‘Weird happenings in a house of mystery…’
The Ghoul is a 1933 British horror film starring Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger, and renowned thespian, Ralph Richardson, making his film debut. Although often mentioned in the same breath as the Universal horror films of the period, the film was a product of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, the British arm of the French film company Gaumont.
A dying Egyptologist, Prof. Henry Morlant (Karloff), purchases a valuable stolen gem, “The Eternal Light”, which he believes will grant him passage into the afterlife – to ram the point home, he says ‘Anubis’ a great deal. He warns his servant, Laing (Ernest Thesiger, in a role reversal of their stations in The Old Dark House), that if the jewel is stolen from him when he dies, he’ll return from the grave to get it back. Ernest pretty much looks straight down the camera lens in an entirely Laurel and Hardy manner, the first of many comical moments in a film that struggles to maintain its horror stance. Naturally, the jewel finds its way out of Karloff’s bandaged hand and changes hands through most of the cast until The Ghoul himself makes a dramatic return… or does he?
Feature commentary by horror experts Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
Extensive image gallery
Commemorative booklet by Stephen Jones
Definition of a ghoul:
1. An evil spirit or phantom, especially one supposed to rob graves and feed on dead bodies.
2. A person morbidly interested in death or disaster.
Ghouls, by definition, are the most environmentally friendly of monsters, recycling corpses and acting as security guards for cemeteries. There’s none of this behaviour here, though Karloff’s character does witter on about dying a fair bit until he disappears from the screen for the majority of the film. This leaves the rest of the cast to deal with an overly twisty plot which drags its heels like you wouldn’t believe… it’s an actor’s hot potato that virtually all of them drop. Surviving the cinematic carnage with reputation intact is Thesiger, adopting a ‘Hoots Mon’ Scottish accent and giving the cast and the audience a suspicious glare throughout, an early glimpse at his comic skills later seen in his Ealing work.
Cedric Hardwicke, always good value, appears as, well, Cedric Hardwicke really, plummy vowels and starchy outrage to the fore. Ralph Richardson’s debut is a bit of a shocker as a dodgy vicar, regardless of the unwieldy script and comedic lines, there’s really no excuse for the wooden performance on display, though he perks up a bit at the end, as we all often do. Even Karloff, pre-death, gives a performance that’s entirely sixth form Shakespeare; his resurrection as the ghoul is far more satisfying but suffers from a hysterical cast and a frantic attempt to tie up far more loose ends than anyone could reasonably cope with – if you’re still awake, the Scooby-Doo conclusion, though enjoyable, merely makes you try to make sense of everything that’s just happened. The ghoul’s make-up effects by Heinrich Heitfield are distinctly so-so, only Karloff’s lurching characterisation giving any threat.
The Ghoul is considered to be the first British horror film of the sound era and saw Karloff return to his homeland for the first time since his meteoric rise in the industry. Set in the Yorkshire Moors, you wouldn’t need any nudging to realise we were in Blighty, period buildings, cars and foggy streets melding with the clipped stiff-lipped accents. The film suffers from an almost entirely flat atmosphere, a silly plot, and confused intentions squashing any malevolence or terror flat, despite the signposts that a corpse is going to be walking again fairly soon.
The film was considered lost for many years since the last screenings in 1938. In 1969, collector and horror film historian William K. Everson located a murky, virtually inaudible nitrate subtitled copy, Běs, in Czechoslovakia. Though missing eight minutes of footage, it was thought to be the only copy left. Everson had a 16mm copy made and for years he showed it exclusively at film societies in England and the United States. Subsequently, The Museum of Modern Art and Janus Film made an archival negative of the almost unwatchable Prague print and it went into very limited commercial distribution.
In the early 1980s, a disused and forgotten film vault at Shepperton Studios was discovered behind a stack of wood. This was cleared and yielded the dormant nitrate camera negative in perfect condition. The British Film Institute took in The Ghoul, new prints were made and the complete version aired on TV on Channel 4 in the UK. Bootleg videotapes of this broadcast filtered among collectors for years, but when an official VHS release arrived from MGM/UA Home Video, it was the dire Czech copy. Finally, in 2003, just as the title was prepared for DVD, MGM/UA obtained the superior material for release.
Feeble comedy What a Carve Up! (1961) re-used some elements of The Ghoul whilst Karloff was approached to remake the film in the late 1960s, though this never materialised. The movie is more an example of British eccentricity than an effective shocker but is still required viewing for fans of horror from the Golden Age.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
‘The Ghoul may not be a classic re-discovery, but as a piece of sheer horror hokum, it makes for a great ‘ironing’ film and, looking the business on Blu-ray, is well worth adding to your Karloff/Classic Horror collection.’ Kultguy’s Keep
‘Karloff is excellent in his first British horror movie and his make-up is eerily effective. The story, however, leaves a lot to be desired.’ Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook, Batsford, 1982
After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film – Alison Peirse, I.B. Tauris, 2013
English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema – Jonathan Rigby, Reynolds & Hearn, 3rd edition, 2004