Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Ghoul (Great Britain, 1933)

First, the history lesson: Hot on the heels of his two horror hits (and eventual classics), James Whale's Frankenstein (1931 / trailer) and Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932 / trailer), Boris Karloff returned to his native England to star in this, The Ghoul, the first British horror film of the sound era and, at least according to one source, Karloff's first role in a British film. And, likewise, the first movie to be given an "H" (for "Horrific") by the British Board of Film Censors.
Trailer to
The Ghoul:

The source material for the movie is/was a play of the same name by Dr. Frank King (1892 – 3 Dec 1958) and Rev. Leonard Hines (18 Aug 1889 – 1975), which in turn is/was based on an early "thrilling mystery" novel also entitled The Ghoul (1928) by the previously mentioned and mostly forgotten but productive crime fiction author Frank King. (His equally mostly forgotten, kill-capable, private detective anti-hero Clive "Dormouse" Conrad, to give you an idea of productive King was, appeared in 21 novels between 1936 and 1958.)
As adapted for the screen by Rupert Downing, John Hastings Turner (16 Dec 1892 – 29 Feb 1956), and Roland Pertwee (17 May 1885 – 26 April 1963), the last of whom later also helped script The Halfway House [1944 / trailer] and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945 / let's smoke),* The Ghoul jettisons much of the original plot in the book about a master criminal known as "The Ghoul" and, instead, pursues the formula of an "old dark house" movie sprinkled lightly with the Egyptian proclivities of The Mummy and a monstrous countenance (possibly a nod to the disfigured faces sported by Karloff in both Frankenstein and The Mummy). A hit in England, but less successful when imported to the US of A, The Ghoul eventually became a "lost film" that achieved an almost legendary status as a great film due to surviving stills.** All that aside, according to Michael Samerdyke in his book Horror 213, Volume 1, Karloff himself supposedly "expressed the hope that it would stay lost".
* And is, incidentally, grandfather of Sean Pertwee, of Event Horizon (1997), Dog Soldiers (2002), Renaissance (2006 / trailer), Botched (2007), Mutant Chronicles (2008) and much, much more.
** Much like, if you get down to it, London after Midnight (1927). Considering how disappointing its unofficial remake Mark of the Vampire (1935 / trailer) is, London after Midnight would probably never live up to expectations were it ever to be found.
It didn't. First, in 1969, a damaged copy was found in communist Czechoslovakia, and then, in the 1980s, an un-mutilated copy was discovered in a forgotten vault at Shepperton Studios. And what does that un-mutilated copy reveal?
Well, basically, that The Ghoul is hardly worthy of its legendary status as a masterpiece of horror, but quite enjoyable in its dated way and perfect (but, perhaps, for one scene in which Karloff takes a knife to his chest) for a rainy afternoon with the wee kiddies. And for those out there who understand a ghoul as something somewhat along the lines of an early version of the contemporary zombie — i.e., as "a legendary evil being that robs graves and feeds on corpses" [Webster's] — rest assured no corpses are fed upon in The Ghoul. The robbery of a jewel from a dead man, however, does play a major part in the plot.
The titular monster of The Ghoul is the Egyptologist Professor Henry Morlant (Boris Karloff), whose monstrous face looks less like the disfiguring result of years under the burning desert sun than as if a lab experiment blew up in his face. The ugliness of Morlant's visage, however, does well to reflect the ugliness of his soul: a man obsessed with immortality, there is little to like about him. His deathbed instructions are that he be buried with The Eternal Light, a stolen Egyptian jewel of great value, so that he can achieve immortality when he places it in the hand of the statue of the god Anabus — though how he should do that after he is dead is never broached. He dies, the jewel is stolen, heirs and others show up on the scene, and then a murderously angry Morlant awakens and staggers forth from his crypt…
That Karloff was possibly not enamored by The Ghoul is easy to understand: he is not given much to do. His character is a bad man, plain and simple, both on the deathbed and after he rises from the tomb. Still, as little as he has to work with, Karloff is effective; if his voice might be a bit to pleasingly melodious to truly drip the ruthlessness of his character, his expressive face and body language are nevertheless well employed whenever he appears onscreen (basically at the start and end of the movie). But Morlant being the one-dimensional character that he is, it is hardly surprising that Karloff is, on the whole, upstaged by the great and gaunt Ernest Thesiger (15 Jan 1879 – 14 Jan 1961) as the Scottish butler Laing,* who steals the jewel less due to greed than because he thinks it would better serve Morlant's heirs than a dead man. (There are, however, various nefarious gentlemen who would gladly get their mitts on the jewel for their own betterment…)
* Coincidentally enough, the year previously in James Whale's horror comedy The Old Dark House (1932 / trailer), Karloff played the butler to Ernest Thesiger's master of the house. Most people know Thesiger, if at all, from his wonderfully campy turn as Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935 / trailer).
