Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: ‘The Ghoul’ (1933)

Just two years after scoring a pair of monster smashes with Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal Pictures was already experiencing hard times. The studio all but ceased functioning throughout the first months of 1933, laying off employees and putting contracts on hold (though the studio would get itself together in time to release the summer-season hit Invisible Man). Despite the overseas situation, Gaumont Studios was making Britain’s first significant bid to capitalize on America’s horror fad. The result is a false start; it would take England 25 years to fully establish a unique horror vision and set the genre’s standard for the subsequent decade. Nevertheless, The Ghoul is a good movie, though one that might have been terrific with better orchestrated acting and crisper editing.

Director T. Hayes Hunter follows the Universal format pretty faithfully, using several of the studio’s stars on loan, fashioning a fairly memorable creature in the speechless Frankenstein Monster tradition, appropriating the Egyptian iconography of the previous year’s Mummy, and indulging wholeheartedly in the kind of German-Expressionist shadow play that distinguished all of Universal’s horror efforts to date. Professor Morlant (Boris Karloff) is a dying Egyptologist who insists on being entombed with a rare jewel, the “Eternal Light”. He vows to his servant Laing (Karloff’s recent Old Dark House co-star Ernest Thesiger) that he will return from the dead if anyone swipes the jewel from his dead paw. Naturally, someone does, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

The premise is pretty decent, refurbishing bits of Universal’s past hits, as well as paying homage to classic ghost stories such as “The Golden Arm”. The talky, lumpy script by Frank King, who also wrote the novel and co-wrote the play on which this film was based, is no great shakes. The long stretch between Karloff’s entombment and his inevitable return is bloated with a lot of gabbing from grating characters. A product of the silent era, Hunter apparently had trouble adapting his style to sound film. The actors all bellow their lines as if they’re playing to the balcony.

The director’s way with a camera, however, is beyond reproach; his work is more inventive, fluid, and purposefully gloomy than that of Browning in Dracula or Whale in Frankenstein. His use of dancing shadows and bold framing is remarkable. His experiments with darkness are audacious, even if they’re not always completely successful: some images are so black it’s impossible to figure out what’s happening on screen.

There are also some nice, signature touches scattered throughout that puff life into even the saggiest passages, such as Harold Huth preparing himself an absinthe cocktail, the way the bursting of roasting chestnuts creates a bit of tension in an otherwise innocuous scene, and an effectively gruesome self-mutilation late in the picture. Karloff is underused, but Thesiger does an admirable job of picking up the slack with his typical impudence and wholly unconvincing Scottish brogue. It’s always fun to see him working with Karloff regardless of the quantity or quality of their screen time together. The Ghoul also deserves props for being one of the few films with the guts to explore the S&M possibilities of coffee making.
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