Monday, October 1, 2018
The Ghoul (1933)
Long believed to be lost until its rediscovery in the 1980s, The Ghoul is a Boris Karloff film that I was quite looking forward to! I can't help but feel rather quite disappointed by what I saw, however...
Egyptologist Professor Henry Morlant is dying, and wishes to go into the afterlife on his terms, with a mystical artifact he acquired from the country he admires so greatly. Swearing to come back from the grave if it's ever stolen, he soon makes good on his promise. Meanwhile, Morlant's heirs Raiph and Betty (plus her goofy fiend Kaney) arrive at the estate to find out what'll become of his money, meeting a mysterious Arab along the way who claims to be a friend of the late professor, but is really intent on reclaiming the jewel. He'll have to stand in line though, because not only are there other thieves on the prowl, but the undead Morlant himself...
The Ghoul is a little slow to start, but has some great spooky build-up. This ends up being squandered when the movie meanders along without much happening. It's almost half an hour before the main protagonists are introduced, and they barely interact with the story. They're just...there. They don't witness much spooky goings-on at all, and when they do finally go to take action for the first time in the movie, there's only 10 minutes left, and the undead Morlant has already found what he's wanted and is actively trying to kill himself. By simply getting involved, you get the feeling that the heroes will only end up needlessly prolonging the movie. That doesn't come to pass though, only because all they do is watch the ghoul die again, having contributed zero to his downfall.
Getting specifically to Morlant, I'm a little confused by his motivations. So he's acquired the 'fire of life', and will carry it with him to the afterlife, but what next? Is he seeking immortality, because he makes mention that he'll only come back if the jewel is stolen. Sooo...he doesn't want immortality then? Why's he bothering with the whole expensive rigmarole in the first place then if he just intends to die like anyone else?
All of that end up being irrelevant with the reveal that Morlant was never really dead, but had just fallen into a cataleptic state. That's a pretty rubbish twist as it removes any tension or interesting story from the proceedings. Instead of an undead ghoul seeking revenge, we're instead just witnessing a cataleptic old man slightly inconveniencing a couple of people before dropping dead. This is such a disappointment. It takes forever for the titular ghoul to come back for his revenge, and shortly after he does, we're given this cop out. It's why I don't mind spoiling the twist because of it delivering such a negative effect, and opening up a fair share of plot holes (like why is Boris made-up to look like a zombie, or how he literally bends steel).
Despite being your typical strapping young hero in looks, Raiph is very shouty and abrasive, and comes off as a tad unlikeable, though he mellows a little in demeanour (if not in pitch) as the movie goes on, and the way he takes care of the human villain is hilarious as it is swift. Betty meanwhile is a bubbly ball of sweetness, who is much more pleasant to watch, even if her female companion gets more to do. Speaking of, Kathleen Harrison is darling as Kaney, the comic relief, providing practically the only amusing moments in the entire film. She totally saves the day in the end, too!
It is a little annoying how horribly judgemental the otherwise nice local parson is of Morlant's faith, constantly insulting the Egyptian religion. We do get a nice comeback from the Arabic Aga Ben Dragore though, when he proclaims "The Egyptians were not pagans, sir!". Kaney is approving, as is even the kinda rude Raiph! It's particularly amusing how Dragore indulges Kaney's wild fancies about exotic Egypt. She also seems to exhibit a bit of a kinky side with him, wanting to be treated like a Circassian slave girl. I imagine any Circassian moviegoers would laugh their ass off at this, and be impressed that a movie period (let alone one from 1933) mentions their existence!
The turn of Dragore's character into a bit of a villain at the end didn't really make much sense. He's not a bad guy-All he wants is the return of his country's stolen property. All he could do is ask and they'd probably give it to him. His turn was also unnecessary considering there's already a human villain in the climax. I guess the writers were in a bit of a pickle when they realised that Raiph's big moment clocked that guy out cold well before the final reel.
The climax to The Ghoul is a total mess. First it reveals that Morlant's resurrection wasn't supernatural at all and he anticlimactically dies for real. Then the Parson is revealed to be a criminal mastermind as he steals the jewel. No sooner than he opens his mouth with this revelation is he punted on the head with a vase and almost forgotten. Then Dragore busts into the tomb and traps the leads in with a roiling fire, stealing the diamond for himself until bumping into Morlant's lawyer, who would steal it for himself if not for the fact that Kaney has gotten ahold of it. This all happens in only 10 minutes, by the way! We go from not enough happening to too much happening at once! Nearly half a dozen characters are suddenly revealed to be bad guys, the jewel changes hands just about every 30 seconds, and the main duo only escape a fiery fate through what I presume to be an act of God, after which the movie just stops, satisfied that everything has been wrapped up, and not bothering with a denouement.
The acting is one of the better parts of The Ghoul. Boris Karloff's performance falters a little to begin with thanks to his character's ailing condition, and the weird make-up. He already looks like a ghoul even when alive! Things don't improve when he dies. The make-up he has then is good (really good in close-up!), but he doesn't get to say as much as a single word once he's back from the grave. Makes sense I guess, but when the actor comes off as awkward in his delivery because of his character's sickness, it kinda sucks to not hear him speak in a more healthy condition.
The rest of the actors do well, save for Anthony Bushell's pitch, and some of the overdramatic acting, such as Ernest Thesiger's (bearer of a possibly phony sounding accent to boot).
I think the biggest issue I take with The Ghoul is that its setting is fantastic, and thus feels hard done by being in this movie. The large house is a grand and Gothic abode, and the mock-up of an Egyptian tomb in the English countryside looks. The direction is quite nice too, with many well framed moments. I dig the poster, with its almost surrealist design, like it's a fancy European flick!
To finish, I don't recommend The Ghoul. It's not very enjoyable, and poor Boris is mostly absent. I'd suggest watching bits and pieces if only for Kathleen Harrison though!...