The Universal horror movies of the 1940s are a bit of a mixed bag but The Mad Ghoul does have quite a few things in its favour. Most notably it has the right cast. It has George Zucco as a mad scientist, it has famous scream queen Evelyn Ankers and it has Turhan Bey to add the necessary touch of exoticism.
Zucco plays chemist Dr Alfred Morris who has been researching some strange aspects of ancient Mayan rites. He believes that the Mayans may have used a type of poison gas to induce what he calls a state of death-in-life. He also has a theory about the Mayans’ rather unpleasant custom of tearing out the hearts of living sacrificial victims. He believes they had a means of reversing the state of death-in-life.
With his eager young student and assistant Ted Allison (David Bruce) Dr Morris is determined to prove the correctness of his theory.
At first we assume that Dr Morris is the kind of movie mad scientist who is led into evil through his single-minded pursuit of science without any moral grounding. He scornfully dismisses the idea of morality. He is a scientist and believes there is no good or evil, only true or false. There is however another factor at work in this case. Dr Morris knows a good deal about science but he is a fool when it comes to women.
The worst thing is that he thinks he knows all about women. And as the old saying goes, there’s no fool like an old fool. Dr Morris’s foolishness about women will lead him to use his knowledge of science for evil rather than good.
Young Ted is also somewhat naïve when it comes to women, and this will have equally disastrous results for him. Ted is engaged to be married to popular singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) but he has an unknown and formidable rival in the person of her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey).
Soon a ghoul is on the loose, robbing graves all over the country. There seems to be some mysterious link to Isabel Lewis. Of course Isabel herself cannot possibly be involved. Reporter Ken McClure (Robert Armstrong) has a theory but he will need some hard evidence before he can go to the police. He has an idea he knows how to find that evidence.
George Zucco is in fine form. Dr Morris is the kind of mad scientist who doesn’t struggle very hard against the temptations of evil but he’s smooth and clever and he’s able to maintain an outward appearance of respectability. People trust Dr Morris. Zucco doesn’t overdo his performance - Dr Morris is a villain but he’s a victim of his own delusions and he’s not entirely unsympathetic.
David Bruce does an excellent job as the hapless innocent Ted Allison. Evelyn Ankers makes a sympathetic and glamorous heroine. Turhan Bey is as suave as ever as her handsome lover.
While the term zombie is never used this can be seen as a type of zombie movie, with a scientific rather than mystical explanation.
One of the great things about this movie is the lack of comic relief. I just can’t tell you what a joy it is to encounter a 1940s Universal horror flick without irritating comic relief. Even the smart aleck reporter is mostly played very straight.
The movie includes many of the staples of Universal horror films with some nicely atmospheric graveyard scenes. The makeup effects (by the legendary Jack Pierce) are effective without being in any way excessive. Universal’s horror films of this era might have been uneven but they always looked good.
The script, by Brenda Weisberg and Paul Gangelin, is serviceable and in fact surprisingly intelligent and has some original touches. Director James P. Hogan spent his career in B-features but he knew his business and his work here can’t be faulted. He gets the most out of the material and the results are quite classy by B-movie standards. Sadly Hogan died of a heart attack shortly before the film’s release.
The Mad Ghoul is one of the five movies included in TCM’s excellent (although hard to find) Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. Sound quality is just a little uneven. On the other hand the image quality is superb. There are a few extras. The Mad Ghoul is a neat little horror movie that has been unjustly neglected and is highly recommended. As for the TCM boxed set, it’s pretty much a must-buy for classic horror fans.