Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Ghoul (Gaumont-British, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My partner and I ended up at Fourth and Maple watching another Karloff movie, The Ghoul, the long-lost film he made in Britain in 1933. The tape we were watching — which we found at Suncoast in Horton Plaza, lost amidst all the tacky modern films in their horror section — was the first restoration of this film, prepared from a very poor-quality print found in the national archives of Czechoslovakia, of all places, with the original titles lopped off and replaced by plain-printed ones in Czech that gave the film’s title as Bej and the “end” title as “Karoc” (or was it “Kanoc” — I forget). Apparently Sinister Cinema has a better version out on video, mastered from a second print of the film discovered in Britain after the Czech version was unearthed, eight minutes longer and without the annoying jumps in continuity found in the Czech version. (At least the Czech distributor who made this print in the first place chose to subtitle it rather than dub it, so the original English soundtrack is still in place — though Janus Films, which prepared the restoration, cropped the film to cut out the Czech subtitles, which is unfortunate: it would have been kind of trippy to see them.)

As for the film itself: while I wouldn’t call it a long-lost masterpiece, it’s surprisingly good, much better than its rather meager reputation. While it was still thought lost, most of the comments on it (based on original reviews) wrote it off as a blatant ripoff of Karloff’s American films, The Mummy in particular, since its plot is also inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb: Karloff plays an Egyptologist who has adopted a belief in the original religion of Pharaonic Egypt, in particular the belief that if he is buried with a certain rare jewel, called the “Eternal Light,” he can be restored to life. The jewel is stolen from his corpse, but he comes back to life anyway and murders all the people who have coveted it before finally dying again. The script is a pretty confused muddle, with shaky continuity (Leslie Halliwell’s listing for The Ghoul names no less than six writers — Frank King, Leonard Hines, L. DuGarde Peach, Roland Pertwee, John Hastings Turner and Rupert Downing, adapting a novel by King, so this may be a classic case of too many cooks), but T. Hayes Hunter’s remarkable direction more than makes up for the weak script. Slower-paced than the direction Karloff was getting in America at the time (actually more reminiscent of Victor Halperin’s work in White Zombie, another independently produced film with a major horror star set in an “old dark house”), Hunter’s work here is beautifully atmospheric and appropriately Gothic. He stages most of the dialogue scenes in close-up, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere and allowing the stylized performances of his first-rate actors (Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Richardson and Ernest Thesiger) to register with maximum impact.

About the only major weakness of The Ghoul (besides the rotten condition in which it has survived) is that Karloff is in so little of it; he isn’t seen at all until about ten minutes into the film, he dies five minutes after that and isn’t revived for another half an hour of screen time (and he makes only fleeting appearances even after that). One suspects that, since Karloff made this film during what was otherwise a vacation — his first visit to his native England since he had become a star with Frankenstein — he only gave the film a week or two of his time, and may not have even been in the country when the scenes he isn’t in were shot. Yes, there are some pretty obvious derivations from The Mummy here (notably the revivification scene, as well as the ending), as well as The Old Dark House, and the film’s title is virtually incomprehensible (“Well, Karloff is in it, and people expect him to play a monster, so let’s call it The Ghoul”), but it’s still quite an impressive movie (worth getting the Sinister Cinema video of it to find out if that one is truly superior). The Ghoul was spoofed in a British comedy, What a Carve Up!, in 1962, but there hasn't been a serious remake. (Alex Gordon wanted to do one in the mid-Sixties, with Karloff repeating his role — since the character had been an old man, Karloff could have played it in his 70’s without the age makeup he had to use in his 40’s — but, alas, it never happened.) — 12/16/93


I ran The Ghoul, the quite interesting if flawed 1933 horror film from Gaumont-British Studios that seems to have been thrown together so that the studio could exploit the talents of Boris Karloff, who was visiting his native country for the first time since having become a star in Frankenstein two years earlier. I’ve seen this movie a couple of times before after it had been lost for decades following its initial release; a copy was rediscovered in the early 1990’s in the Czech Republic (with the original English soundtrack and Czech subtitles — at one public showing of this version, the screen was cropped to eliminate the subtitles, which led to an unfounded rumor that the film had actually been shot on a wide-screen format — which it wasn’t) and then another, longer (by about eight minutes, mostly dialogue exposition and comic relief) and better-quality print was found in Britain. This is one of those cases in which it was nice that the film was found but it would have been nicer if it had been found while its star was still alive; Forrest Ackerman’s book The Frankenscience Monster recalled a mid-1960’s get-together with him, Karloff and producer Alex Gordon in which Karloff was lamenting that he would want to be able to see The Ghoul again — and Gordon suggested that the two team up and remake it. That would have been nice, especially since by then Karloff was in his 70’s and would have been able to play the part the heavy age makeup he had to use in 1933, when he was still in his 40’s and couldn’t play a septuagenarian au naturel.

