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THE GHOUL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Richardson, Ernest Thesiger, Dorothy Hyson, Anthony Bushell, Kathleen Harrison, Harold Huth
Director: T. Hayes Hunter
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.37:1
Studio: MGM
Features: None
Length: 80 minutes
Release Date: August 26, 2003

"When the full moon strikes the door of my tomb, I will come back.  You hear?  I will come back to kill!"

Film *** ½

In 1932, legendary horror film icon Boris Karloff portrayed the mummified remains of Imhotep in the Universal classic The Mummy.  The film was a smash hit for Universal and launched a series of successful films about the Egyptian movie monster.  Shortly after completing The Mummy, Karloff returned to England, where he portrayed another undead creature in a film long considered lost - The Ghoul (1933).

The Ghoul had been one of the earliest British horror films of the sound era.  In addition to a stellar cast including a young Ralph Richardson, The Ghoul had also featured the exceptional cinematography of Günther Krampf, best known for his exquisite work in German expressionism (most notably, Pandora's Box and Nosferatu).  Unfortunately, the original film negative eventually succumbed to the ravages of time and The Ghoul itself became a "lost" film, gradually drifting out of public awareness.  

For years, no prints were known to remain.  The film existed solely in the memories of the lingering few who had once seen it.  In time, a subtitled nitrate release print was eventually located in the Czech National Archives.  However, in a cruel twist of fate, that print was not only incomplete but was in such poor condition, with horribly grainy and degraded images, that the film itself was virtually unwatchable.  Nevertheless, with no other available source, all subsequent copies of The Ghoul were struck from this sub-standard print.

The Ghoul would likely have remained in this nether-realm of obscurity were it not for the miraculous discovery of an uncut print at the British Film Institute.  Not only was this print intact, but its picture quality was a significant improvement over the Czech print.  Images which had previously been washed out or destroyed by nitrate deterioration in the Czech print were now crystal-clear.  Film composition that had been cropped in prior prints could now be viewed for the first time in decades, further revealing the beauty of Krampf's cinematography.  Thanks to meticulous restorative efforts by MGM, The Ghoul can be seen once more in all its glory.  

The film's story is set mainly in the decrepit mansion of an old Egyptologist, Professor Morlant (Boris Karloff).  Morlant is dying, but he possesses hope for a "cure" in a sacred gemstone - the "Eternal Light."  According to legend, this gemstone will bestow upon its owner the gift of immortality if offered to the god Anubis after death.  Morlant intends to use the gemstone and carefully instructs Laing, his fear-stricken manservant (Ernest Thesiger), on the proper arrangements after his death.  Of course, should the manservant fail to carry out Morlant's exact orders, the old archaeologist promises to return from the dead to seek his revenge!

Morlant eventually dies, and like bugs from the woodworks, heirs and fortune-seekers quickly appear out of the night to lay claim to the Morlant fortune and the sacred gemstone.  One heir is the stiff and rude Ralph (Anthony Bushell), a chap so despicably unlikable that I must gleefully report that he gets shot later in the film (but sadly survives his wound).  The second heir, Betty (Dorothy Hyson), is friendlier but exhibits extreme brain-freeze when she cozies up to Ralph, who is supposed to be her cousin.  Comic relief is provided by Betty's daffy Gracie Allen-ish roommate Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) and a local parson (Sir Ralph Richardson).  Other fortune-hunters include Broughton, Morlant's greedy lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke), and Dagore (Harold Huth), a mysterious Egyptian with a secret agenda of his own.

These uninvited guests and visitors, arriving together at the Morlant mansion, soon learn that they are not alone.  As it turns out, Laing had disobeyed his former master, neglecting to bury the "Eternal Light" with Morlant but hiding it away instead.  And so, on an evening of the full moon, in the dead of night, the door to Morlant's mausoleum slowly swings open and from within, a dark figure emerges for vengeance.

Suffice it to say that the evening is not a pleasant one.  This creepy ambience is further enhanced by the dreary nature of the Morlant mansion.  A dark and old manor, it is filled with the prerequisite shadows, long hallways lit by flickering candlelight, and fluttering curtains swayed by whistling winds.  When Karloff himself finally re-appears, the film resonates with tremendous atmosphere.  As a classically stage-trained actor, Karloff was an accomplished actor and demonstrates incredible screen presence in The Ghoul.  Karloff's performance in this film is further justification of his status as one of the greats of the horror genre.

The Ghoul is a classic remainder of how horror films were once made.  This British film compares quite favorably to its more famous Universal counterparts, equaling them in atmosphere, cinematography, and style.  The storyline may be a little creaky in typical 1930's fashion, but the visuals and Karloff's performance help to make this film a classic.  Rarely are "lost" films ever recovered, so the restoration of The Ghoul is truly a major boon for all fans of classic horror films.

Video *** ½

The Ghoul looks jaw-droppingly good!  It is wonderful to see Krampf's impressive cinematography so stunningly restored.

The transfer itself is quite excellent, with good contrast levels and deep black tones showing no break-up or bleeding.  Details are fine enough to make out the nocturnal swirls of London fog and even the wrinkles in Karloff's rotting flesh makeup.  Shockingly enough, the transfer shows essentially no hint of dust or debris!  There isn't even a spectre of nitrate deterioration in this transfer, either.  In short, The Ghoul looks better than most color films half its age!  Kudos to MGM for a truly stellar job with this film!

Audio ** ½

For such an old film, made during the infancy of sound technology, one might reasonably expect fairly primitive audio quality.  However, all things considered, The Ghoul sounds fairly decent.  There is no appreciable background hiss to speak of, and the dialogue is very clean, if occasionally reedy.

Features none (zero stars)

This is a bare bones disc, although the background music for the menu screen is quite fantastic and moody.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Another long-lost horror milestone, Albert Einstein's original 1910 silent Frankenstein, has also recently been released to DVD.  Classic horror enthusiasts and archivists will certainly want to try to track that film down, too!

Summary:

Once considered a "lost" film, The Ghoul has been miraculously restored to life in this eerie MGM DVD.  For fans of Boris Karloff and classic horror films, The Ghoul is essential viewing and a true treasure!

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