Britain in the 1920s and a group of upper class partygoers are making their own entertainment, at the moment by trying to make the women scream by scaring them. After an elaborate game which sees Daphne (Veronica Carlson) manage not to cry out when she creeps upstairs in the darkened mansion and witnesses a friend apparently hanging himself, their host, Angela (Alexandra Bastedo), suggests that they begin dancing to the wind up gramophone instead. But then a new proposition arises: how about a race to Land's End and back before the night is over? Not such a good idea...
The Ghoul, not to be confused with the Boris Karloff horror movie of the thirties, was one of the first productions from would-be Hammer and Amicus rivals Tyburn, but they set up their company just at the time when the British film inudstry and its distinguished run of horror movies were going seriously out of fashion, so ended up rather neglected, not even securing a distribution deal in the United States. As a result, its reputation has been poor, and while it regularly turns up on late night television in its home country, there are few who feel much affection towards it.
A lot of this is to do with how desolate this little film feels, with one of the most downbeat endings of its decade, and the script by Hammer's Anthony Hinds (using his John Elder pen name) barely lets up the gloom for the whole of its nearly hour and a half running time. It may begin with the bright young things of the Charleston generation, but once those four of their number set out on the road, it all turns very bleak. Events conspire to split up the racing couples and when Daphne's car runs out of petrol, she sends her partner off to fetch some more only to venture out into the fog herself when she loses patience.
Of course, she should have waited in the car, but then there wouldn't be a story and Daphne is soon picked up by local handyman Tom (John Hurt) - literally, as he has knocked her out and taken her to his cabin. Escaping from his clutches she ends up at the nearby country pile, where owner and ex-priest Dr Lawrence (Peter Cushing) lives almost alone with his Indian housekeeper Ayah (Gwen Watford, none too convincing in the role). Or are they entirely alone? No, they are not, for predictably the house contains a dark secret, a curse from India that underlines the sense of white man's guilt that pervades the film.
Needless to say, the best aspect of this is Cushing, who brings a deep well of melancholy to a film that could have simply been another run of the mill potboiler. This is often attributed to the star losing his wife in the early seventies, and bringing his overwhelming grief to his role here actually makes the viewer uncomfortable, as if the actor is revealing too much of his inner turmoil. Whatever your reaction, he works wonders for a minor horror effort in anyone's book, and when you can believe that Lawrence is genuinely distraught then you can go some way to accepting the rest of the film. Really, The Ghoul isn't so bad, it's just that it's unrelentingly grim, and given what happens to most of the characters it's a fact that this is going to cheer nobody up. Yet if you're in the mood for being morose, this has a lot going for it. Music by Harry Robertson.
A much respected cinematographer for decades, British Francis made his way up from camera operator on films like The Small Back Room, Outcast of the Islands and Beat the Devil to fully fledged cinematographer on such films as Room at the Top, Sons and Lovers (for which he won his first Oscar), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The Innocents (a masterpiece of his art).