Monday, July 20, 2009

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE GHOUL" (1933-British)

The contribution of “The Ghoul” to cinematic history is that this supernatural saga represents the earliest example of a British sound horror movie. According to the British Film Institute, the British Board of Censors added to the historical status of the film, too, when it gave director T. Hayes Hunter’s film an ‘H’ certificate for being horrific. Although it may have been horrific when it was initially shown, this long-lost hair raiser doesn’t do much to make your scalp crawl even with the presence of iconic horror star Boris Karloff. Director Pat Jackson remade "The Ghoul" in 1961 as a comedy "What A Carve Up" with Donald Pleasence, Shirley Eaton, Kenneth Connor, Dennis Price, and Michael Gough.

“The Ghoul” boasts a decent enough budget, but the story is confined presumably to London and the action takes place largely at night in and around a residence, a tomb, and a street. Clocking in at a modest 77 minutes in length, “The Ghoul” never wears out its welcome, but then it doesn’t have that much to make it welcome. Karloff spends too much time off-screen and his second death comes about far too easily. The film is not without a surprise or two here and there, but you won’t suffer from nightmares after watching this melodrama unless you are extremely squeamish. Indeed, apart from the eponymous character, nobody dies, though a couple of people are left the worst for wear. A woman is nearly strangled and another fellow is knocked down.

This atmospheric black & white British horror chiller concerns an Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Boris Karloff of “Frankenstein”) who is seeking immortality by means of an Egyptian artifact known as the ‘Eternal Light.’ Morlant believes that this amulet will throw open the gates of paradise for him and he will live forever. He wallows restlessly on his death bed while his servant informs a kindly minister, Parson Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson in his cinematic debut), that the good professor won’t see the light of dawn. Moreover, he adds that Morlant has pagan beliefs and has no use for a man of the cloth. “He will die in his own fashion as he has lived,” the servant states, “He is stubborn and unbending and will be so at the throne itself.”

Meantime, a stranger from Egypt, Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith”), lurks about in the shadows of London and awaits the arrival of Egyptian Sheikh Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) at his apartment house. Dragore dresses like a well-heeled Englishman and loves to drink Absinthe. Mahmoud confronts Dragore and explains that he has come to fetch the ‘Eternal Light’ and return it to his native country. He is an expert knife thrower and warns Dragore to not attempt any funny business. Dragore warns him that the British authorities will catch him if he kills him. Dragore explains that he has sold the amulet to Morlant, but Mahmoud and he can get it back once Morlant is dead. Clearly, Dragore doesn’t share Morlant’s belief in the immortality that the ring possesses for its wearer.

The scene shifts to a mansion where the dying Professor Morlant warns his Scottish man servant, Laing (Ernst Thesiger of “The Old Dark House), about the consequences of being buried without the jewel! If the full moon strikes the door of his tomb and he isn’t wearing the jewel, he will rise and kill him. Before Morlant croaks, Laing carries out Morlant’s wishes but bandaging the professor’s hand with the jeweled ring on his finger. The attending physician pronounces Morlant dead from heart failure and plans go forth for Morlant’s burial. Morlant’s estate account Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke of “King Solomon’s Mines”) checks Morlant’s corpse after they have put him in an elaborate crypt and discovers that the jewel has been removed. As it turns out, Laing has stolen the jewel and concealed it in his shoe. Afterward, he hides it in a coffee jar. Morlant’s relatives show up to demand an account of his finances and things begin to happen.

Viennese cinematographer Gunther Kramph deserves the bulk of the credit with his evocative black & white photography that endows “The Ghoul” with a sinister atmosphere. Art director Alfred Junge shares some of the kudos for creating the film’s sinister, somewhat spooky atmosphere with his selection of sets. Indeed, Morlant dies—in movie time—about a quarter hour into the action, but he doesn’t make his spectacular return from the dead until some 48 minutes later. By then “The Ghoul” has lost much of its momentum, primarily because the evil professor is the most important character.

When you let your protagonist languish off-screen that length of time and dwell on supporting characters running about in a tizzy arguing about the existence of the afterlife and the significance of an amulet, you wind up undercutting the zest of the movie. Director T. Hayes Hunter shoulders the blame for this obvious flaw and his scenarists are just as guilty. However, Hunter stages with funeral scene with some aplomb and his use of Richard Wagner’s music from Siegfried's Funeral March gets it no small amount of gravity.

The logic is the usual flawed logic of any horror movie. Morlant threatens to rise from the dead if he doesn’t have the vaunted ‘Eternal Light’ on his finger, but how on earth can an ordinary human resurrect himself without the ring. Indeed, in this instance, why does he need the ring if he can walk after death? Of course, Morlant has got to walk after he dies, but the logic is pretty creaky. Interestingly, for a movie made in an English speaking country, “The Ghoul” gives some status to a pagan religion by allowing the death to walk.

Unfortunately, the details about the ‘Eternal Light’s’ power are too sketchy. We don’t know enough and the scribes are short on exposition. In the end, Scotland Yard lives up to its reputation because it captures the foreigners and gets the ring. Presumably, the film’s poor showing ruled out any chance of a sequel because Scotland Yard retains the ring.

Boris Karloff wears some sloppy looking make-up and later carves a symbol into his chest that presumably has something to do with the Egyptian afterlife. Unfortunately, Karloff is squandered as he is either floundering around in his death bed or shambling about in the mansion searching for the ring. Mercifully, Hunter keeps a tight rein on the comic relief, principally a girlfriend of one of Morlant’s cousins. Altogether, the creepy atmosphere and first-rate performances help, but “The Ghoul” wouldn’t scare a cat.

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