This underrated 1945 picture was an entry in the horror-comedy cycle kicked off by the Bob Hope Cat and the Canary. It’s complete with secret passages, a scheming mad family, a mystery villain, a smart aleck city slicker hero and a nonsense rhyme (‘Honors flysis/Income beesis/Onches nobis/Inob keesis’) that’s a clue to a hidden fortune. George Marshall, director of The Ghost Breakers, even lets it get self-referential when it seems as if a bit with a wheezing pipe organ is being lifted from the earlier film (‘the one with the zombie?’). However, it’s an old dark house farce crossbred with hillbilly comedy – a mix also attempted in Whistling in Dixie (1942) – which makes this startlingly like a rough sketch for the redneck horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Poll company employee Pete Marshall (Fred MacMurray) ventures into the backwoods in search of a previous ‘snooper’ who hasn’t come back, and wanders into the homestead of the criminal degnerate Fleagle family. Spotting the dead cow skull décor, Pete asks ‘You folks in the slaughterin’ business?’ Later, this even hits on a horror expression which didn’t come into use for decades (‘Shall I splatter ‘im now, Maw?’ ‘No, splatter ‘im outside.’) and the Fleagle family runs to archetypes like the snarling, canny matriarch Mamie (Marjorie Main), dimwit superstitious thug twins Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney), snarling gangster Bonnie (Barbara Pepper) and simple-minded mooncalf beauty Elany (Jean Heather). Heroine Claire (Helen Walker) shows up impersonating escaped con Bonnie and sleuthing around for a stash of stolen money, and the initially-overhwelmed, fast-thinking Pete joins her in trying to stay alive. Mamie’s latest husband is mad scientist Johnson (Porter Hall), who has invented a luminous poison that makes dogs and people glow and gets into all the food at a madcap family meal (which has a definite Texas Chainsaw vibe). Johnson dies early, making for a glowing corpse, but comes back as the (spoiler!) surprise culprit. It has a lot of inspired runabout and visual gaggery, with a classic vaudeville crazylegs routine – copied from a 1926 Syd Chaplin film The Better ‘Ole, and itself reused by Gene Wilder in Haunted Honeymoon – perfectly executed by MacMurray (who also pulls off a clever pretending-to-see-a-ghost schtick), and a rigged-up barnyard machine that turns all the Fleagles into haybales (still alive, though the gruesome possibilities are there). For a nonstop comedy, it still has moments of nastiness: Johnson battering a tied-up Elany, who thinks he’s a ghost, and forcing her to sing is actually one of the cruelest moments in ‘40s cinema. I’m surprised it’s not been remade with Bruce Campbell.
I thought “Tobe Hooper must have seen this!” as well, though I’m not sure if it’s more Eaten Alive than TCSM. After Fred MacMurray’s Disney comedies it seems nobody much took him seriously (and I think his last film was The Swarm – yeesh) but Murder He Says proves he could be really sharp given the right comedy material. Ripe for rediscovery, as they say.