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Saturday, 30 April 2016

THE GHOUL (1933)

“I will come back, d’you hear? I will come back…to kill! ”

In the period following The Mummy’s release, Boris Karloff felt he needed a break from being cooped up in studio sets. He longed for the open air, in particular that of England – he’d been away for almost 25 years and wanted to see the old homeland again. As it happened, his wish to return home was granted, albeit for work rather than rest.  Gaumont-British in the U.K. asked Universal to loan him to them for their horror film called The Ghoul. The timing couldn’t have been better. In March 1933, the American studio was still suffering greatly from the depletion of audiences caused by the Depression, losing nearly two million dollars the previous year. Other companies such as Fox, Paramount and Warners fared even worse. That month, the Producer’s Association instituted a 50% pay cut to most studio staff to last eight weeks. Because of his deal with the British, Karloff escaped this. He was also lucky to leave the country with any cash– a public panic run had closed all the banks. He and his wife made their first ever flight equipped with a big bag of change, the proceeds from the desperate company having to break into their own payphones to supply him.

A more luxurious trip awaited them on the S.S. Paris, and once in London, sumptuous rooms in the Dorchester hotel before Karloff reported to Lime Grove Studio to begin filming The Ghoul. It’s a handsomely-mounted tale, with atmospheric echoes of The Old Dark House and some tasty Egyptology references to remind us of The Mummy, high production values and design as well as a strong supporting cast.

The main premise is instigated by Karloff’s Professor Morlant, an Egyptologist whose passion has been corrupted into an all-consuming obsession with the promise of eternal life. He is dying, so intensifying his greed to such a pitch that he has stolen a priceless jewel, known as the Eternal Light, from the Egyptians as it forms a vital centre-piece in his planned occult ceremony. He worships the god Anubis – yes, the same one that blasted his character into kingdom come at the end of The Mummy – (will he never learn?). Morlant believes that if he is buried with the trinket, Anubis will appear before him during a full moon at 1 a.m. accept the jewel, closing his holy hand around it and open to Morlant: “the gates of immortality”.

Karloff plays his opening death-bed scenes with a fierce believable life-force that will stop at nothing to live on. His make-up, courtesy of Heinrich Heitfeld, emphasises the solemnity and weight of the actor’s features, as befitting a character who probably spent an unhealthy amount of time locked away in dark private contemplation. He possesses a heavy mono-brow as well as some unsightly scarring to the cheeks, which asks questions of where else he had been dabbling unwisely in pursuit of his evil ambition.

Although Karloff’s screen time is limited in The Ghoul, somewhat of an extended cameo really, his presence looms over proceedings while the heavy lifting is conveyed by an excellent and personable supporting cast of energy and flavour. Ernest Thesiger is reunited with Karloff from The Old Dark House (and most famously would collaborate on 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein) as his butler Laing, channelling a ripe Scottish brogue and dour disapproval reminiscent of John Laurie’s doom-bringer Frazer in Dad’s Army. “A man will na’ find peace who robs his heirs”, he comments on Morlant’s conniving. There’s a cinema debut from a young Ralph Richardson as the seemingly mild vicar Nigel Hartley. Richardson was hot from becoming the prestigious Old Vic theatre’s new leading man at this point in his career.

For those who need romance as part of the formula in old horror films (and there’s not much love for them at this keyboard), we have two developing ones here, both of which are off-kilter enough not to outstay their welcome. Betty and Ralph (the spirited Dorothy Hyson and suave Anthony Bushell) are two heirs to the Professor’s fortune who journey together to the will reading. They start off with a prickly relationship that soon softens, allowing Betty’s sassiness and Ralph’s heroic side to emerge.
The other, played more for entertaining comic relief is between Arabic servant Aga Ben Dragore, charged with claiming back the Eternal Light, and Betty’s cockney friend Miss Kaney. They play on an exotic culture clash where Harold Huth’s Dragore fakes the grandeur of a desert Sheikh to impress her - even more amusing when you consider the actor was actually from Huddersfield. Kathleen Harrison as Kaney breathlessly swallows every word of his stereotype with feather-brained plebeian charm. The punishment she would receive as one of his harem inspires more kinky fantasy for her than fear: “…Stripped to the waist and lashed for miles across the Sahara”. Harrison made her name playing this type of guileless, earthy Londoner, most notably as Mrs Huggett in the three late ‘40s Huggets series of family comedies – and made it to the impressive age of 103. Kaney is so besotted by Dragore’s fezzed faux Valentino-isms that she doesn’t see the revived Karloff about to throttle her from behind at the window while she waves merrily to Dragore. Comically, Morlant is so confused by her eccentric manner that he slopes off in search of a more deserving victim. Kaney later reveals a steel core under her fluffiness when Dragore’ s spell breaks and she threatens to dump the vital jewel down the well in spite of him.

The Egyptian-style tomb under Morland’s house is part of a marvellous production design incorporating the solid imposing door and hieroglyphic-lined walls leading to his sarcophagus. The whole house has an aura of creeping dread and benefits from gothic touches like the rough stone internal walls and ornamental figure-heads going up the staircase. The shadowy oppressive atmosphere is helped immeasurably by the work of Austrian cinematographer G√ľnther Krampf, who’d already shot the Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu as well as The Hands of Orlac amongst others. He made six films for Gaumont-British before returning to Germany, till his possible Jewish heritage made living under Nazi rule unsustainable. He ultimately spent the rest of his life in Britain.
As Morlant gets ready to receive Anubis’s gift of ever-lasting life, conflict surfaces amongst the factions in the house trying to seize the jewel for themselves. Even Rev. Hartley’s affable exterior cannot conceal a little uncharitableness: “Not a very courageous person, our foreign friend”, he observes of Dragore.

There’s actually some significant Christian religious symbolism in The Ghoul. As Morlant rises from the tomb, it’s hard not to draw a parallel with Jesus’s resurrection. Equally strong is the Christ-like humility with which he bares his chest in supplication before his god in preparation for ritually stabbing himself with a sword. Although Morlant craves a status beyond mere mortals, even in his hubris he recognises that he is a mere servant compared to the true immortals he venerates. His ceremonial death here is powerfully evoked in how Karloff surrenders himself with passion to the vulnerability of the moment. As he collapses, his fatal folly completed, he witnesses Anubis’s statue hand close its fingers around the jewel. We then discover that the hand belongs to Hartley, hiding himself to capture the trinket. The man of the cloth is a master criminal wanting the Emerald Light for himself - by any means necessary. As all megalomaniac plans do, it ultimately consumes him – in a tomb fire from which Ralph emerges, heroically carrying Betty.

The Ghoul is satisfying and all the more so as one of the earliest British horror films. It performed well in the UK but was not a hit in America. For decades after release, the film vanished presumed lost for ever until a poor quality print was found in 1969. Far better was the original camera negative that was located by luck in a disused old vault at Shepperton Studios in the 1980s – a tomb excavation of great non-Egyptian value for horror fans. This pristine version is now available to be enjoyed on DVD and Bluray.

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