Fresh off his Universal horror triumphs, Boris Karloff returned to British shores with The Ghoul, not to be confused with the 1975 chiller from Tyburn Films. Karloff plays Professor Morlant, a one-eyed, disfigured Egyptologist who worships Anubis, god of the dead, from his death bed. Believing possession of a jewel called “the Eternal Light” will grant him life after death, Morlant has his jittery manservant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) bind it to his hand, before his burial inside an Egyptian-style tomb (in rural England!).
Harking to Karloff’s star turn in The Mummy (1932), this slightly creaky gothic melodrama can’t match the Universal movies but is still a lot of fun for fans of old-school horror. Despite somewhat theatrical staging by T. Hayes Hartley, a silent film veteran with only a few gigs left before retirement, the film oozes atmosphere with images like Morlant’s shadowy, old house and creepy strangers lurking about in the fog. A few scenes, including the moment Morlant carves arcane symbols onto his chest, are surprisingly graphic and were only recently restored for the DVD release.
Good old Boris makes one seriously scary undead fiend and possibly qualifies as the first fast-moving zombie, decades ahead of 28 Days Later (2002) or Nightmare City (1980). He is joined by his future Bride of Frankenstein (1935) co-star, Ernest Thesiger, playing a more sympathetic role than usual. Thesiger’s Scottish manservant gets all the fun, spooky lines (“A man shall nae find peace who robs his heirs!”), despite sounding distractingly like Fraser in Dad’s Army.
Even as early as this, horror movies were starting to get self-aware and this includes comic moments such as Morlant sneaking upon a clueless Kaney, or when Aga Ben Dragore tells her to close her eyes, briefly stares at the audience then hurries away. Kaney falls for the shifty foreigner (don’t expect political correctness from a Thirties movie) as their banter spoofs Rudolph Valentino movies (“Now I will show you how we make coffee under the stars”). However, the tittering sidekick (“I wish I was back home in bed!”) shows surprising pluck amidst the climax and arguably saves the day.
Along with theatrical performances, all the actors are caked in thick makeup, save for young leads Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell. The latter essays a particularly obnoxious and disagreeable “hero”, who screams and bullies his way through every scene. Far more agreeable is the great Ralph Richardson as the outwardly benign vicar, although it grates that smugly suspicious Ralph is always right, while the kindly women emerge as naïve fools. Things lapse into chaos amidst a flurry of last minute revelations, including a disappointing, “plausible” explanation for Morlant’s living death straight out of Scooby-Doo.