DENIS GIFFORD'S
MONSTERS OF THE MOVIES
(1977)

 

Monster #24 - The Ghoul

 
 
 

United Kingdom, 1933

A Gaumont British Production
77 mins, black & white, 1.37:1 aspect ratio, 35mm film

Director - T. Hayes Hunter
Screenplay - Roland Pertwee, John Hastings Turner, Rupert Downing
Original Play - Frank King, Leonard Hines

Cinematographer - GŁnther Krampf
Production Design - Alfred Junge
Makeup - Heinrich Heitfled (uncredited)
Music - Richard Wagner, arranged by Louis Levy
Editing - Ian Dalrymple

Boris Karloff (Prof. Henry Morlant), Cedric Hardwicke (Broughton), Ernest Thesiger (Laing), Dorothy Hyson (Betty Harlon), Anthony Bushell (Ralph Morlant), Ralph Richardson (Nigel Hartley)


 
Monsters of the Movies served as an introduction to many "classic" monsters in the shapes and forms of vampires and werewolves, but there was also an entire panopticon of very different horrors, and the Ghoul, number 24 on Denis Gifford's alphabetic roll-call list, was one of those.
 

A straightforward case of nomen est omen, the name in this case really does say it all, and the still picture selected by Gifford - showing Boris Karloff as the deceased Professor Morlant who has ghoulishly returned from the dead - immediately left an impression on my 13-year old self at the time.

It is indeed the classic visual from the movie (also used for some of the theatrical posters), and it had me make a mental note of the name Boris Karloff. Only a few weeks later, after a happenstance purchase of Gifford's Pictorial History of Horror Movies, was I able to fully grasp the actor's status and influence on horror movies in general.

The Ghoul has a long list of "firsts" and unique aspects. First off, it was the only British horror film produced in the vein of a Universal movie, fusing a gothic England shrouded in fog with Ancient Egyptian mystery.

 


(Carousel Books / Transworld Publishing)

 
It was also the first British (and third overall) movie to have the brand new "H" (for "Horrific") certificate slapped on by the British Board of Film Censors due to the film’s brutal murders and a plot revolving around premature burial.

"[When] the first true horror films arrived in Britain (...) nobody was more horrified than the British censor." (Gifford, 1973)

Following the release of The Mummy, Universal took a short moment to consider what to do next with its horror star and bridged the time by loaning out Karloff for one movie to Gaumont British - which also marked the first time that Karloff (who was thrilled by the prospect) had acted in Britain since leaving for Canada in 1909.

“I can’t tell you what the first sight of London did to me (...) I was afraid that memory would play tricks on me - that things would have changed. But they hadn’t changed (...) it seemed as if I had been gone only a day. That first night in the hotel room, I didn’t sleep a wink. I simply sat by an open window until dawn - filling my eyes with the sight of it, my lungs with the odour of it. London! That was all I had the opportunity of doing for the next six weeks, for we started work on the picture the very next day.” (Jacobs, 2013)

The movie was shot in March and the first half of April 1933 at Lime Grove Studios in London's Sheperherd's Bush, and released in the UK in August 1933 and in the US in January 1934. The film was financially successful in Britain but disappointingly less so in the States.

 

  One very special aspect of The Ghoul is the fact that it subsequently vanished completely and was long considered to be a lost film.

But just like its main character, it came back from its assumed grave when horror film expert and collector William K. Everson discovered a highly degraded subtitled copy in 1969 in Czechoslovakia. Although missing eight minutes of footage (depicting two violent murder scenes), it was thought to be the only surviving copy of the film - until a disused and forgotten film vault at Shepperton Studios was cleared in the early 1980s. Not only did it contain the nitrate camera negative of the film, it was also in perfect condition. Handed over to the custodians at the British Film Institute, it served as the master for new prints.

Network released The Ghoul on Blu-ray in 2015, based on a print from the BFI archives and digitally restored to perfect clarity both in picture (2k HD) and sound. Extras include a special booklet and image galleries, as well as the by now almost obligatory commentary (in this case by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones). Given its history of having long been thought lost, it certainly makes for a very special viewing.

But Karloff's experience of shooting his first British film wasn't as positive as he might have hoped for, as his wife revealed in a letter to her mother.

 

"Boris as usual doesn’t like the story - or his part - and they’re having an awful time with the make-up (...) He says the make-up man doesn’t know anything about Boris’s type of work [and] is German besides and can’t understand a word Boris says. So it’s the same agony of starting a new picture even if it’s in England.” (Jacobs, 2013)

 
Karloff's struggles weren't, perhaps, all that surprising, given that he confessed to reporters upon arriving by ocean liner at Southampton (i.e. two days before shooting commenced and after several days at sea) that he hadn't even read the script yet and only knew that he was to play a part similar to the one in The Old Dark House (Rigby, 2015).

Contemporary critics in Britain weren't too impressed, but when Film Weekly felt it simply "aped Hollywood Horrors" they may have missed the point of the movie entirely.

The Ghoul is an interesting piece of (British) horror movie history, and it starts out very strong for the first twenty plus minutes - before losing its sense of direction and purpose and turning into a rather mediocre film, saved only by virtue of the intensely atmospheric visuals generated by the sets and the camera work.

 

 
Karloff would return three years later to shoot two more British films, both of which (The Man Who Changed His Mind and Juggernaut) would receive far more praise and appreciation by audiences and critics alike than The Ghoul.
 
 
 
Monster Factor:

Overall Movie Rating:

  IMHO:

An interesting piece of (British) horror movie history, The Ghoul starts out very strong for the first third of its runtime before gradually losing its sense of direction and purpose. The sets and camera work provide top notch atmosphere, but the script makes little sense the further the movie progresses - at times additionally hampered by typically pedestrian period acting. Boris Karloff has a few strong moments but is generally reduced to lumbering rather than acting - a department where Ernest Thesiger steals the show.

 
 
 
 

Denis Gifford on The Ghoul
in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973)

"Boris Karloff came home in 1933. It was a working holiday. He called on his delighted brothers, then made The Ghoul (1933) at Shepherd's Bush. It was old home week on all counts, for as Professor Morlant, Egyptologist, he rose glowing from his grave to seek a sacred jewel. Cedric Hardwicke lent stolid support and Ernest Thesiger lent his nostrils. T. Hayes Hunter's piece of fogbound Gothic, photographed by Gunther Krampf, was the only British horror film in the true Hollywoood tradition, and the first to be "notified as horrific"."

 
 
 
 
SOURCES

GIFFORD Denis (1973) A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Hamlyn

JACOBS Stephen (2013) "When Boris Karloff Came Home: The Story Behind The Ghoul 1933", Spooky Isles, published online 27 April 2013

RIGBY Jonathan (2015) English Gothic, 2nd edition, Signum Books

 


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The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction in this non-commercial review and research context is considered to be fair use
as set out by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. par. 107
and in accordance with the the Berne Convention
for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

All images from Monsters of the Movies (Carousel/Transworld) were scanned from my personal copy purchased in 1977
All images of Blu-ray or DVD covers were scanned from my personal copies

Page created 24 October 2023
Last updated 29 October 2023

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