Movie Review: The Ghoul (1933)
“From the Depths of the Earth, He Will Rise.”
The Ghoul (1933)
Director: T. Hayes Hunter
Cast: Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger
Synopsis: An Egyptologist returns from the grave to reclaim the stolen jewel he believed would grant him eternal life.
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Loosely based on a 1928 novel by Frank King (and the play he subsequently co-penned with Leonard J. Hines), T. Hayes Hunter’s creaky chiller, The Ghoul, can lay claim to a number of firsts which lend it a level of distinction that’s greatly at odds with the quality of its material. Britain’s first horror movie of the sound era, it marked horror maestro Boris Karloff’s first appearance in a British movie as well as Ralph Richardson’s screen debut. It was long considered lost until film historian William K. Everson discovered an incomplete and subtitled nitrate release print while pottering around the Czech National Archives in Prague in the 1960s. More than 20 years later, workmen clearing a sound stage at Shepperton Studio found a locked door behind a stack of lumber which concealed a long-forgotten vault in which resided the original nitrate camera negative of The Ghoul in perfect condition.
It tells the story of Professor Morlant (a bushy-browed Boris Karloff – The Bells, The Black Cat), an Egyptologist dying from a rare disfiguring disease (which may or may not be responsible for those eyebrows) who believes that eternal life will be his if a rare stolen jewel that has come into his possession is bandaged to his hand when he dies. However, following the dead professor’s internment in a mausoleum on the grounds of his house, the jewel is stolen from his hand. Understandably miffed by this turn of events – he did, after all, warn of dire consequences if his dying wishes weren’t carried out – the disgruntled professor rises from the dead in order to locate the stolen jewel so that he can complete his journey to eternal life. And woe betide anyone who gets in his way, because death has bestowed superhuman strength upon the professor judging by the way he bends solid bars in order to gain entrance back into his old home.
Even in 1933, the idea of a risen-from-the-dead Karloff stalking those who have wronged him was nothing new; it had been done the year before, in Karl Freund’s The Mummy, and the likelihood that Gaumont were attempting to cash in on that success, together with the craze for ‘old haunted house’ movies, is inescapable. Karloff isn’t even around for much of the picture, with his appearances bookending some dull shenanigans designed to ensure a suitable number of suspects and potential victims are gathered at Morlant’s house on the night that he returns from the dead.
Karloff delivers the goods, hamming it up for all he’s worth in his deathbed scenes, which are, in fact, the only ones in which he gets any lines to speak, and stalking his victims with a face like thunder. The rest of the cast features some impressive names – in addition to Ralph Richardson (Woman of Straw, The Bed Sitting Room) as a local vicar, there’s Cedric Hardwicke (The White Tower, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel) as Morlant’s grasping lawyer and Ernest Thesiger (The Robe) as his butler – all of whom struggle to rise above Rupert Downing’s dreary screenplay. Also be warned that, like many horror movies from way back when, The Ghoul features some excruciatingly unfunny comic relief, this time from Kathleen Harrison (Convict 99, Turn the Key Softly) as leading lady Dorothy Hyson’s best friend, a frustrated spinster who throws herself at Harold Huth’s sinister Arab with all the grace and subtlety a deeply frustrated spinster can muster.
The Ghoul was later remade as the ghastly 1961 comedy, What a Carve Up!.
(Reviewed 2nd January 2017)