently didn’t matter much to Yarbrough but he still managed to shoot a number of successful pictures in the 1940s for Universal. Some of the highlights from Jean Yarbrough’s filmography include the Abbott and Costello comedies IN SOCIETY (1944), THE NAUGHTY NINETIES (1945) and JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1952) as well as horror movies such as THE DEVIL BAT (1940), KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941), SHE WOLF OF LONDON (1946) and THE BRUTE MAN (1946). In the sixties Yarbrough turned his attention to television because he liked the fast pace of production and devoted most of his time to directing episodes of THE ABBOT AND COSTELLO SHOW, GUNSMOKE, THE ADAMS FAMILY, BONANZA, MICHALE’S NAVY, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, DEATH VALLEY DAYS and PETTICOAT JUNCTION.
Looking at Yarbrough’s directing credits it’s easy to understand why he might have been interested in making HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. This variety show inspired movie follows the OLD DARK HOUSE formula but takes place in the backwoods of Tennessee where two country music entertainers, Woody (Ferlin Husky) and his “occasional lady friend” Boots (Joi Lansing) are making their way to Nashville for a music jamboree accompanied by their manager Jeepers (Don Bowman). Their road trip comes to an abrupt halt after they find themselves involved in a shootout between the local sheriff and some enemy spies. When the sun starts to set they ask the local gas station owner if there are any motels in the area where they can spend the night but there’s nothing available so he suggests they sleep at an abandoned old mansion in town. Of course the gas station owner neglects to tell our three hapless heroes that the mansion is haunted by civil war era ghosts and overrun by spies. The aforementioned spies include an evil female mastermind named Madame Wong (Linda Ho in typical Dragon Lady mode) along with her three henchmen (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Basil Rathbone) and a nameless man in a gorilla suit. The spies are using the old mansion as a hideout while they trade secrets with American double agents but their plans keep getting interrupted by country music interludes. The group of meddling bumpkins naturally pose a problem for the spies so they try to frighten them away in typical SCOOBY DOO fashion. In the end everyone discovers that the house is truly haunted and the ghosts don’t exhibit any kind of southern hospitality.
This quickly cobbled together movie was a sequel to THE LAS VEGAS HILLBILLYS (1966), which was also a showcase for various country music performers eager to sell records. I haven’t had a chance to see THE LAS VEGAS HILLBILLYS yet but by most accounts it was a more straightforward comedy that didn’t feature spies or ghosts but it did star blond bomsbshells Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren.
HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is about as well-written and directed as an episode of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES or PETTICOAT JUNCTION and the stereotypical characters (country bumpkins, evil Asians, etc.) can grate on your nerves but the tongue-in-cheek banter shared between costars John Carradine and Basil Rathbone made it a treat for this classic horror movie fan. Spy spoof enthusiasts should also appreciate the chemistry these two old pros share. It’s easy to imagine Carradine or Rathbone playing ominous villains in a James Bond film and I wish they had been given the opportunity. Unfortunately HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE would be one of Basil Rathbone’s last movies before he passed away from a sudden heart attack on July 1, 1967 just two months after HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE debuted.
I’ve always liked Joi Lansing and she almost manages to steal the show from the rest of the cast as a beautiful blond country singer with a heart of gold. The abysmal script gives her very little to do but she still acts convincingly frightened when she’s attacked by a man in an ape costume. You’ve got to give the woman credit for that! Besides Lansing, Carradine, Rathbone and Chaney, the other star of HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is the music. I must confess that I don’t care for country & western music. In fact, I tend to run for the hills as soon I hear the name Merle Haggard but I could still appreciate the talent on display in the movie. I was particularly impressed by Sonny James when he belted out his rendition of “The Cat Came Back.” I think many country & western fans would probably enjoy seeing these music artists perform some of their early songs and that’s what these types of films are all about. They were a creative advertising ploy designed to sell records and I’m sure that more than a few teenagers became Merle Haggard or Molly Bee fans after watching HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE.
If you’re looking for a fright free movie to watch this Halloween with the whole family and you happen to like country music you could do worse than HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. It is by no means a great movie or even a really good one but it still might appeal to young audiences who enjoy modern shows like GLEE and some classic horror and spy spoof fans could find that HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE has its own kind of antiquated charm. Due to my strong dislike of country music I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it through the entire movie but the songs and the stars kept my attention so I’m glad I set aside some time to watch it. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is one of the worst movies ever made but if you visit imdb.com you’ll discover that it’s been given a measly 1.8 star rating by a lot of folks who don’t seem to like country & western music or spy spoofs of any kind. Your own enjoyment will vary so please approach this movie with caution but it just might surprise you as much as it surprised me.
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