Friday, 3 January 2014

The Ghoul (1933)

Boris Karloff, then at the height of his popularity, returned to Britain in 1933 to make The Ghoul for Gaumont-British Pictures. This often overlooked Egyptian-themed horror movie had been floating about for years in very sub-standard editions until its release on DVD, in a very fine transfer indeed, by MGM.

The Ghoul was clearly an attempt to cash in on the enormous success of The Mummy the year before.

Boris Karloff plays Professor Morlant, an ageing and ailing Egyptologist who believes he can cheat death by means of a fabulous jewel looted from an Egyptian tomb. By means of this jewel Anubis will give him eternal life.

Unfortunately for the professor quite a few other people know about this jewel and they all want it, in some cases for its mystic properties and in others simply for its monetary value.

As Professor Morlant dies he assures his faithful servant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) that he will return from the dead. Since this happens early in the film the audience will certainly believe him even if Laing doesn’t.

After Morlant’s death the various parties seeking the jewel converge on his very gothic house. Unfortunately at this point the movie becomes more of an Old Dark House comedy thriller rather than a horror movie. It will return to horror eventually, with mixed success.

The first third of this movie is actually quite good. It builds the gothic mood successfully enough and it achieves a certain creepiness, mainly due to Karloff’s performance as the professor who already looks like a corpse before he is dead.

The motley collection gathered at the house includes Morlant’s heirs, young Ralph Morlant  (Anthony Bushell) and his cousin Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson). Betty drags along her friend Miss Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) whose job it is to provide the obligatory painfully unfunny comic relief. Also present are a young clergyman (played by a very young Ralph Richardson), Professor Morlant’s shady solicitor Broughton (played by Cedric Hardwicke) and the inevitable mysterious Egyptian Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth).

Nothing notably happens for quite a while as the film gets badly bogged down but finally Karloff does reappear to deliver a certain amount of horror.

The fairly strong cast assembled by Gaumont-British for this picture deserved better material. Karloff is effectively creepy, while Ernest Thesiger overacts outrageously and fairly amusingly.

The failings of The Ghoul are many. The basic idea is good but the script does little with it. The pacing is too slow, especially in the middle stages. The payoff is a rather disappointing cop-out. Comparing it to The Mummy merely emphasises its weaknesses. While The Ghoul boasts some reasonable sets and does have some gothic atmosphere it lacks the visual brilliance that Universal brought to their horror films of this era. Director T. Hayes Hunter is competent but sadly uninspired. There are a few good visual moments, especially early on. The funeral scene is quite creepy and atmospheric.

MGM’s DVD is superb. Picture quality is extremely crisp, contrast is good and there is no sign whatsoever of print damage. Sound quality is good as well. The lack of extras is a slight disappointment but MGM are to be commended for making this relatively little known   horror movie available in such a pristine state.

The Ghoul is not a terrible picture. It’s certainly no worse than most of Universal’s 1940s efforts. It’s just not a very good picture. It illustrates the important truth (one that Universal understood in the 30s but forgot in the 40s) that if you want a good horror movie it helps to have a good script and a director and a cinematographer with a genuine feel for the material, and you need to keep the focus on the main horror plot as much as possible. Boris Karloff fans will be reasonably satisfied by his performance. Worth a look as a rare example of a 1930s British horror movie that at least tries to deliver some genuine chills, and does at times partially succeed.

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