In the event, the 1933 version did surface eventually, and though the extant print seems awfully dark (even more so than director T. Hayes Hunter and cinematographer Günther Krampf probably intended) and murky, it’s still good enough that you can tell what’s going on even though the plot — based on a novel and/or play by Dr. Frank King (the film’s credits state the source was a novel but says it was a play; both could be right, since King could have originally written it as a novel and then adapted it for the stage). The film is a close relative of The Mummy and also clearly inspired by the real-life discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun; in 1922 — the same year as the real find of Tut’s tomb — Prof. Morlant (Boris Karloff) led an expedition in Egypt and discovered a major tomb along with the “Eternal Light,” a jewel that according to the mythology of ancient Egypt would confer immortality on its owner as long as he was buried with it so he could present it to the god Anubis on his way to the afterlife.

Now, in 1933, Morlant lays dying in the huge main house of his ancestral mansion, on whose grounds he has had built a full-scale replica of an Egyptian temple in which he plans to be buried. At some previous point in the story he lost possession of the Eternal Light, but he bought it back from the person who had got it from him. Knowing full well the value of the thing in this world as well as the next, Morlant instructs his butler, Laing (Ernest Thesiger: in The Old Dark House Karloff was Thesiger’s butler but here they’ve switched places), to put the jewel in his hand and wrap both hand and jewel with a bandage to make sure he doesn’t lose it — but Morlant’s crooked lawyer, Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke) undoes the bandage and steals the jewel before Morlant is entombed inside his Egyptian temple replica — with a key to the tomb door facing inside so he can open it and re-emerge when he revives, as he fully expects to do. Morlant’s death means that Broughton has to contact his heirs, cousins Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Morlant (Anthony Bushell) — with one of the shortest tempers in the history of movie characters! — and Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson), to the Morlant estate to read the will — and Betty’s roommate Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) comes with them.

When they’re there they’re accosted by Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth), an Egyptian Arab who’s after the Eternal Light to recover it for his country (already in 1933 cultural imperialism was being raised as an issue; one recalls the line in The Mummy in which Karloff laments, “We Egyptians are not allowed to dig up the graves of our own ancestors; that privilege is reserved for foreign museums”) — and Morlant, even though bereft of his jewel when he’s buried, comes back to life anyway. (There’s a Lewtonian uncertainty about the whole affair, since towards the end of the movie Morlant’s doctor, played by George Relph, comes on and explains that he was cataleptic and hadn’t died at all, but had been buried alive.) The action around the old-dark-house set gets very confusing and it’s not always clear who’s doing what to whom, but at the end Rafe and Betty are together, Kaney is infatuated with Dragore (the fact that he’s told her he’s a Sheik and, of course, her idea of a Sheik has been determined entirely by Valentino’s movies, has suddenly made him seem totally sexy and appealing to her!), and Morlant dead for real this time — of a heart attack as he was bowing before one of his ancient Egyptian idols.

The plot really doesn’t make much sense, but the film is appealing anyway for Hunter’s haunting direction — slower-paced than an American film on the story would have been — and a far more extensive and effective use of music than was then the norm in American horror films: Louis Levy is credited with the music score ( also identifies Leighton Lucas as involved with the music, though the best piece of music in the film is by Wagner: Siegfried’s funeral march from Götterdämmerung, used to brilliant effect when Morlant is buried after his first “death” and reprised thereafter) and the scoring is almost nonstop and adds a great deal to Hunter’s haunting visuals and deliberate but still spooky pacing. One thing Hunter couldn’t do is control Karloff’s tendency to overact — the vividly effective understatement of Karloff’s performance in The Mummy under Karl Freund’s direction is sorely missed here; instead, as Morlant he gives a bravura reading that’s believable as the ravings of a dying man but still would probably have been more effective if he’d turned it down a bit.

Another problem with this film is that Karloff simply isn’t in it that much: he’s got his opening “death” scene (for years a still of Karloff on his deathbed was all we had by which to judge this film!) and later a lot of skulking around as the revivified Morlant (oddly, makeup artist Heinrich Heitfeld makes him look younger post-revival), but I’d be surprised if his total time on screen exceeded about 15 minutes or so and it seemed likely to me when I saw the film before that Karloff might not have even been in the country when the scenes he isn’t in were shot. The Ghoul isn’t a great movie, but it’s a quite interesting one — and it seems odd that T. Hayes Hunter gave up his directorial career the next year and from then until his death in 1944 worked instead as an agent (he’d been active as a director in British film from 1912 and would seem, on the basis of The Ghoul, to have adapted to the talkies just fine, thank you), since his work is quite good and unusually distinctive here. — 11/2/08