Plot: Although Francis has gotten into some real adventures in the past, this time the talking mule finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery. After Francis happens to witness a crime, he enlists the help of his friend David (Mickey Rooney) to follow the clues and track down the criminal. Of course, that sounds simpler than it is, which means Francis and David will have to track down the evidence and try to stay one step ahead of the killer at the same time. Meanwhile, the investigation leads to an old, dark castle that would be chilling under normal conditions, let alone as the center of a murder mystery case. Can David and Francis crack the clues and uncover the truth, or will they be too scared to finish the job?
Entertainment Value: This is the seventh and final installment in the Francis the Talking Mule series, but this farewell is more of a last gasp. The previous movie served as a more capable sendoff, as this final film comes off as more of a standalone entry, with little connection to the six pictures that preceded this one. Donald O’Connor is gone and he was the heart of the franchise and Chill Wills was replaced as the voice of Francis, so this just doesn’t feel like a true sequel in most aspects. I’d mark this as easily the weakest volume in the series, despite a fun premise that with O’Connor and Wills in place, might have been a fun, wild final ride. The usual jokes are dusted off one last time here, but new lead Mickey Rooney isn’t able to step into O’Connor’s shoes and run, which makes sense, as he’s following a performer with six turns in the lead role. A few laughs can be found here, but the material is just worn thin and the haunted house gimmick never gets put to good use, which was a missed opportunity for entertainment. The pace is at least brisk and I do think fans of the Francis series might have a little fun here, but Francis in the Haunted House is a pale imitation of the previous six movies.
After six movies with Donald O’Connor in the lead, the actor more or less was the franchise, even more than Francis in some ways. His absence in this final sequel looms over the entire movie, as his wackiness and likable presence are beyond missed. While Mickey Rooney is passable as O’Connor’s replacement, he just has a different vibe and it doesn’t work as well. Perhaps with several sequels Rooney could have found his groove as well, but instead his turn is more forgettable than fun. The material doesn’t have much spark to be fair, but O’Connor was often able to make mediocre writing work, so Rooney falls short in that area. Again, Rooney isn’t terrible in the lead here, he just seems out of place and fans will likely just long for O’Connor’s brand of humor. Virginia Welles is passable as well, adding some much needed charm to Francis in the Haunted House, but she can only do so much. The cast also includes Paul Cavanagh, David Janssen, Mary Ellen Kay, and James Flavin.