Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"You Fool! You Madman! What Have You Done?!"

The Mad Ghoul(1943)
Director: James P. Hogan
Cast: George Zucco, David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers

Universal horror films were largely formula B-movies by the 1940s, as the endless Frankenstein and Mummy sequels, attest. A few interesting little gems were put out during this time, such as Man Made Monster(1940), Night Monster(1942) and Son of Dracula(1943), as well as this modest chiller from 1943, that has been all but forgotten by everyone, but the staunchest genre fanatics.
The Mad Ghoul is not much of a title, but it certainly sounds interesting. I was intrigued by this one since I was a kid and saw pictures of it in the chapter for Karloff's The Ghoul(1933) in William K. Everson's Classics of the Horror Film. It looked sort of interesting and then when I got a little older and saw a clip from it in one of the later Universal VHS collection commercials, with George Zucco spouting the quote that forms the name of this review, I knew I had to see it. So, I quickly snatched it up on video and it has since become one of my favorite B films of the period.

The film's plot is a tad silly, as scientist and professor, Dr. Alfred Morris(George Zucco), decides to experiment on recreating a gas that the Mayans had invented to render people into a zombie-like state. Now why would he want to do this, is anyone's business, but he finds a willing accomplice in Ted Allison(David Bruce) a young student who is willing to advance his career. Morris tests the gas first on a monkey and it seems to work, and then predictably, sets Ted up as his next guinea pig and transforms him into something like a zombie. The film takes a turn for the morbid, when it is revealed that the only way to become noral again is to eat a fresh heart, which sends the two to a graveyard, where they dig up a corpse and Ted munches down(I shiver to think of this being remade!)
Meanwhile, Ted's fiance, a popular singer named Isabel(Evelyn Ankers) is growing distant and has caught the attention of Morris, who is quite taken with her. Unbeknownst to both men, she's actually going to cut off the engagement and run away with her pianist, Eric(Turhan Bey).
Morris, driven by lust, believes that he can win Isabel over by duping Ted, who remembers nothing of what had happened before. Unfortunately, the process is irreversible and keeps coming back, making Ted into a zombie and forcing them to acquire more hearts, which results in the murder of a graveyard caretaker.
The detectives and the newspapers have a field day and hotshot reporter, Ken McClure(Carl Denham, himself, Robert Armstrong) decides to create a frame-up after piecing together the puzzle, discovering that the Ghoul(as the papers call him) has been seen at every town that Isabel has played. However, after posing as a corpse in a coffin and having the drop on Morris, he gets it in the throat with a scalpel and serves as the next heart transplant. It's a surprisingly grisly and shocking moment for a 40s horror and one of the most memorable horror moments of the decade.
Meanwhile, Ted realizes his life is falling apart and discovers that Isabel is in love with Eric, which he is understanding of. Morris discovers as well and is heartbroken at what he has done. However, Ted gets his revenge and sets up the gas(which is invisible) in Morris' lab and infects him as well. Ted succumbs to becoming the Ghoul again, looking more horrible than ever, and is given a pistol and a message to kill Eric, than himself, but Morris feels the effect and goes to Ted for help, but it's too late. Ted interrupts one of Isabel's concerts and is promptly shot dead by police. The conclusion sees Morris desperately trying to dig his way into a grave(with his hands!) as he expires, one of the most downbeat conclusions of any 40s horror classic.

The Mad Ghoul is a briskly paced, efficiently made thriller, indicative of Universal's streamlined approach in the 1940s. There's no room for subtlety here as the film moves from plot A to plot B at a far less leisurely pace than was afforded genre classics like The Mummy(1932) and The Old Dark House(1932). In all fairness, though, this was never pretending to be art, either. It just entertains and in that sense, this is a highly successful film.
George Zucco, one of the leading horror actors of the decade and certainly one of the truly great mad scientists ever, gets his best role in this film, one that I consider to be among the great horror performances. His Dr. Morris is a different kind of mad doctor. He does not have any big agendas or any real megalomania, rather he is simply interested in love. There's a genuine sadness when he learns that Ankers loves someone else, believing all the while she was interested in him. He shows genuine concern for Ted when he realizes that his arrogance has cost the young man his life and his determination to find a cure is touching. What makes Morris different from other mad doctors is that he shows flaws and is not outwardly maniacal, not that all good mad scientists were, especially when one observes the disturbing calm in Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls(1933) certainly the maddest doctor of them all!
Zucco creates a three-dimensional character that we can relate to, for who cannot relate to love and rejection and being a dreamer? The fatal flaw is that his dream was a mad one and he never took other people's lives in consideration, which eventually sealed his fate.
David Bruce, something of a light-weight actor, is fairly effective here as the ultimate schlub, the kind of guy that would get taken advantage by both his Professor and his fiance. We feel sorry for him, because he seems like a genuinely good guy and is clearly a victim of fate, in a life that can hardly be considered fortunate. Not much is done with Jekyll/Hyde existence until the end, when he learns the horrible truth, but it makes up for a lot and his ultimate comeuppance on Zucco towards the end is a wonderful payoff. Jack Pierce's makeup for the Ghoul is interesting, similar to what Karloff had in The Mummy, getting progressively more decayed as the film progresses. It's one of the most underrated and creepy of the Universal Monster makeup designs. 
The rest of the cast are adequate.Ankers and Bey delivering they're usual professionalism with Ankers looking typically lovely, proving her worth as the best of the 40s horror heroines and Bey was always likable, as well, bringing dashing good looks and gentlemanly manners to the role of a part that could have been played much differently.
Robert Armstrong makes us remember why we loved him in the 30s. His death is a real shocker, too, as the comedy relief types were rarely killed off in these films. And to suffer such a gruesome death, at that!
The direction is fast-paced, nothing too special, but director Hogan keeps the action moving. The cemetery scenes are certainly nice, if sparse, with loads of fog from Universal's overworked art department, i'm sure. The script is kind of ridiculous at times, reminiscent of Man Made Monster at others, but it works and the use of violence is certainly ahead of it's time, at the very least.

The Mad Ghoul is no great classic and is hardly comparable with the best of the decade, but it is a highly enjoyable and fast-paced horror thriller, with enough grisly fun and a bizarre enough plot to interest classic horror fans. It also contains one of the genre's best actors in a really showy and effective performance, one that has not been anthologized nearly enough. Than again, neither has The Mad Ghoul, and while it's far from art, it's damn fine entertainment and worthier of re-analysis among fans of the genre. 
Note: Check out the first poster below. It's clearly a visage of Boris Karloff featured, from what looks like the original poster design for Cagliostro,which later became The Mummy. No wonder when trying to find Karloff's long-lost, The Ghoul, did so many confuse it with this film from 1943!

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