Universal’s explosion of the horror genre in the 1930s gave us two legendary actors in Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Lugosi, who I’ve covered before in this column, was the leading-man type in that whomever he played, he was still pretty much Bela Lugosi (arguments could be made either way as to whether this was to his benefit or his detriment). Karloff, however, often had a tendency to get lost in his roles. Granted, part of this was done via the magic of FX. In movies like Frankenstein and The Mummy, Jack Pierce covered Karloff in enough prosthetics to make him unrecognizable. But credit must also be given to Karloff’s performances. Few people could pull off his take as Frankenstein’s monster where even with his face completely covered, and not a word of dialogue in script, he still managed to make this hulking monster come across as sympathetic. But what if we stripped off some of the makeup and gave Karloff some more lines to work with? Could he provide us with another movie that would stand the test of time like in his earlier work?

When he starred in T. Hayes Hunter’s 1933 film The Ghoul, it seemed as though the answer would be a definitive “no,” and I mean that in more ways than one. After doing well enough in the UK, and then flopping in the US, the print for the film was thought to be lost. It was only decades later that a foreign-language copy was unearthed in the USSR. A number of years later, an English version was discovered in a studio vault, and it eventually worked its way back into the public consciousness. Although, to be fair, it hadn’t reached my radar until (looks at calendar) sometime last week.

Karloff, as wealthy Egyptologist Henry Morlant, is not long for this earth as the movie opens. But as he lays on his deathbed, he’s got an ace up his sleeve in the form of “The Eternal Light,” a jewel that’s said to grant access to the Egyptian god Anubis, who can bestow a worthy recipient with immorality. Alas, there is a pretty long line of people eager to snatch the jewel away from Morlant, including his servant Laing (Ernest Thesinger) a devout God-fearing type who never believed in Anubis’ power. Egyptians Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) and Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith), however, do believe, so of course they want it for themselves. And then there’s Morlant’s solicitor Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke), who is simply a greedy asshole.

So naturally, the jewel gets swiped shortly after Morlant is laid to rest with it, but the catch is that if the jewel is taken from Morlant’s hand before the ritual is completed, his body will rise from the grave to retrieve it and, of course, kill anyone who gets in his way. Toss Morlant’s last remaining heirs Betty and Ralph (Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell) into the mix, along with nosey vicar Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson), and you’ve got yourself a madcap horror mystery.

Now, I’ve covered black and white flicks from the 30s–50s before, and like many movies before and after it, The Ghoul falls into some of the problematic trappings of the era, so let’s just get those out of the way now. Our two Egyptian characters, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn, are played by two white British actors in brown face. As our female lead, most of Dorothy Hyson’s direction must have been to act virtuous to the point of caricature and faint a lot. And finally, if I understand the situation correctly, her contentious yet flirtatious relationship with Ralph is also one between first cousins. So, you know... gross.

Whitewashing and family dalliances aside, however, in terms of the technical aspects of the film I was truly impressed by director T. Hayes Hunter’s work, particularly considering this was a guy whose career started in the silent film era. The Ghoul was one of Hunter’s last films as a director, so I was surprised at his ability to keep up with the times when cinema was changing so rapidly. Whereas classics like Dracula and Frankenstein had virtually no score, Hunter wove the appropriate ambient melody throughout the movie in order to help set the mood. The cinematography is dynamic, with cameras following actors through shots rather than sitting static and essentially just filming a scene in a play. Plus, the film’s dialogue works much better than many of its contemporaries, which I would hope would be the case, given that the movie had five writers.

Credit is also due to the cast. Karloff, who admittedly doesn’t get a ton of screentime, still has more dialogue in five minutes here than he did in either of his Frankenstein films. And what I’ve realized is when he’s given a heftier monologue, he’s got a very haunting cadence that pulls you into his final words (plus, it gave me a fuller appreciation of what I didn’t know was a spot-on Karloff impression by Hank Azaria in Night at the Museum 2). To complement Karloff’s monologuing, Laing and Broughton have some impressive cat-and-mouse tet-a-tet while Betty and Ralph’s playful indulge in some playful banter (but remember...cousins).

If you’re wondering why the hell a movie about a dead man rising from the grave and wreaking havoc has any use for playful banter, I can tell you I was a bit confused about this myself. I think that the abundance of writers may have made the overall tone a bit muddled. Some scenes build tone and atmosphere, such as Broughton stalking poor Betty through the foggy London streets. Others, however, veer right into the realm of madcap comedy, with dowdy assistant Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) fantasizing about progressively stereotypical exotic adventures with self-proclaimed sheik Dragore, while he strings her along to search for the jewel while staying under the radar. Taken by themselves, these scenes are all very well done, but in combination, the left turns can be a bit jarring.

Personally, when I think “ghoul,” I think precursor to the Romero zombie with the raising of the dead and the eating of the flesh. So, if that’s what you’re looking for from this Ghoul, you’re probably digging in the wrong grave. But, if you’re willing to take your horror with a side of heist caper and just a dash of silliness, then The Ghoul will deliver a movie with enough cinematic flair to make it a jewel worthy of Anubis.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.