“The Ghoul” (1933)
by A.J. Hakari
The Ghoul belongs to that breed of cinematic bummers made even more disappointing by the incredible stories behind them. This picture was one of several chillers that Boris Karloff appeared in after becoming Universal’s golden boy, with studio after studio lining up to get a piece of the newly-christened master of monsters. But although it was successful in its native United Kingdom, The Ghoul‘s stateside reception was decidedly more muted, sinking so swiftly into obscurity that it was thought of as a lost film for over thirty years. Following an inferior and incomplete print that was discovered in the ’60s, the ’80s yielded the unearthing of a pristine negative, giving Karloff’s fans their long-awaited chance to fill a gap in the man’s body of work that they’d thought would remain empty forever. Part of me salutes those who restored the movie for not giving up the ghost (so to speak), but another side is just barely suppressing smart-ass remarks about how it wasn’t worth the effort. While I was less impatient with The Ghoul during my latest rewatch than with my initial viewing in college, the film is still a pretty flavorless exercise in the macabre, with its deliciously dark pleasures few and its rigid pacing a most persistent pain in the neck.
If it’s Egyptian, Professor Henry Morlant (Karloff) is obsessed with it. What his colleagues and acquaintances dismiss as ancient superstition, he embraces as gospel, seeing those forgotten gods of the sands as the keys to paradise. Sure enough, as Morlant lies upon his deathbed, he looks to a recently-obtained artifact to fill him with life everlasting: the Eternal Light. A jewel rumored to grant those buried with it the gift of immortality, the professor insists on taking it with when he shuffles off this mortal coil…which he does mere minutes after the opening title cards. But particular parties that are more interested in satisfying their own goals than in honoring a dead man’s wishes, as they come out of the woodwork in order to steal the Eternal Light for themselves. From a greedy solicitor (Cedric Hardwicke) to an agent (Harold Huth) who wants to bring the rock back to where it first came from, there’s no shortage of scoundrels who want their hands on the jewel. But there may be more to this immortality business than just a legend, for after the Eternal Light is swiped from his cold grasp, Morlant rises from his tomb to embark on a violent quest to get it back.
The Ghoul has much in common with the “old dark house” mysteries that ruled the horror genre before the likes of Tod Browning’s Dracula made it acceptable (and profitable) to explicitly depict the supernatural onscreen. But although it’s fueled by the same fascination with Egyptian culture that led to The Mummy‘s creation one year prior, the added exotic flavor does little to counteract the deluge of woes that the picture inherited from its mother genre. From its impeccably-mannered but indiscernible characters to its numerous misguided stabs at levity, The Ghoul exemplifies almost everything wrong with the sort of thrillers in which a small cast of characters searches for some sort of treasure in a big, spooky mansion. Props aplenty to director T. Hayes Hunter for supplying an appropriately grim abode (packed with sarcophagi, Anubis statues, and other examples of imposing Middle Eastern décor), but when it comes to the poor saps traipsing around inside it, they either don’t stand out or stand out for the wrong reasons. While the movie boasts early appearances by such soon-to-be beloved actors as Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, the majority of them are left with little to do outside of serving as red herrings, with their similar wardrobe and seemingly permanent scowls making a trial out of telling their characters apart. Then there’s the matter of Kathleen Harrison, who continues the shrieking ditz act that was barely tolerable when Una O’Connor used it in The Invisible Man and isn’t any less time-consuming or insufferable here.
With this many strikes against it, one might expect The Ghoul to force its star to go down with the ship, but amazingly, the opposite is true. Karloff’s presence is scarce yet very effective, as he’s less of an active player in the proceedings and more of a shadow looming over the story. Morlant’s conviction in his faith and the terrible fates that he declares will meet those who challenge him are absolute, echoing in the screams and petrified faces of the remaining characters as their night of horror heats up. He only gets to speak in one early scene, but Karloff makes it a doozy, delivering a staggeringly sinister monologue about life after death (and he still rocks the crypt just as a silent stalker). Our boy Boris is also joined by The Bride of Frankenstein‘s Ernest Thesiger, whose butler has much better luck at both doling out witticisms to give the audience a good chuckle and seeming suitably traumatized when his employer appears to have shirked the grave. Also, where vintage mysteries of this ilk would try to incorporate the customary romantic subplot, The Ghoul instead features Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell as Morlant’s last living heirs, thrust into an evening’s worth of strangulations and tomb-raiding that they didn’t plan on. On the one hand, it’s refreshing for a vintage chiller not to try to force any unwarranted lovey-dovey nonsense amidst the shocks, but the pair’s involvement in the story is so downplayed, there’s no real purpose for them hanging around or, for that matter, reason for us to cross our fingers and hope they live through the night.
The Ghoul is admirable from a historical standpoint (it’s said to be England’s first horror film of the sound era) and for making a little Karloff go far, but the presentation is too blah and the rewards too scant to recommend it. If you’re in the market for a similar blend of gallows humor and pre-code frights, productions such as The Bat Whispers, 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, and 1929’s Seven Keys to Baldpate will deliver your fix with fewer hiccups. Lest you be a Karloff completist, The Ghoul is one derelict domicile best left boarded up.