This is a reprint of a column I wrote for the HWA NEWSLETTER back in 2011:
One of the joys lost in today’s age of DVD collections and massive streaming video libraries is the discovery of unseen gems. There are few things I enjoy more than watching one of my favorite classic actors— say Peter Cushing or Boris Karloff— in a film performance for the first time. Sure, I’ve seen most of the movies these guys have made, but on purpose, I’ve yet to see them all.
That’s the case with today’s movie THE GHOUL (1933), a classic tale of the walking dead starring Boris Karloff fresh off playing his signature role in FRANKENSTEIN (1931). I had never seen this one before, and watching it for the first time was a pleasure.
Karloff plays Professor Henry Morlant, and as the film opens, Morlant is dying. He’s sick in bed with just a few hours to live. Not to fret, Morlant is an Egyptologist who believes in the powers of the Egyptian gods. A wealthy man, Morlant has spent the bulk of his fortune on a jewel known as the “Eternal Light,” and he believes that with this jewel in his possession, he’ll have eternal life.
Morlant instructs his servant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to bury the jewel with him, to in fact bandage it to his dead hand. He warns Laing, however, that if anyone should steal the valuable item, he will rise from the dead to kill those who have taken the jewel so he can reclaim it and enjoy his eternal life in the next world. Hmm, if he can come back from the dead without the jewel, what does he need the jewel for in the first place? The answer, of course, is that the Eternal Light gives him eternal life in the next life, while without it, he just comes back as a murderous ghoul. Nice to have options!
Since the Eternal Light jewel is worth a fortune, everyone and his grandmother wants to steal it, including Morlant’s accountant Broughton (Cedricke Hardwicke) and a host of other unsavory characters. It’s Laing, however, who gets to it first, and true to his word, Morlant does rise from his tomb to pursue those who stole the jewel, but since this tale plays like a mystery, with so many suspects, Morlant doesn’t know who has the jewel, and so he goes on a murder rampage in search of his treasure.
THE GHOUL is a fun 1930s horror movie and a nice change of pace from the Universal classics of the decade. This one was produced in Britain and was directed by T. Hayes Hunter who imbues it with lots of creepy atmosphere. It really does play like a mystery and at times the proceedings can get confusing as it’s difficult to tell who’s plotting against whom, and to be honest, I prefer the horrific elements of THE GHOUL over its mysterious parts. Once Karloff rises from the grave as the murderous ghoul, the film reaches a higher level and is much more fun to watch.
THE GHOUL has a great cast led by Karloff, who’s at his scary best roaming the dark countryside and corridors of shadowy mansions in search of the Eternal Light jewel. Karloff is even scary in his opening death bed scene, which is pretty amazing considering his character is confined to a bed. He’s frightening as he threatens Ernest Thesiger that he damned well better be scared of him, because if anyone steals the jewel, he’s coming back to kill! I think it’s easy to forget just how scary Karloff could be. He didn’t come to be called the King of Horror for nothing.
He’s also wearing ghoulish make-up by Heinrich Heitfeld, which reminded me a little bit of the make-up Karloff wore in THE RAVEN (1935).
Ernest Thesiger [Dr. Pretorius in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)] provides another solid performance as Morlant’s servant Laing. He gets to spend most of the picture terrified of Karloff’s ghoul. Sir Cedricke Hardwick [Dr. Frankenstein in THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), as well as many other notable film performances] gives a fine portrayal as Broughton. He looks and acts like a character in a Dickens’ novel. THE GHOUL also marks the film debut of Ralph Richardson as a shady minister. Richardson’s another actor who made tons of movies, but I always remember his genre performance as the blind man in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973).
THE GHOUL also has a powerful music score by Louis Levy.
Rupert Downing and Leonard Hines adapted the screenplay from a play by Frank King. Two other writers are also listed in the credits, Roland Pertwee and John Hastings Turner. There’s nothing wrong with the script as it contains snappy dialogue and a decent story that moves right along at a nice clip.
THE GHOUL, with its mysterious goings-on and Egyptian folklore reminded me of two other Karloff movies, James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), which also co-starred Ernest Thesiger, and THE MUMMY (1932).
This holiday season THE GHOUL would make a fine stocking stuffer, a creepy addition to anyone’s gift bag, especially for the horror film connoisseur. Just don’t steal the Eternal Light, or Karloff will be out of his tomb, back among the living to kill, kill, kill—.