The Ghoul (1933)
Most people will tell you that the British Horror Film didn’t come into its own until Dead Of Night, which didn’t see the light of day (ha!) until after the second world war.
Which leaves almost half a decade of film making sitting there being un-horror-like, if what those “most people” say is actually true. Which it isn’t.
Granted, it was the American studios that first really hit on the idea of big budget horror spectaculars in the 1930s, but let us not forget that in those big budget spectaculars there was more than a sprinkling of good old Brit talent helping things along.
That’s talent like Mr Boris Karloff, who spent much of the decade clomping around in big boots, chucking children into ponds, and opening doors with creaky hinges – to varying, but money-spinning effect.
Yes, not many people know this, but Boris Karloff was actually British. Born Reg Dwight in 1831, he was already 100 years old when Gandalf The Grey picked him to play Frankenstein in the film of the same name. Due to his astonishing age, very little makeup was required for Dwight to play the monster – he had been using an ingenious nut-and-bolt system to secure his head to his torso since having it shot off during the Crimean War, and had lost the top of his head to Doc Holliday in a card game in 1880.
And those bags under his eyes were real- seriously, I’m not joking. The director picked him on looks alone, without hearing him audition. The only stipulation he had was that Dwight change his name, as he’d heard that an up-and-coming music hall artiste called Cliff Richard had already decided on it as a stage name. Dwight decided on “Headoff the Cor-Blimey”, and the rest was history. Once someone had told him not to be so fucking stupid and got him to change it again.
Indeed, such was Karloff’s astonishing natural look that when Mary Shelley came to write the book of the film a year later, the publishers insisted she tone it down a bit and make him “just a big bloke with a bit of stitching and sort of yellowish skin”. Unfortunately, the first-time novelist misunderstood this instruction and completely re-wrote the screenplay, adding in a load of nonsense about boats stuck in ice, changing the names so the creator had the monster’s name, and completely leaving out the windmill. The publishers were furious, apparently, but realising it was too late to do anything about it, they put the book out anyway, hoping no-one would notice. Luckily, no-one did.
With his first pay packet, Karloff bought some rudimentary plastic surgery. In his autobiography he later wrote “frankly, I was fed up of looking like a pancake-headed spastic”, an unfortunate turn of phrase as this led to him being sacked as the public face of the charity Scope, which was going through a rebrand at the time and trying to forget its own troublesome past. His hasty decision also infuriated film director James Whale, who was busy on pre-production for sequel Bride Of Frankenstein at the time. He wrote in his autobiography “frankly, darling, I was abso-bloody-lutely fuming. I can remember saying to Brendan Fraser – ‘where the hell are we going to find another spasmo with such a pancake-shaped head?’ Livid, I was.”
In the end, Karloff did return to the role, but audiences could tell that this time he was performing under make-up and most people agree that Bride Of Frankenstein is much inferior to the film it followed, mainly due to this. Whale never forgave Karloff, and indeed was still banging on about it during his infamous 1980s radio phone-ins, when he would often refer to callers as “pancake-headed spastics” before cutting them off mid-call.
But the change in his appearance did widen Karloff’s appeal enabling him to work on screen as a normal human being occasionally. And this led directly to him returning to England in 1933 to work on The Ghoul (despite some problems with his passport – he’d forgotten to have a new photo taken, and when he did, he was smiling, so he had to have it done again).
So, because of Karloff’s involvement, The Ghoul really does act as a kind-of starting point for British horror films as we know them, and is these days regarded as a classic. But ‘twas not always so, as apparently at one point someone decided to put the only existing print into a skip in New York. In a remarkable turn of events, this sole version was rescued by Hollywood star Tony Curtis, who had accidentally thrown out his favourite wig and was desperate to get it back.
Because of this shoddy treatment, Curtis’ hair never looked quite the same on-screen again, and The Ghoul didn’t fair too well either – the version I saw on VHS jumps around like a twat, cutting from scene to scene without any warning and at times sounding like it was recorded at the bottom of a well. There could well have been a lovely remastered blu-ray version brought out since, but frankly, I’m not all that bothered about tracking it down.
In my old-skool version, at one point everyone in a scene suddenly leaps across the room and a character responds to a statement never asked, by someone who hasn't spoken yet. Makes you wonder what he said, when the reposte is "I think you must be the rudest man I've ever met!"
The film itself is very much a product of its time – without a Hollywood budget, Hollywood actors or any kind of lighting at all (by the looks of things) it’s creaky, wooden and dark. Everyone talks in full-on plum, and there’s a distinct amount of cue-waiting going on, with people standing around waiting for something to happen.
But there are many saving graces, not least of which is the brittle and dark humour which pervades the entire production. The first words uttered, as a door is opened to a dodgy-looking Egyptian type, are "We don't want no lino or nothin'..." (well, it made me laugh), and there's a memorable exchange between the soon-to-snuff-it Karloff and his butler;
Butler: "You were always suspicious... have you never trusted a living soul?"
Karloff: "Only fools... I trust you."
The basic story revolves around Egyptologist Professor Morland (Karloff), who is dying. He entrusts his final wishes to his butler - he must be buried with his most prized possession, The Eternal Light. Only then can he gain eternal life. If the butler messes up, Morland promises that he will come back... to kill!
Of course, this plot point doesn’t make a lick of sense – if Morland can come back from the dead anyway, what difference does it make?
Anyway, Morland shuffles off this mortal coil after a bit of "he's dead... no he isn't... yes he is..." etc and it's not long before the butler has purloined the Eternal Light.
He's soon joined by an assortment of the usual collection of untrustworthy Egyptians, an annoying-but-resourceful nephew, a feisty niece and her friend.
At 48 minutes in, Karloff finally wakes up in his tomb and sets off to recover the Eternal Light.
The Ghoul, despite its age, is still entertaining. The spooky, shadow-filled sets are at times too shadow-filled to see what's going on, and a predominance of ridiculous eyebrows makes it hard to tell who's who. But it has some nice twists at the end making it worth sticking with.
And as the great-great granddaddy of British horror, it certainly deserved better than a New York dumpster, even if it was sharing said space with Tony Curtis’s syrup.
*Some of the facts in this review may be verging on made-up. Can you spot them?
Last updated: March 2, 2014
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