As directed by minor director Thomas Hayes Hunter (1 Dec 1884 – 14 April 1944), The Ghoul is oddly inconsistent visually and, once too often, flat and dull. The opening scene of Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth [20 Jan 1892 – 26 Oct 1967]) ascending some stairs, with its excellent Expressionistic use of light and shadow and framing and depth of vision, gives rise to high hopes. But unlike the general excellence of the set design, the Expressionistic artistic flourishes come and go throughout the movie. Indeed, during the torch-lit scene of Prof. Morlant's rise from the tomb, for example, a scene that easily could have been made moody, expressive and full of frightful dread, the lighting is bright and unexpressive and lacking of any emotion.
Ditto with the camerawork and framing. An early scene in the library of Morlant's mansion, shot in a smooth but unobtrusive camera pan and moving camera, offers the promise of visually intriguing and pleasurable camerawork, but soon thereafter The Ghoul is pretty much reduced to an almost Poverty Row-reminiscent static camera focused on blocked scenes. This does little to enliven the events and, instead, emphasizes the stage roots of the entire production. Things do improve a bit again after Morlant rises, now seemingly super-human (as in: look what he's doing to the bars in the picture way at the top of this review), but it is almost a case of too little, too late. Thomas Hayes Hunter, obviously an employed director instead of an engaged director, simply didn't have the committed creative and artistic drive that would have been needed to make the movie a continual visually aesthetic and effective (if not affective) horror movie.*
* Cf.: Paul Leni's Cat and the Canary [1927 / full movie] and Roland West's The Bat Whispers [1930 / full movie], for example, are excellent examples of how a director's committed creative and artistic drive can truly elevate arguably stale material.
But then, The Ghoul is not really a horror movie; it is, as mentioned earlier, more of a horror comedy in the mold of the old dark house films. And in regard to the comedy, which is 98% of the verbal kind (i.e., the dialogue), it is often far more effective than many similar movies of the kind. True, the movie's male hero, Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell [19 May 1904 – 2 April 1997]) is an unlikable bore, the type of English chap one would best like to knock over the head or see fall victim to an untimely death, but he does often have some funny putdowns and snide remarks (he's obviously a Times reader) — but then, almost everyone in the movie has some witty if not inspiringly funny dialogue, but for Karloff.
Credit must surely be given, however, to the actress Kathleen Harrison (23 Feb 1892 – 7 Dec 1995, of The Ghost Train [1941 / full movie], Turn the Key Softly [1953 / full movie], Cast a Dark Shadow [1955 / trailer] and more), who plays the movie's 100% true comic relief character, Kaney, for managing to be the comic relief through-and-through without remaining the annoyance that such characters generally are. Her obsession with sheiks and beatings, which would surely never have reached a post-Hayes Code movie, is one of the many highpoints of her comedy. To the movie's advantage, she is also incorporated into the final resolution in a manner that also makes her a bit more than simply an enjoyable third wheel.
The dialogue of The Ghoul, as stagey and stilted as it often is, is without doubt one of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie, especially when delivered as dryly as it is by Harold Huth, as grumpily as by the lawyer Boughten (Cedrick Hardwicke [19 Feb 1893 – 6 Aug 1964, of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942 / trailer), The Lodger (1944 / full film), The Invisible Man Returns (1940 / trailer), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945 / trailer), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939 / trailer), Lured (1947 / trailer), Baby Face Nelson (1957 / trailer) and so much more), and as archly as by Ernest Thesiger.
It is a bit of a letdown that The Ghoul ends with a cop-out "plausible" non-supernatural explanation for Morlant rising from the dead — an explanation said almost in passing amidst all the crosscutting of scenes during the movie's climax which, in the end, may purposely negate all possibility of the supernatural but nevertheless fails to explain how Morlant gets enough strength to literally bend steel bars. (Also illogically inconsistent: Morlant strangles Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith [2 Aug 1888 – 12 March 1959]), the most obvious foreigner, to death but kills neither of the females — not even the one he strangles.) Still, at least the final showdown is amidst flame and fire and danger, thus finally adding a sense of imperilment not present for most of the movie.
The Ghoul is, in the end, an enjoyable if minor movie that could easily have been much better than it is and, conversely, could easily have been a lot worse. Good for a laugh (often) and good for shiver (not as often), it starts well and ends well but is a bit dry in the middle — but remains divertingly entertaining in that way only old "horror" movie's can. If you're a fan of old B&W horror films, it is well worth a gander and you will probably enjoy The Ghoul; other people — especially those raised on the Net and today's adrenaline-heavy movies — will probably enjoy it a lot less, if at all.

"I'm sorry there should be this sort of atmosphere. After all, we're only ships that pass in the night." 
Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson)
 "Hmmm. Do you want a drink, or will you pass now?"
Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke)

The Ghoul
The Full Movie:

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