September 27, 2012
Although Boris Karloff had been making movies for years before he became the monster in Frankenstein, this signature roll opened the gates to offers for more monster roles and cemented his legacy as an icon in the horror genre. Tucked neatly within Karloff’s filmography between The Mummy and The Black Cat is a lost little classic from 1933 called The Ghoul which ranks as one of his creepiest films.
In The Ghoul, Karloff plays Professor Henry Morlant, a scholarly man on his death bed who has procured a jewel from an Egyptian tomb that is said to guarantee eternal life to whoever offers it to the god Anubis. Morlant constructs an elaborate Egyptian style mausoleum on his estate and has the jewel bandaged in his hand before he dies so that he can take it to the afterlife with him. However, before he can be buried, Morlant’s butler, Laing (Bride of Frankenstein’s Ernest Thesiger) steals the jewel. Morlant’s lawyer, Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke from Suspicion and Rope), also wants to get his hands on the artifact, as do an Egyptian diplomat (Blackmailed’s Harold Huth) and a shady minister (Ralph Richardson from Dragonslayer). After Morlant’s death, his surviving heirs, Ralph (The Black Knight’s Anthony Bushell) and Betty (Dorothy Hyson from Sing As We Go), also show up at his estate to claim their portion of his wealth. The jewel finds its way around the different people who covet it, but when Morlant rises from his tomb and comes back to life, he wants the relic back and will stop at nothing to retrieve it.
The Ghoul was adapted for the screen by Rupert Downing (Karma) from the book (and subsequent play) by Dr. Frank King (Death of an Angel). Directed by T. Hayes Hunter (The Man They Couldn’t Arrest), The Ghoul’s use of classically trained actors and limited staging gives the film a very theatrical feel. The script makes liberal use of dialectical exposition, and the cast overacts at precisely the right time to give the viewer the impression that they are watching a play. That is, until Karloff’s Morlant steals the show.
Professor Morlant is one of Boris Karloff’s more underrated and unsung characters. Karloff plays the part almost like a cross between The Mummy’s Imhotep and Frankenstein’s Monster, plodding around in his undead daze but still appearing to be a monster on a mission. For a villain of few words, Morlant is an articulate presence, not as brainless or random as most movie monsters but still coming off as mysterious and threatening. With Karloff’s distinct features, Morlant even appears to be a visual mash-up of Imhotep and Frankenstein’s Monster, further proof of Karloff’s ownership of one of the most recognizable faces in horror despite constantly being covered in makeup and prosthetics.
The Ghoul is a dark and brooding film, taking its cue from Universal’s horror movies to effectively lay the groundwork in Britain for the Hammer Horror style. Austrian cinematographer Günther Krampf (Terror House) has a distinctive way of showing everything that needs to be seen while still bathing the scene in darkness and shadows, and uses his experience to great effect. The Ghoul walks a thin line between realism and surrealism, combining believable characters and situations with incredible ones, challenging the viewer to suspend their disbelief. Krampf’s sparsely lit yet flashy photography creates a moody and bleak looking film that makes the spine tingle and the flesh crawl.
With The Ghoul being made towards the beginning of the European sound revolution in motion pictures, the music in the film is also influential. If the score, written by Louis Levy (who did the music for Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes), sounds stereotypical by today’s standards, that’s because many of the horror films in the decades after The Ghoul was made followed the template laid out by Levy. The ambitious rhythmic orchestral soundtrack is the perfect backdrop to a horror film, and has been copied and imitated ceaselessly ever since.
Like so many of the films of the era, the chief weakness in The Ghoul is its ending. Everything gets explained away a little too conveniently for the resolution to be completely satisfying, and the movie doesn’t feel like it’s quite over when the words “The End” pop up. However, as unrewarding as the ending may be, it is still plausible and, therefore, does not completely disappoint. When viewing The Ghoul, the journey is more important than the destination, and the fun is in the getting there.
For years, The Ghoul was considered a lost film, a gap in Boris Karloff’s highly-notable career. While the picture may not have garnered as much attention as some of his more popular films, Karloff’s performance as Professor Morlant should rank up high with his finest and most appreciated.
**Watch The Ghoul on Netflix Instant Streaming**