Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Forgotten Gem In More Ways Than One

The Ghoul(1933)
Director: T. Hayes Hunter
Cast: Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

The Ghoul was one of the most tantalizing of lost films for several decades and for many reasons. This was made at the height of Hollywood's golden age of horror classics and starred the king of terror, Boris Karloff. It was the first British horror picture and also starred some notable stars such as Ernest Thesiger, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and in his first film, Sir Ralph Richardson. The film was reported lost and virtually no one had seen it, making the film that much more interesting. The stills that remained looked atmospheric and creepy and suggested a classic and critics like William K. Everson in Classics of the Horror Film, certainly made me want to track this down when I was a kid. Bizarrely, this British film was discovered in a Czeckoslovakian film vault in the late 60s(!) in a terrible print with Hungarian subtitles! This was the first way I saw this film, finding a VHS copy when I was a child. It was largely considered a disapointment, as most lost films inevitably become after years of speculation and anticipation, but it certainly had merit with some eerie visuals and Boris up to his old tricks, going full-Frankenstein mode in the last few reels. For years this was the only print until it was discovered in the film vault of the British Film Institute. Wonder why no one looked there? Hmmmmmmmmm....

The Ghoul begins well with a few mysterious, foreign characters lurking about the foggy streets of London. They are searching for a jewel that can supposedly grant eternal life. It is in the hands of an ancient egyptologist(Boris Karloff) who is on his death bed, instructing his faithful servant(Ernest Thesiger) to have the jewel buried with him and warning him that he will rise again if it is stolen. It's a terrific beginning and very well handled, but the film falls down a bit from there focusing on the reading of the late archaeologist's will at an old mansion. It's a great looking set, but is populated by some very dull characters and not much action. Nothing really happens until the final half hour, when Thesiger steals the jewel and hides it away, causing Karloff to rise from his tomb and seek vengeance! It's wonderfully creepy and strange as Karloff stalks the grounds for his sacred jewel, finding it in the hands of his niece(Betty Harlon). He goes back to his Pharoh like tomb and cuts an ankh across his chest(in shockingly grisly detail for the time) before collapsing and it's revealed that another robber desecrates the tomb. And who is it? Could it be Ralph Richardson's false preacher? Not a chance! Okay, it is and everything ends with the tomb burning to the ground, even if it appears to be made of stone.

This is a truly odd film. It can be seen as being both disapointing and oddly engaging, especially it's final half hour. Part of the film's problem rests with it's suppression of the horror elements. Far too much of the running time relies on worn, old dark house gimmicks and shady characters. Virtually none of the actors stand out, save for Thesiger who is always a delight and brings equal amounts of menace and sympathy to his character of the butler, though certain elements of his character might have been heightend had this been made by an expert like James Whale. The film's slow pace dosen't help matters and may distance many viewers, awaiting a more blood and thunder approach in keeping with the contemporary Hollywood thrillers. The last half hour is close to being classic, Karloff looking great in his makeup, though it's strange that he also looked that way before he was buried! Had the film been about his stalking the cast about the old mansion and the plot been expanded to accommodate the supernatural elements, than this could have been a classic.

Karloff has far too little screen time and isn't given much of a motive and while the Universal influence is undeniable, given the approach of the performance and the setting, there's extra elements missing. It's even suggested towards the end, quite lamely, that Karloff was in fact, under a trance and acted in a homicidal manner because he had gone mad! If that was true, how does that account for his super strength, like bending metal bars or his agility, obviously greater than a bed-ridden old man! The Ghoul is not one of the great lost Karloff films, but interesting just to see the actor in yet another of his great guises, truly becoming the heir to that, "man of a thousand faces", Lon Chaney.

In some respects, the film almost works as a companion piece to Karloff's own and vastly superior, The Mummy(1932), with it's theme of Egyptian evil and ancient curses. It's not a great horror film, but the sets and a few key scenes, like Karloff rising from his tomb and appearing at a window to stalk Ernest Thesiger are memorable. It may not neccesarily be marked as an essential, but classic horror buffs seeing these stills and reading those names are likely to consider giving this a glance. Anybody know where that jewel is, by the way?

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