The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff

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1933 the ghoul

1933 the ghoul

From the Depths of the Earth, He Will Rise.

Long thought to be among the ranks of famous lost films within ten years of its 1933 release, The Ghoul finally came to light in the late sixties. That version, however, was missing several significant scenes and was almost unwatchable, though perhaps the Czech subtitles helped. Though the film created a minor sensation at the time in merely being rediscovered, the quality and incompleteness of the elements made it a mere footnote in its star’s (Boris Karloff) filmography.

Then, in the early 1980s, an almost perfect copy was found in a long disused and forgotten film vault at Shepperton Studios. Quickly restored and released on DVD in 2003, The Ghoul has since grown in stature as audiences appreciated the first horror film of the British sound era.

The only film made during a brief contract dispute with Universal Studios, The Ghoul also marked the first time in over two decades that Karloff had set foot in his native England. Coming after the hugely successful The Mummy, The Ghoul was enough to scare Universal into acceding to his demands, which included a raise and the opportunity to work at other studios. Karloff was back in Hollywood in time to begin filming of John Ford’s 1934 film The Lost Patrol.

Now complete, it is possible to look more objectively at the film. It is a convoluted story which begins and ends well but has a woeful middle third. Ironically, Karloff is only in the opening scenes and the last thirty minutes of the film, with his only dialogue occurring in the first ten minutes. The balance of his performance, though carrying the entire picture easily, consist of stumbling around scaring the pants off of everyone.

Karloff is an aged Egyptologist who is in his final moments- succumbing to an undisclosed disfigurement. In his last words, he demands that his manservant Laing (Ernest Lesiger) bandage a rare Egyptian jewel “The Eternal Light” to his hand upon his death. The jewel will be Karloff’s payment to his Egyptian deities in exchange for immortality.

Karloff passes, but Laing steals the jewel first before honoring the balance of the deathbed request, laying him to rest in a full scale tomb just downwind of the main house. With Karloff out of the picture for a seeming eternity, The Ghoul devolves into absurdity, though perhaps some found humor in in.

In a madcap hunt for the jewel all kinds of folks show up on the estate. These include his nephew and his girlfriend (Anthony Bushell and Dorothy Hyson), his lawyer Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke), a mock vicar (Ralph Richardson) and an Egyptian sheik (Harold Huth).

Last and least is Kathleen Harrison as Kaney, a friend of the nephew’s girlfriend who quickly attached herself to the sheik as a potential husband. As she is looking for a husband more than the jewel, her time on screen is spent being a bad attempt at comic relief.

This middle portion of the film which introduces the menagerie of treasure hunters nearly brings the picture to its knees. Each of the treasure hunters has their own token subplot but none of them go anywhere and all of the characters are rather flat and undeveloped. Only Cedric Hardwicke and to a lesser extent Ralph Richardson (in his first screen role) manage to elevate themselves above the material.

When Karloff does awake, he realizes that the gem is missing and goes off wordlessly seeking it. He does momentarily recapture it but much of the remaining film is close to a game of hot-potato, with the treasure changing hands countless times. Finally we are given a rather slipshod explanation that poor Karloff’s rising from the dead isn’t the result of any curse or possession, but simply a misdiagnosis which resulted in him being buried alive.

So the storyline of the film is discombobulated at best and poor at worst. The cast and especially the star don’t have the material to work with. But all is not lost.

American T. Hayes Hunter was given the task of directing this English film. Having cut his teeth in the silent era, Hayes would retire from films the following year. But his mark on the film is profound. In addition to Karloff’s own wordless performance for the finale of the film, much of the film seems also a throwback to the pre-sound era. Long stretches are without dialogue and with the exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions silent film fans know and love.

That said, even without speaking Karloff is by far the dominant force in the film. Though many of his motions of overdone in the style of the picture, he is a dynamic force even then, showing surely why Gaumont British wanted him on the picture.

But strangely the silence is effective because there is still sound in the form of an almost constant score which runs throughout the picture. In the same year that King Kong was heralded as the first film to be completely scored, The Ghoul comes on strong with a combination of repurposed Wagner and original music from relative unknown Leighton Lewis. Both are extremely effective.

To call the work of Director of Photography Gunther Krampf and Art Director Alfred Junge effective would be an understatement. It is their work which make The Ghoul qualify as a horror picture. Without being kitschy at all, this has the gothic mansion down cold and ranks among the best of the genre. Everything stairwell (try counting them) is heavier and creepier than the last. Though Egyptology makes many props a given, here we see a subdued approach, with only a statue of the diety, Karloff’s sarcophagus, and a few other small pieces. The only extravagance of Karloff’s profession are the detailed carvings in his tomb.

Lastly, The Ghoul is entirely dark. There simply is no significant light. The interiors are light entirely by candles, usually carried by the cast, with all those creepy staircases plunged almost entirely in blackness and yet casting very severe shadows. Even in the few exterior scenes it is always night or foggy- or both.

Though perhaps The Ghoul is a bit of a letdown given the nearly mythic status it achieved while it was lost, there is more than enough here to make it an enjoyable picture. Stunning visuals, a wondrously adept score and of course the great Karloff himself make this a lost film well rediscovered.