Directed by Buster Keaton and Edward Cline
Release Date: February 10, 1921
Total Running Time: 21 minutes
Buster the bank teller gets out of a sticky situation only to find himself in a house of horrors, chased by both police and counterfeiters, not to mention ghosts, headless ghouls, and the devil himself.
Buster Keaton: Bank Teller
Virginia Fox: Bank Director's Daughter
Joe Roberts: Bank Cashier
Eddie Cline: Man Whose Pants Become Glued
The stairs to heaven scene was used as the finale to Kevin Brownlow’s three-part documentary about Keaton’s life and career, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.
Money is the root of all messes in Haunted House. It opens with a stock shot of Wall Street, the palatial parking place of the Bull and the Bear (mostly the Bull). Next, Keaton, a mastermind of finance from another town, pulls up to his bank in a chauffeur driven limousine. On alighting, he promptly falls into the gutter. He recovers, unlocks the bank's door (first removing the lock's beer bottle top with a church key), springs over the counter, hangs up his hat and cane, and he's ready for work.
Meanwhile, a cashier with a counterfeiting sideline (Joe Roberts) explains to a flunky how the haunted house will work: when cops run up to the second floor, a press of a lever will transform the stairs into a slide, and the police will run away in fright.
Keaton is hard at work in the bank. When a pretty young woman begs him to open the time delay vault an hour early, he moves its clock hands forward. He requires her phone number to cash her check, and he copies it into his little black book. At the same time, the bank president chats with his daughter (Virginia Fox). She spurns the entering Roberts to visit with Keaton. The president carefully examines a bill, but Roberts forestalls discovery by snatching it up and offering to ask the police to help him catch the counterfeiter.
Back at his window, Keaton accidentally dips his hand in glue while counting currency for a customer. Soon money is stuck to everything: Keaton, four customers, the desk, and the floor. Keaton's hand gets stuck to his hair, and he cuts off a chunk of his hair to remove it. Roberts hands the customer clean money and calls another clerk over to help clean up the mess. The clerk sits in a puddle of glue; to unstick him Keaton coumes out from the teller's cage and pours scalding water on him (after knocking him out when he complained of the heat). More things stick to other things: more bills to Keaton (who must hit himself on the head before pouring the hot water), and the other clerk's pants to a customer (Eddie Cline). Keaton's solution: he cuts off the seat of the customer's pants. A young lady faints at the sight of skivies and the customer backs away.
While Roberts talks to his henchmen outside the bank, Keaton returns to the currency-strewn teller's cage. Pondering the problem, he sticks his hands into his trouser pockets and they get glued in. When a robber tells him to stick 'em up, he rips the pockets out of his trousers. Roberts meets with the president as the robbers struggle to put sticky bills into their loot bags. They set their guns down. Keaton picks them up and the robbers run away. Roberts and the president come out and they hold Keaton at gunpoint. Roberts alleges that a stack of bills came from Keaton's (nonexistent) pocket. Keaton leaps over the counter and hides in the vault. His pursuers run out. At three o'clock sharp, he gets ready to leave the vault but the automatic door closes on his coat.
Later, the Daredevil Opera Company is executing Faust (deservedly) amongst falling scenery and vegetable projectiles. Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles (the Devil) escape out the back door with the audience in pursuit.
The police find Keaton caught by the vault door. Roberts moves the clock hands to free him. The old sheriff tries to handcuff Keaton, but only manages to handcuff himself to his assistant.
Their audience chases the Faust players down a road. They're soon followed by Keaton and his posse. Keaton goes into the haunted house and the police surround it. Keaton enters a dark room. A ghost walks through it. He runs into a well-lit room and looks around. The book he opens explodes. Elsewhere, the ghost stands by a window where he's narrowly missed by bullets shot by Keaton's pursuers. The ghost runs past Keaton, who walks up the stairs. They turn into a slide, and he slips down.
Faust and Gretchen climb in a window and run past Keaton. Mephistopheles follows. Keaton looks, then runs to the window and picks up a vase. A sniper shoots it. Now he's getting frightened. He dashes up the stairs before they can convert to a chute and looks around the second floor. He glides back to the ground floor.
Roberts ducks into the basement, observed by the banker's daughter. In the counterfeiter's den, his associate tells him that Keaton is upstairs, so he sends two more ghosts up to haunt him.
As the banker's daughter creeps around the living room, a trap door opens up, dropping her into the basement. Roberts catches her and tries to chat her up.
Meanwhile, Keaton encounters the Devil. To his surprise, he's real. While Keaton is distracted by telling of the comings and goings, the Devil leaves and a ghost takes his place. Scared, Keaton climbs the banister. The ghost leaves and the Devil comes back. Keaton jumps down, lands on his cape, and wrestles with it. The ghost reappears. Keaton crawls off to another room and sits in a chair. The arms embrace him. Keaton screams and climbs the banister again. The man under the chair's slipcover comes out.
Next in the second floor hallway, two skeletons walk past Keaton, carrying body parts. They assemble them and he comes to life, offering to shake Keaton's hand. The victim somersaults out of the room.
Faust drags a lifeless Gretchen into another room. Keaton can't bear to watch, but Faust comes back and takes him along. Keaton pleads for his life. Faust tells him to knock it off and help him carry Gretchen. The skeletons come in and assist, frightening Keaton. He runs to a very tall man for sympathy, but he only removes his head and hands it to Keaton.
He runs to a couch, heart pounding. One ghost chases him off and down the stairs, where another ghost scares him into climbing the slide. Upstairs, a bat drives him into a room with an old man, Death. The man grabs his coattail, and no matter how fast he runs, he cannot escape (he's on a turntable). Death lets go and Keaton runs away.
Mephistopheles warms himself by a fire and smells something burning. It's his cape. A ghost startles him. Amongst a lot of smoke, he runs out of the house, scaring the posse that came after Keaton. They run down the road.
Next Keaton spies two ghosts unsheeted, having a quick snort. He's disgusted. He goes back to the hallway and acts as a traffic cop for the wandering spirits. A ghost reports to Roberts in the basement where he holds Fox prisoner.
Keaton returns to the central stairway, momentarily getting his head caught in the banister's poles. He nearly avoids the slide by riding the banister down, but he gets off on the third step and falls the rest of the way. He sees a ghost and grabs a vase, but he can't swing it comfortably. So he tosses it up, moves the ghost under it, and knocks him out. He pulls off the sheet.
The bank president, sheriff, and associates drop through the trap door into the basement. Roberts threatens them with a gun. One ghost takes the gun and throws back his hood. It's Keaton. He holds up the counterfeiters while the sheriff handcuffs them. Roberts, angry, bops Keaton over the head.
Keaton is out cold. He's awoken by two little angels, who tell him to climb the white stairway before him. Up, up he goes, past harpists, until he reaches Saint Peter. The Saint shakes his head 'no' and converts the stairs to a chute. Down, down he goes, straight to the Devil, who merely changes 'Keaton-out' to 'Keaton-in' on the bulletin board. An assistant prods him with a fiery pitchfork.
The banker's daughter awakens him. The room heater had set his pants on fire. He puts it out and embraces Fox.
Some critics object to the phoniness of the house tricks in the film. I think that the fakery helps to keep the tone light, given that death stalks Keaton in various guises (ghosts, the devil, skeletons, the old man, and finally rejection by Saint Peter and a trip to hell). Between the trouble caused by money in the first half and the darkness of the second, an academic writer could produce an essay on the serious underlying themes of Haunted House. — Lisle Foote